Commentary

Been There, Never Done That

To appreciate the current Rangers, one must consider their former culture of losing

Updated: October 17, 2010, 10:17 PM ET
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The Texas Rangers are at the highest point in their 39-year history, making their first trip to the American League Championship Series as the last current franchise to win a postseason series. To appreciate where they are, we must understand from where they have come, the depth from which they have emerged, as told by a guy who was there every night from 1982-85.

I should have known what I was getting into that first spring training as the new Rangers beat writer in 1982. Two weeks after having met me, Rangers center fielder Mickey Rivers asked if he could borrow $2,000, not knowing, of course, that The Dallas Morning News was paying me approximately $14,000 a year, and Mickey was making closer to $300,000. That began an interesting relationship with The Mick, easily the most amusing player I've been around in 30 years of covering baseball.

[+] EnlargeMickey Rivers
MLB Photos/Getty ImagesMickey Rivers hit .303 for the Rangers and provided plenty of comedy relief.
It was Mickey who said one freezing day in Milwaukee, "The wind was blowing 63 degrees today. I felt like the Lost Mohican out there." (The Lost Mohican?) It was Mickey who would walk through the clubhouse, shirt off, flexing his muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger, screaming, "I am Cohan the Barbarian,'' instead of "Conan the Barbarian.''

That first spring I pulled out the map in my rental car in an attempt to find the Rangers' spring training facility in Pompano Beach, Fla., and there it was in the lower right-hand corner: "Municipal Stadium, home of the Washington Senators,'' who had moved to Texas 10 years earlier. The spring training home of the Rangers wasn't a complex, it was one full field -- it looked more like my high school field -- and one half-field, on which one day, Rangers reliever Dan Boitano announced during a drill, "I'm going to wheel, throw, and hit that seagull.'' And to the astonishment of everyone, including Boitano, he went to make a pickoff throw to second base, instead threw the ball straight up in the air, hit a seagull in the head, and it came crashing to the earth, dead on the infield dirt. It was horrible.

"But that's what you get,'' pitcher Charlie Hough said, "for not wearing a helmet.''

Municipal Stadium was literally a park, a place where people walked their dogs, and Rangers players ran through the park as part of their conditioning program, which included a one-mile run that had to be completed in a certain time. Some of the players, pitcher Ron Darling later admitted, found a short cut. They would sit on a park bench for a couple of minutes so not to run a suspiciously fast 2:40 mile, then race across the finish line having run maybe one-third of a mile. Late that spring, Darling and Walt Terrell, the Rangers' two top pitching prospects, were traded for Lee Mazzilli, who was supposed to be the last piece of the puzzle, the guy who was going to take the Rangers to the AL West title. The night of the deal, we wondered if farm director Joe Klein had signed off on the trade, and I was told he "jumped off the roof of the Holiday Inn after hearing the news.''

Mazzilli wasn't the last piece; in fact, soon after arriving in town as the everyday left fielder, not the center fielder he had been with the Mets, he said that "left field is an idiot's position,'' a statement that did not endear him to Rangers management, or to Carl Yastrzemski. By early May, the Rangers had lost 13 games in a row, and were hopelessly lost in the AL West race. I dragged myself into manager Don Zimmer's office on a Tuesday.

"What's wrong with you?'' he asked.

"Covering this team isn't as much fun as I thought it would be,'' I said.

Zimmer looked at me with that stare, and said, "What are you complaining about? Look at you, you're young, you've got your whole life in front of you. Look at me, I'm old, I'm fat, I'm bald, I'm ugly, I have a plate in my head. And, I've got to manage this team.''

His problems were indeed greater than mine. They got worse when upper management decided that the Rangers needed to establish short-term goals for the players in hopes of improving their performance. So Zimmer, who had worn a professional baseball uniform for 35 years by that time, had to call every player in, one by one, and ask him, "So, how many hits do you think you're going to get in your next 20 at-bats?'' One player said, "I think I'll get 14.'' The player was hitting .186 at the time. Zimmer had no idea what to say.

The losing continued. General manager Eddie Robinson was fired in May; the news conference was held in the dugout. Zimmer was told on a Monday in August that he was fired, but the Rangers had no replacement in place, so he was asked if he could manage the next three games, then he would be officially fired. Amazingly, Zimmer agreed. After Wednesday night's loss, Zimmer took his coaches, and even the writers, out to Mr. Catfish for a final send-off party. At 1 a.m., an epically drunk man entered the private room, screaming and hollering. He grabbed a goblet of beer and hurled it 20 feet across the table at one of the writers, Jim Reeves, who was sitting next to me. To avoid potential death, we dived under the table, at which point I asked Revo, "Who is that guy?''

"That's Brad Corbett,'' Reeves said. "He used to own the team.''

The Rangers lost 98 games that year -- it seemed like more -- but I figured if I could get through that year, I could get through any year, and I could cover any team. In 1983, the Rangers hired Doug Rader to manage the club. I'm not sure I've ever met anyone in baseball as brilliant and funny and intense as Doug Rader, whom I asked point blank that first spring of 1983, "Has anyone ever told you that you looked like Foghorn Leghorn?'' To which, he pulled his pants halfway down, and on his jock was written the word: Foghorn.

I'd say you had to be a magician to win with that team, but Rader had the Rangers in first place at the All-Star break in 1983. It all fell apart in the second half, and they finished 77-85, starting a spate of losing that lasted another 2½ years, but Rader made it palatable because he was so interesting and unpredictable. One spring, the Rangers were having trouble scoring runs, so on the way to the ballpark, Rader picked up a drunk named Nick on the street. Rader dressed him in a Rangers uniform and brought him out of the dugout to talk to the team about hitting, introducing him as "one of the finest hitting instructors'' in baseball.

[+] EnlargeDoug Rader
Ronald C. Modra/Getty ImagesDoug Rader coached the Rangers to a 155-200 record in three seasons.
"This poor guy was so hung over, he hadn't shaved in weeks, he smelled horribly, he had peed in his pants, he had thrown up on himself,'' said Rich Donnelly, then a Rangers coach. "He came out with a fungo bat and said, 'OK, you grab this thing, and you swing it like this.' It was absolutely ridiculous. But Mickey [Rivers] said, 'That's right. We need to listen to this guy. He knows what he's talking about.' Everyone cracked up. We cleaned him up, gave him something to eat, dropped him back downtown in a Rangers uniform.''

The Rangers didn't start hitting that spring, and went 69-92 in 1984. In the final game of that season, the Angels' Mike Witt threw a perfect game against them. The story was played the next day at the bottom of the sports section in one of the papers, the same amount of type on the front page as a story about an offensive guard at Texas A&M. When an editor was asked why so little was made of the 11th perfect game in history, the editor said, "Well, it was against the Rangers.'' The game lasted one hour and 49 minutes. The last out was made by pinch hitter Marv Foley, the last at-bat he ever took in a major league game. Outfielder George Wright went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, ending a terrible season for him, and left by saying, "I'm going to change my name and move to Africa.''

In spring training 1985, the Rangers introduced pitcher Mitch Williams, who had been acquired in the Rule V draft from the Padres. Williams threw so hard and was so unbelievably wild that no one wanted to hit against him. As he warmed up for his first live batting practice that spring, he threw one pitch that missed the cage entirely. The ball hit a tire on the side of the batting cage. At that point, veterans Buddy Bell and Larry Parrish announced that they would not be hitting against Williams, who would say later that day, "That's OK. I didn't want to kill any of my teammates on my first day of spring training.''

Rader didn't make it very far into the 1985 season before being fired and was replaced by Bobby Valentine. One of his first moves was to hire Tom House as his pitching coach. No one, but no one, knows more about throwing a baseball than Tom House, but he was a bit eccentric. He would have his pitchers throw a football in between starts to strengthen their arms. Hough, always hilarious, was asked if the footballs were helping.

"I don't know,'' he said, "but we lead the league in third-down conversions.''

The Rangers went 62-99 that year, making my four-year record 272-374 as the Rangers' beat writer. In 1986, I went to the Baltimore Sun to cover the Orioles, and immediately took them to relentless losing, while the Rangers started winning games in 1986. Pete O'Brien, the Rangers' first baseman, noticed that the Rangers had gotten better when I left, and the Orioles began losing when I arrived. "You're the reason,'' he said. "Wherever you go, teams lose.''

Finally, the Rangers are winning. To truly appreciate that, you had to be there for the losing.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.