The Texas Rangers have my wholehearted admiration for doing one of the hardest things there is to do in baseball: getting to the mountaintop, tumbling off of it a step from its absolute peak and working their way back up to where they were a year before. No year-after hangover for the once-and-again American League champions. Maybe it’s because they douse themselves in Canada Dry.
While I’ve never been one for dynasties (perhaps because my team has never effected one), there is something comforting about the sight of familiar faces as October grows deep, provided the bodies beneath those faces aren’t clad in pinstripes. At this moment, I see the Rangers of the early ’10s and I’m reminded of the Orioles of four decades ago, the A’s who followed them, the Royals who put up a series of good fights a few years thereafter, another edition of Athletics, and then some recurring Blue Jays and Indians squads. As someone who was never compelled to follow the American League for six months at a time, these teams that won as habit, whether I particularly liked them or not, served as convenient shorthand. If it’s October, we must be in Baltimore or Kansas City or Toronto. (Anywhere but the Bronx, por favor.)
Now Texas has entered that charmed circle. If they remain sublimely successful for four of their next four to seven games, then this really has been an Arlington era for the ages. The names and faces who have embroidered themselves into the baseball fan consciousness outside the Metroplex — Cruz, Young, Kinsler, Andrus, Wilson, Feliz and their energetic manager Washington — will ascend to that imaginary Rushmore we create for our big winners. By the end of this decade, we’ll either be talking about the Texas Rangers as one of the undisputed great teams of our time or one of the underappreciated great teams of our time. If their 2011 harvest stops with a ginger ale-soaked second league title, then they’re probably consigned to trivia and unfair dismissal as a team that wasn’t able to get it done — or git-r-done, as they might say down there.
As for the team that didn’t get four of seven done in the ALCS, one wishes the best for the Detroit Tigers as they attempt to get (or git) back to where they briefly belonged this fall. I heard brave pronouncements from their clubhouse Saturday night about how they’re in this for the long haul and they have the players to do it again and this is only the beginning, but as reasonable as that sounds, and as much consolation as that might provide, it’s tough. It’s tough to ascend to the outer reaches of that mountaintop once. Doing it twice, per the late Molly Ivins, was no church-singin’-with-supper-on-the-grounds for Texas.
The Tigers shocked the segment of the baseball world that was paying attention to them in 2006 when they rose from the muck of 2003 (43-119) and won a pennant. A year later, they missed the playoffs. Two years later, they were back in the basement. Three years later, they committed what entered the conversation of Worst Collapses in Baseball History (of which there seems to have been a rash lately). The 2009 Tigers — enhanced by Miguel Cabrera, no less — were 7 ahead with 26 to play, 4½ ahead with 17 to play and, most chillingly, 3 up with 4 to play. All it got them was a 163rd-game tiebreaking loss. Dramatic as hell, but no cigar. Just another pack of cigarettes, presumably, for Jim Leyland.
Two years passed and the Tigers were A.L. Central champions again and A.L. finalists again. Bless those boys for avoiding extinction in the ALDS, but even armed with the best pitcher on the planet this year, they seemed ultimately doomed given how the skies opened every time Justin Verlander went into his windup during the postseason. True, their doom beat the doom of a dozen other teams in their league (to say nothing of our own doom), but doom is doom nonetheless.
The Rangers plated nine runs in the third inning of Game Six. One Tiger twirler after another tried his best and produced his worst. The cameras followed them down the steps to the visitors clubhouse, which seemed cruel. Let Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello throw their tantrums in peace. And for goodness sake, turn off the Leyland Cam. The Rangers kept scoring and Leyland grew more and more morbid. After yet another Ranger RBI, Jimmy seemed to be staring into that mounted lens as if to say, “We’re losing 15-4, whaddaya want from me?”
There’s no good way to have your season end if it doesn’t end with ginger ale or some other beverage flying, but it doesn’t get much worse than having your season end with multiple innings to go. Your final game is over in the third at 9-2, as it was for the Tigers; or in the second at 6-0, as it was for us in 1988 against the Dodgers; or in the first at Marlins 7, the Mets coming up to bat, as it was for us when the equipment was barely game-used on what turned out to be our last day of 2007, and you just have to sit there and wait it out. When the team that’s losing doesn’t take it lying down — the way the Rays came back from 7-0 in their 162nd game this year, for example, or the way the 1999 Mets arose from the first-inning dead in another Game Six — it takes your breath away. But it doesn’t happen often. It didn’t really happen last night, a couple of cosmetic Tiger homers notwithstanding.
It could have been worse, I suppose. It could have been Game Seven of the 1934 World Series when the Cardinals built a 7-0 lead in the third at what was then known as Navin Field in Detroit and Ducky Medwick raised the ire of Tigers fans with a hard slide a few innings later, accompanied by some spiked kicks in the direction of third baseman Marv Owen’s stomach. The Detroit faithful gave Medwick the Pete Rose treatment — fruit, vegetables, anything else handy — upon his returning to left field in the bottom of the sixth, and he had to be removed for his own safety. Then the Tigers fans who weren’t hauled off had to sit and watch some more as the Cardinals finished off their heroes, 11-0.
Yeah, that was worse. As was 2003 for the Tigers. And 2009 for the Tigers. Actually, the Tigers haven’t had much to spray beverages about on a consistent basis since 1935, the year after the Gashouse Gang spit championship tobacco in Detroit’s collective eye. Like the Rangers of 2011, those Cats clawed their way back to mountaintop with a second consecutive American League pennant — and they won their first World Series, beating the Cubs in six. They’ve been to the postseason all of eight times in the ensuing 76 years, never in successive campaigns. Making two trips to the outskirts of the mountaintop is extraordinarily hard.
Which is why the Rangers’ accomplishment is so darn admirable. And maybe why I’m still pissed about September 30, 2007.
Twenty-five years ago today we were still rubbing our eyes from what happened 25 years ago yesterday. Relive that Game Six with Ed Leyro, here.