- The Texas Rangers are on the brink of winning their first World Series
- The Rangers have been a beleaguered team for more than 20 years
- Ed Lavandera: Calling the Rangers your team means you "truly loved baseball"
To be a Texas Rangers baseball fan doesn't compare to the prestige of growing up in the shadows of Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. The pinstriped jerseys, classic uniforms and ball caps of those Major League Baseball teams are timeless and have become iconic touchstones in pop culture.
It's easy to be a baseball fan if you root for teams with rich history like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and both Chicago teams, the Cubs and White Sox.
Baseball purists must have cringed back in 1972 when the Rangers unveiled the team logo of a baseball wearing a 10-gallon cowboy hat.
Calling the Rangers your team meant you truly loved baseball.
The Yankees spent decades playing in the "House that Babe Ruth Built" while the Rangers spent most of my childhood playing in an uninspired location. The "stadium" was a converted minor-league field that looked like an open-air county arena better suited for rodeos than baseball games. But it was our Ebbets Field.
Just hours before Opening Day in 1975, a helicopter was brought in to hover over the wet field to dry out two days worth of rain. The result? The chopper crashed and gashed the field just beyond third base.
It would take another 20 years for the Texas Rangers to taste the playoffs. But the "Curse of the Rotor Blade" doesn't have the same mystique as the Red Sox's "Curse of the Bambino" or the Cubs' "Curse of the Billy Goat."
The Rangers team was a collection of misfit has-beens and never-would-bes who made every kid think, "If these guys can be ballplayers, surely I can be one, too."
April 12, 1991, was my chance to impress the Rangers scouts. Before the game, I was invited to play in a fly-ball catching contest. After hearing the stadium announcer call my name, I trotted out onto the hallowed grass of Arlington Stadium. A pitching machine launched the first two fly balls toward me, and with thousands of people watching, I snagged both balls.
One more catch and the entire stadium would be rewarded with a free medium soft drink from Wendy's. This is where I learned never to underestimate America's love for winning free stuff no matter how trivial it might be. The crowd came to its feet and erupted into the loudest cheers I think I've ever heard.
The machine launched a major league pop fly that seemed to take forever to come down. As I started to fall over I put my glove up and felt the ball smack the leather webbing. I got up, looked into the glove and it was still there. That was the first time I was able to scream, "Free drinks for everyone!" I ran off the field in glory. I still have that ball. I had all my buddies with me that day autograph it, just like real ball players do.
Chicago has its "Lovable Losers" in the Cubs. Rangers fans needed Lone Star beer to love its losers. Even the most fanatic baseball fan is hard-pressed to name the players who we called our own. Pete O'Brien, Larry Parrish, Oddibe McDowell, Jeff Russell, Gary Ward. Who? We watched a guy named Charlie Hough throw 50 mph knuckleballs and then puff on cigarettes in the dugout between innings.
We went to the stadium and bought $4 outfield seats. All for the privilege of watching terrible baseball in the scorching Texas heat, suffering third-degree burns from sitting on the metal bleacher seats.
In those early years, the season of hope was usually short-lived. You could count on the Rangers to be out of playoff contention by the end of May, which was fine. We had bigger things to focus on, like the Dallas Cowboys packing their bags for training camp. The losing kept the bleacher seats cheap, which was fine for most fans.
One of the best days of my life was witnessing the Rangers battle the Red Sox on April 30, 1989, on my father's birthday. I still have the ticket stub. Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan pitched for the Rangers, and future accused steroid user Roger Clemens pitched for the Red Sox. An epic matchup that turned out to be an epic game.
We witnessed poetic pitching. Ryan struck out 11 batters. I was in awe. Ryan and Clemens cruised but the Red Sox had a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. Until our favorite Cuban-exile came to the plate, Rafael Palmeiro stroked a beautiful two-run home run down the right field. The Rangers won 2-1.
Outside the stadium after the game, I got Nolan Ryan to autograph my baseball, and then I tried to get Roger Clemens' autograph and learned a valuable lesson from my dad. Clemens was intimidating. My dad patted me on the back and said, "Don't be afraid. Go up to him and ask him for an autograph." With quivering hands I gave Clemens the ball. Clemens took the ball, and now I can say I'm the proud owner of Roger Clemens scribble. Most days I've spent watching Rangers baseball haven't compared to that day. But we Cubans love our baseball, and we'll take it any way we can get it.
In the early 1990s, baseball started to change. The old stadium was bulldozed and replaced with a shrine more fitting of a noble baseball team. The Rangers flirted with the playoffs three times in the late-1990s. They played 10 games and lost nine. It's the kind of angst and teasing that only Cubs and Red Sox fans can truly appreciate.
That brush with success didn't last long. The Rangers ushered in another decade of abysmal baseball that took the team to the brink of bankruptcy. That is until February 2008, when Nolan Ryan and the new ownership group rode into town and saved the day. In 2010, under Ryan's leadership, the Rangers made it to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
These modern-day Rangers are a different story. The players probably aren't as fun and crazy as the misfits who sported the long-gone logo of the baseball wearing a 10-gallon cowboy hat, but the team's manager, Ron Washington, is a throwback to the good old days.
Washington dances, struts, mangles the English language in a beautiful way and frantically chomps on sunflower seeds. He is a baseball genius with the heart of a 12-year-old kid cheering the team. In Ron Washington's world, "That's the way baseball go!"
Now the Texas Rangers are on the brink of being World Series champions. The Cardinals, Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs fans look on with envy at a franchise that spent decades as a laughingstock.
No one ever imagined we could even have a World Series parade to plan. Arlington, Texas, (where the Rangers play) has a downtown not worthy of a World Series party. But there is a Six Flags amusement park next to the stadium. Instead of a parade, I think fans should ride the roller coasters with the players. That would be a fitting way to celebrate a tear-jerking relationship full of ups and downs.