They came together at the redbrick ballpark, across a parking lot from a glittering $1 billion football palace. They wore red and blue T-shirts and real deer antlers tied to their hats. They sat through a rainstorm, they yelled "Git 'er done!" as they passed each other in the concourses, they waved white towels and stood as one to sing Deep in the Heart of Texas in the seventh inning. It was October deep in the heart of Texas, but football wasn't on the minds of the faithful that squeezed into Rangers Ballpark in Arlington last Saturday for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series between the Rangers and the Tigers. "This is football country, and it's always going to be football country," says Nolan Ryan, a Hall of Famer, Texas icon and now the CEO of the Rangers. "But there's been a kind of awakening to baseball for fans around here."
The awakening began last October, when Texas made its first World Series appearance, falling to the Giants in five games. For their first 50 years the Rangers were one of the lousiest organizations in all of professional sports—until 2010 they were the only major league franchise never to have won a postseason series. But all that has changed. After taking a 1--0 lead in the ALCS, they were three wins away from another trip to the Series. And with solid ownership, a savvy front office and a new television deal that will pump more than a billion dollars into the franchise over the next two decades, they have the makings of a unique kind of baseball superpower, the Yankees of the heartland. "There are lots of one-hit wonders in the game of baseball," says manager Ron Washington, "but we're out to show that we're not a one-hit wonder. People better start getting used to the Texas Rangers."
There's a baseball awakening taking place up and down the country's midsection: With the Rangers and the Tigers in the ALCS and the bitter National League Central rivals the Brewers and the Cardinals in the NLCS, the postseason has taken on a flyover flavor that feels new and refreshing—especially if you like deep-fried Oreos or cheese curds. This season was supposed to be about the Greatest Rotation of All Time in Philadelphia and the reincarnation of the '27 Yankees—or the 2004 and '07 Red Sox, at the very least—in Boston. It was supposed to be about the defending-champion Giants, who had Showtime cameras documenting their season for a reality show, and it was, as always, supposed to be about the Yankees and the best team $200 million can buy. Then something unexpected happened: an October uprising by baseball's Middle America middle class that rocked the '11 postseason.
After a breathless Division Series round that climaxed with three winner-take-all Game 5s decided by one run, we were left with four mid-market teams from the heartland. The nine biggest-spending franchises in baseball were all home, and for the first time in 13 years a coastal power—a glamour franchise from either the I-95 corridor (New York, Boston, Philadelphia) or California (Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Francisco)—wasn't represented in baseball's final four. This is now an October made for a Garrison Keillor poem, if not for robust TV ratings. "I'm sure the powers that be probably aren't too happy," says St. Louis leftfielder Matt Holliday. "They might take our games off the main channels and put us somewhere else."
"The country is getting to see players they've never heard of if they've just been watching West or East Coast baseball," says Brewers closer John Axford, the NL saves coleader with the Salvador Dalí mustache. Just two years ago Axford was a player virtually no one had heard of, when he was out of baseball and tending bar in small-town Ontario, "serving peach Bellinis and praying for two-dollar tips." But there he was on Sunday, retiring the Cardinals with a perfect ninth inning to preserve a 9--6 Game 1 win. That moment was made possible by the scoreless top of the 10th that the ex-bartender—after serving up the tying run the previous inning—hurled against the Diamondbacks two days earlier in Game 5 of the NLDS. Milwaukee won that game on an RBI single in the bottom of the 10th by Nyjer Morgan, the 31-year-old centerfielder with the Tony Plush alter ego who wears fedoras (and swears on live national TV). Forget the Giants: Here is a team that deserves its own reality show.
Billy Beane was right all along: The exhilarating opening round reinforced the Oakland general manager's famous proclamation more than 10 years ago that baseball's postseason is "a crapshoot," a tournament as unpredictable as March Madness. Yes, the images on back-to-back nights last week of the Phillies (the NL's best regular-season team was eliminated by the Cardinals in the NLDS) and the Yankees (the AL's best were knocked out of the ALDS by the Tigers) gazing blankly from their dugouts in the aftermath of Game 5 losses were shocking—but the results shouldn't have been. Since 1998 the team with the best regular-season record has won a championship just twice. Not since '99 have the teams with the AL's and the NL's best records faced off in the World Series. The five-game Division Series has become a great equalizer, making it harder for the top teams to go on deep playoff runs.
Facing the $170 million Phillies in the NLDS, the Cardinals adopted an us-against-the-world mentality. St. Louis's late-season run to the wild card was overshadowed by the September collapses of the Red Sox and the Braves (whom St. Louis passed on the regular season's final day). Manager Tony La Russa seemed to convince his team that it was a slight to them that major league baseball had scheduled both of their NLDS home games for the late afternoon, when the sun's glare and the shadows it produced would create problems for the hitters (page 76). "We've faced Halladay, Lee, Hamels," leftfielder Lance Berkman said, referring to Philadelphia's triumvirate of aces. "And shadows."
It wasn't shadows or fate that determined this unlikely final four—each club refused to be mid-market wallflowers at the trade deadline, pulling off deals that continue to reap considerable rewards. The Rangers, who had baseball's 13th-highest Opening Day payroll ($92.3 million), built the lockdown bullpen that was missing last fall with the additions of relievers Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez. The Tigers (10th-highest payroll, $105.7 million) traded for a No. 2 starter, ALDS Game 5 winner Doug Fister, and later added a number 3 hitter, leftfielder Delmon Young, who had three home runs in the ALDS. The Cardinals (11th, $105.4 million) found a catalyst for their lineup (shortstop Rafael Furcal) and a quality starter (righthander Edwin Jackson), and the Brewers (17th, $85.5 million) added an All-Star setup man (Francisco Rodriguez) and a slick-fielding infielder (Jerry Hairston Jr.).
"You have to be creative in finding ways to beat enough teams that outspend you," says St. Louis G.M. John Mozeliak. "To have four clubs left that basically have to follow a similar model, it shows you there are ways to have success in this league that aren't always about being the biggest spender."
They are an odd pair, the young, soft-spoken Cornell grad who broke into baseball as an intern with the Rockies (making $1,200 a month) and the ornery Hall of Famer, for whom it would seem the term gunslinger was introduced to the sports lexicon. But Rangers G.M. Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan turned out to be the right pair to turn a woebegone franchise into a winner without a big-market payroll. With a franchise-record 96 wins this season, Texas has put together back-to-back 90-win seasons, and if it finishes off the Tigers, it would be only the fourth AL franchise in the last four decades to go to consecutive World Series, joining the Yankees, Blue Jays and A's.