Two young men with eyes as red as bicycle reflectors, chainsmoking menthol cigarettes, were conspicuous by their presence among the retirees and vacationing middle-aged Canadians seated at the poolside breakfast café. With their thick muttonchops, this duo looked as if they had stepped out of a photograph of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. And like Abe's advisers, they looked haggard enough to need chest X-rays. "I must have drunk half of the rotgut bourbon in the whole state of Florida last night," one of the men announced, without a care about who overheard him. "When I got up this morning I had the shakes so bad, I couldn't even brush my teeth."
His companion nodded and recalled sideswiping a palm tree at 4 a.m. on the expedition from a tavern back to the hotel. "I should have put a suicide note in the glove compartment before I started the car!" he said with a burst of laughter. After the miscreants had finished their coffee and fried eggs and stumbled from the café, one of the Canadian tourists asked a waitress, "Who in the world are those characters?"
"Those two?" the waitress replied. "Oh, they're with the Texas Rangers."
After a solemn pause the Canadian shook his head and said, "Jeez. They sure don't look like any cops I ever saw before, eh?"
And just like that, at spring training in Pompano Beach, Fla., in March 1972, the Texas Rangers baseball franchise, which as the Washington Senators had been uprooted and moved west only five months earlier, quickly established an identity crisis that would remain with the team for 25 years. Fielding players whose talent was more often suitable to American Legion than to American League ball, the Rangers were a beacon of futility in professional sports—the ultimate stranger-than-fiction baseball organization. This team didn't go on winning and losing streaks, it experienced mood swings. Those people in the stands at old Arlington Stadium weren't really baseball fans, they were enablers.
Finally this season, playing to huge crowds at the magnificent Ballpark in Arlington, the team without a compass has presented evidence—remaining atop the American League West for most of the season—that its quarter-century lost-at-sea adventure might be over. At long last the Rangers are World Series contenders.
It was perhaps a keen understanding of history that motivated Senators owner Robert E. Short to transfer his club to North Texas in his search for a broader fan base, which would raise the value of the team he yearned to sell. Surely Short had read accounts of how, in 1896, more than 40,000 Texans went out to watch a train wreck that was staged outside Waco. Two spectators were killed and dozens wounded by flying shrapnel when the boilers of the colliding steam locomotives blew up. These were the sort of folks who might come out in droves to watch the kind of baseball that Short was promoting.
Years earlier, after finishing last in the American League two seasons in a row, the Senators ran a high-powered ad campaign with the slogan "Off the floor in '64." (Indeed, they rose one notch in the standings that year.) During the team's final game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, in 1971, disgruntled fans held up obscene signs directed at Short—a parting shot that was regarded around the Beltway as an appropriate send-off for the departing team. Short didn't care. He was headed for the Sunbelt, where the municipality of Arlington, equidistant from Dallas and Fort Worth, had offered him what amounted to free meals and lodging.
Short had perhaps underestimated the tenacity of North Texas prairie tribesmen when it came to parting with their entertainment dollars. The Dallas Cowboys had beaten the Miami Dolphins for their first NFL title, in January 1972, three months before the Rangers' first season opener, and local sports fans had already spent their emotions—and their ticket money. On some nights that first Rangers season, the team drew fewer fans than the Yello Belly Drag Strip, down the road in Grand Prairie, and the Kow Bell Rodeo, in nearby Kennedale.
Of course, "baseball talent" such as Rangers pitcher Casey Cox (3-5, giving up 73 hits in 65 innings), infielder Jim (Pee Wee) Driscoll (0 for 18 in 15 games) and catcher Ken (Piggy) Suarez (5 for 33 in 25 games) contributed mightily to the fans' apathy. At midseason a young Rangers infielder, Vic Harris, poked a single to right against the Chicago White Sox. On the press box PA., team statistician Burt Hawkins wearily intoned, "That hit breaks an 0-for-38 streak for Harris." TV color commentator Don Drysdale—who as a former Los Angeles Dodger was accustomed to higher standards of baseball—added, "That elevates Harris to Number 2 on the Rangers' alltime hit list." Texas completed that season 54-100 (eight games were canceled because of labor strife). At one point the team batting average was .217, which approximated the blood-alcohol level of many players two hours after a game.