How did the Rangers become a rising power? Daniels, who was the youngest G.M. in the history of the game when he was hired in 2005 at age 28, first had to tear the team down. "After we were competitive in 2004, winning 89 games, the thought was, Let's step on the pedal a little bit to try to win," he says. "And that was our biggest mistake. We didn't go full commitment into a long-term program until 2007, when we dove in, from ownership to A ball, with a plan and said, Here's what we're going to do: develop our own players, invest in infrastructure, hire the best scouts, treat them well and give them the best tools they need. We're going to be patient with our players and our plan."
You can trace the rise of the Rangers to a bold 2007 trade that sent star first baseman Mark Teixeira (last seen batting .167 for the Yankees in their ALDS loss) to Atlanta for a haul of prospects that included current shortstop Elvis Andrus, All-Star closer Neftali Feliz and lefthander Matt Harrison, who won the ALDS clincher against the Rays.
Last winter Daniels lost out to the Phillies in the free-agent bidding war over Cliff Lee, the ace who led Texas to the World Series a year ago, but he added two key players who were spurned by AL rivals. Four days after the Angels traded catcher Mike Napoli to the Blue Jays, Texas acquired the 29-year-old barrel-chested slugger for reliever Frankie Francisco. Napoli hit 30 home runs in 113 games and drove in the go-ahead runs in two of the Rangers' wins over Tampa in the Division Series. Texas also signed free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre to a five-year, $80 million deal (its largest free-agent contract since former owner Tom Hicks's historic $252 million deal with Alex Rodriguez in 2000) after the Red Sox let him walk. Beltre hit .296 with 32 home runs and became the sixth player to homer three times in a postseason game in the Game 4 Division Series win that punched Texas's ticket to the ALCS.
But the Rangers' biggest off-season signing was a monster $1.6 billion TV contract with Fox Sports Southwest that, starting in 2015, will bring them more than $80 million in annual revenue. It's the kind of deal that helped turn the Yankees and the Red Sox into economic superpowers; both franchises have been enriched over the last decade by extremely lucrative local television income. The Rangers will not be a middle-class team for much longer: Their TV money will put them in a position where no free agent is out of their price range—including Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, who will be the biggest fish on the market this winter.
With the fifth-largest media market in the majors, Texas was always a sleeping giant. This could be remembered as the year it awakened. "We said last year that we didn't want to be a one-hit wonder," Daniels says. "We want to be a long-term contender. Hopefully, we can look back and say that this represents the start of a successful run."
Nolan Ryan's Rangers aren't, of course, a superpower yet—the franchise still hasn't won a championship. But as the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, not to mention the Dodgers and the Mets, braced for long and uncertain winters in baseball's marquee markets, you could feel the winds of change. You could feel it Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee, where the cheeseheaded faithful showed up early and strong and waved white towels of their own. That the Packers would play that night almost seemed like an afterthought, for the first time in ages. "People love their tailgating out here," says Axford. "They enjoy the weather and playing cornhole and coming [into the ballpark] during the third inning. But now they're getting riled up and on their feet in the first. It's been fantastic."
And you could feel it in Texas, with the rise of a new giant. With their next-door neighbors, the Cowboys, on a bye week, all eyes in the Metroplex were on Rangers Ballpark and a baseball team that had been a loser for five decades. Last Saturday, in a Game 1 interrupted by two rain delays, the Rangers got to Tigers ace Justin Verlander early and rode their rebuilt bullpen to a 3--2 win. "The Cowboys are America's team," lefthander Derek Holland says. "We're just happy to be a part of the excitement. But you go around town and you're starting to see more red and blue everywhere. So I think things here are changing. They're changing."