At least some part of the public persona of the Texas Rangers as a baseball club is rooted in the assumption that barrel-chested El Presidente Nolan Ryan is watching. The camera frequently finds him in his seat at games, beside his perfectly touched up Texas beauty queen of a wife, watching his team play like a ranch foreman overseeing his hands bring in a herd of cattle. The Ryan Express is, in my imagination at least, noting every lack of hustle and sign of weakness that he sees from his players, and recording it in a dusty card catalogue in his brain for later dressings down. No other MLB team executive commands such an authoritative presence, especially with Mr. Steinbrenner passed on.
The Rangers did right by Ryan last year, with their run to the World Series, and with an undefeated start to the 2011 season through April 6, they seem poised to take the AL West division again.
But there’s a paradox in play. Where their most visible executive is an old school cowboy of a player who despises pitch counts, the Rangers themselves are a charismatic, crowd-friendly team with a cast of characters you’d more likely find at a bar at midnight than at the ballpark on a Sunday afternoon. The Rangers’ best hitter, Josh Hamilton, is a recovering addict with flame tattoos up and down his forearms, Manager Ron Washington has tested positive for some pretty hard drugs, and lefty starter C.J. Wilson is an adrenaline junky who’s hooked on Twitter. (Nolan Ryan’s thinks twittering is what the ladies do when they get together after church. Hey-o!) The team developed a couple of hand signals just for fun, the claw and the antlers, to celebrate good plays on their run to the World Series. This would’ve gotten you shanked if you’d tried those kind of shenanigans in the Bob Gibson era. Just ask Robin Ventura about respecting the game. (Sidenote: Dave Sims let me know on the Mariners broadcast that the Rangers still play footage of Nolan Ryan mashing Robin Ventura’s face before games.)
Madness without discipline is just madness.
This odd couple leadership structure, with austerity and tradition up top and playfulness further down the line, creates a nice push and pull between the traditional and the contemporary for the Rangers, of the sort that breeds success not only in baseball, but at companies like Google and even in artists. Creativity thrives in circumstances when creative energy is constrained by outward pressures. Madness without discipline is just madness.
The word I would use to describe the Rangers as a team is balance. The lineup has a fine ratio of speed and power, including a lot of power. Ron Washington’s honest and likable approach balances out the big personalities on the team and in the front office. He doesn’t go too far in one direction or the other even as the media tries to stir up stories. The hitters in this lineup are cool, comfortable, and unflappable, from Hamilton–who one imagines has seen corners of the country so dark that a major league strikeout is a chocolate milkshake in comparison–to fearless and friendly Adrian Beltre. Even the pitching on this team has outgrown the old big hit, no-pitch Rangers stereotype.
There are whole libraries devoted to the chemistry of great baseball teams, insisting that planets of personality align perfectly to activate some kind of mystically ordained success. But this Rangers group–which I’ll stop short of calling great and call very good–may prove the anti-theory, played out in Little League and the major leagues, that winning teams have good chemistry because they are good, and that bad teams have bad chemistry because losing sucks. The Michael Young mini-saga, for example, evaporated in the Arlington heat as soon as Nelson Cruz hit a home run in each of the first four games of the season, the minute Ian Kinsler popped a few out himself and stole a base or two, and just as quickly as Neftali Feliz ambled out to the mound and closed out a ballgame as calmly as your average cubicle jockey finishing off a Friday afternoon.
Two of the iconic teams in baseball, the Yankees and the Red Sox, play in a crucible of scrutiny and fanaticism, from the front office to the highest seat in the nosebleeds. In those climes, jocularity is a kind of blemish, a sign of weakness in the face of the game’s most unrelenting pressures.
In Arlington, jocularity is a badge. The smiles rise as the baseball flies. The only one who isn’t smiling is Nolan Ryan. He doesn’t pay himself to smile.