When they took the field last weekend, the Rangers could tell right away that there had been a tilt in the tortilla-flat landscape of North Texas. Suddenly, they were no longer at war with the Cowboys, only the Indians. It was opening week in the NFL, but the good citizens of Cowboy Nation were still enamored of the strange new creature that had been discovered in Arlington.
It appeared to be a genuine division-leading, playoff-bound Texas Rangers team, but local fans couldn't be sure. They had, after all, never seen such a thing so late in the season. "This is still a football town, and it's going to stay that way at least until we win the division and make the playoffs," said pitcher Bobby Witt last Saturday. "But it does feel like people are starting to believe in us a little bit."
The Rangers have made it difficult for fans in the Lone Star State to pack up their allegiance and move it to Jerry Jonestown at the first sound of a kickoff. The Cleveland Indians came to The Ballpark in Arlington last weekend for the most eagerly anticipated series since the stadium opened in 1994, and the Rangers took two out of three from the defending American League champs. Attendance for the series was 132,786, a startling turnout for baseball in Texas on a Labor Day weekend. The Cowboys may have waited until Monday night in Chicago to open their season, but the Rangers still went head-to-head with high school and college football last Friday and Saturday. The 40,383 who turned out on Friday night whooped and hollered and roared as the Rangers won 5-3. "I've seen crowds react that way around here before, but usually they were over in Irving, at Texas Stadium," said Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, a native Texan who played for the Rangers from 1974 through '78. "It's nice to see the people get behind the baseball team, too."
The Rangers are giving the locals every reason to keep flocking to the park. Texas's eight-game lead over the Seattle Mariners in the American League West in late August was the largest first-place margin in club history. Not that the club's history is much to talk about: Since the franchise, formerly the Washington Senators, moved to Arlington in 1972, the Rangers have never appeared in the postseason, giving them the longest playoff-less streak in baseball. Until this season, they had never even been in first place after Aug. 18. Two years ago, in a season cut short by a strike, Texas finished first, but that was hardly a landmark achievement, considering the Rangers were 10 games under .500. Long-suffering Rangers fans have seldom experienced the heartbreak of a late-season collapse by their team; rarely have the Rangers even been close to first at the start of September. They've never finished fewer than five games out in a full season.
But now they are beating up on the vaunted Tribe, slugging it out with the Cowboys for space on the sports pages and nearly filling The Ballpark on a regular basis. In Sunday's Dallas Morning News, a front-page story about the soaring appeal of the team ran under the headline CAN RANGERS UNSEAT COWBOYS AS NO. 1? A poll of 503 area sports fans revealed that 61% have a "high interest" in the Rangers this season. And while 77% said they have a high interest in the Cowboys (29% expressed high interest in the NBA Mavericks and 12% in the NHL Stars), nearly half the respondents said that the Cowboys' recent off-the-field problems have lessened their enthusiasm for the Super Bowl champs.
The Rangers are in many ways the anti-Cowboys: a well-liked, well-behaved, unselfish bunch of guys who are fresh and untested in the postseason. Their manager, Johnny Oates, is a modest man who deflects all the credit toward his players. "This is the most team-oriented team I've ever seen," says catcher Dave Valle. "We've got superstars—I'd say about 10 of them, in fact—but not one of them cares more about himself than the team. It makes it fun to come to the ballpark every day."
So eager to play are these Rangers that many are in front of their lockers at 2:30 in the afternoon, yanking on their uniform pants for a night game. That's a slight change from a few years ago, when some veterans, now departed, would actually drive home after batting practice and return by game time. "It just shows that guys like the surroundings now," says Witt, who played for Texas from 1986 through most of '92 and then returned last season in a trade with the Florida Marlins.
The calmness that has settled over the Rangers' clubhouse begins in the manager's office. It was not long ago that Oates was as uptight and driven as any manager in baseball, but after his wife, Gloria, suffered a nervous breakdown during spring training in '95, he rearranged his priorities faster than he fills out a lineup card. His starting rotation was no longer more important to him than his faith or his family, which includes a 17-year-old daughter, Jenny, and two older children. When asked last Friday if the Cleveland lineup worried him, he said, "I don't worry about anything to do with baseball anymore. When my daughter is supposed to be home at midnight, and it's 12:15—that's when I worry."
As he spoke, Oates was standing in front of the Rangers' dugout, smiling like a man who has just solved the puzzle on Wheel of Fortune. "I love baseball, but it's not what I get my significance from," Oates said. "I used to put too much emphasis on the game and got everything out of whack. Now I know that I'm just fortunate to be part of baseball. My significance comes from being a good father and husband."
The Rangers' success should bring a smile to every baseball purist's face. In this season of power surges and Ping-Pong scores, Texas has shown extraordinary balance, combining timely hitting with reliable starting pitching and rock-solid defense. At week's end the Rangers led the league in batting (.291) and fielding percentage and were second in runs allowed. They had made just 69 errors in 136 games—during one stretch in August they played 15 straight errorless games—and by committing no errors against the Indians last weekend, the Rangers kept their league-low total of unearned runs allowed at 35. Says righthander Ken Hill, "It just gives a pitcher so much more confidence when he takes the mound knowing the guys behind him are going to make all the plays."