Archive for the 'Teams' Category

Why I Want the Rangers to Win the World Series

Sometimes it takes the games starting for the compass needle in my heart to flicker and point me to my true north. My true north this year lies a few miles outside of Dallas. In other words, I want the Rangers to win the World Series.

This is news to me. A professor friend of mine would tell me not to worry about the fact that I am suddenly a Rangers fan — that we are all animals and sometimes we feel strange feelings and that’s all there is to it. But explaining secondary fandom (or postseason adopted fandom) is one of our favorite pastimes here at P&P so I won’t follow my professor’s hypothetical advice. Instead I will just try desperately to explain why I am rooting for the Rangers instead of the perfectly likable teams in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Tampa.

The first thing about the Rangers is that last year I picked them to make the postseason, then to win the World Series. I had little attachment to the franchise before 2010, but the prediction (which had no stakes, I admit) gave me a rooting interest. Maybe that interest is lingering because they were so fun to watch last season and because they came so close to making me look brilliant and because they fell to my sworn baseball enemies the Giants.

The 2011 edition of the Rangers is very similar. They lost Cliff Lee, who is my favorite starting pitcher in all of baseball to watch, but they replaced him with Adrian Beltre, who is my favorite defensive player to watch and sort of a mascot for my baseball fandom. I had my Bar Mitzvah the year Beltre debuted in LA. I moved to college in Seattle the year he moved to Seattle. I had a bunch of terrible personal crises and got laid off the year Beltre was hit in the groin by a grounder and missed a bunch of games.

Anyway, surrounding Beltre they have the most exciting top to bottom lineup in all baseball. Ian Kinsler just completed the quietest 7.7 WAR season ever. Elvis Andrus is still called Elvis and still brilliant to watch in the field and on the bases. Hamilton is a flame-tattooed superstar. Michael Young is a pissy non-MVP candidate who batted .338 out of spite. Nelson Cruz is himself. And Mike Napoli is basically Mike Piazza.

And this is before I get to the fact that their remaining starting pitchers (fare the well in bullpen duty, Ogando) are an ex-reliever, a guy from the Japanese league, and two tallish guys with plain names who throw really hard. Three of them are lefties! Three!
The animal inside me is not a beast but some clawed and antlered thing.
But wait, you say. The Rangers were once owned by the unpopular pre-presidential George W. Bush who often sits smiling in a box on the field level. Their current CEO, Nolan Ryan, is the scowliest jowliest man in all of baseball and more than likely a fascist. And the two are friends! Plus there was that whole Tom Hicks/MLB Rescue debacle. Cheering for the Rangers, you say, is basically the baseball equivalent of voting for Rick Perry in an important primary straw poll.

To this I give you Hank Steinbrenner. And Tony LaRussa. And Chase Utley’s hair. The negatives are out there for every team (though they are harder to spot for the Rays and Brewers, I admit). But Hank Steinbrenner’s asshole comments don’t make Curtis Granderson any less exciting. Tony LaRussa’s faux-intellectual over-managing doesn’t make me want Lance Berkman to lose at what might be his last shot at a ring. And Chase Utley’s hair doesn’t make Vance Worley any less surprising.

So what I’m telling myself here — because really I am who I’m talking to — is that it’s okay to root for the Rangers because Nolan Ryan’s pompous arms-crossed in a windbreaker aura is not enough to cut into the joy of a Ron Washington press conference or Neftali Feliz fastball. The needle in my heart has flickered. The animal inside me is not a beast but some clawed and antlered thing. And though most of my exes don’t live in Texas, my favorite one does. That’s enough. Go Rangers.

In Reading Club news, we continue this week with chapters 18-33 of The Art of Fielding. Try to have them read by Wednesday!

Lightning Round: Steinbrenner and the Yankees Beard Ban

The P&P Lightning Round is an exercise in crowdsourcing and fast writing. Twitter suggests a topic. We spend 45 minutes writing about it. Then we post the results.

New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon is barely hanging on. In pictures he looks a broken man, shoulders sagging, face weathered in new and unkind ways. In interviews he gives the desperate impression of somebody defeated, a man trying desperately to maintain some semblance of control. But Wilpon will not maintain control. A look at the recent history of the Mets indicates that he likely never truly had control. Fred Wilpon is already ruined.

George Steinbrenner, even in death, is not ruined. His post-mortem legacy maintains a tighter grip on the Yankees than a living breathing Wilpon ever could on the Mets. The years of cycling through managers and front office officials still remain fresh in the baseball consciousness. The boastful and ill-conceived statements to the media have only been further-perfected by his son Hank. The silly rules that Steinbrenner used to establish himself as unquestioned boss of the New York Yankees remain in place today.

The silliest of those rules, of course, are those applying to facial hair. And not just because facial hair is a silly thing to regulate, but because there were never actually any rules. Steinbrenner’s facial hair policy was subjective. If he felt a mustache was too long, a mustache was indeed too long. The Simpsons of course parodied this with Mr. Burns questioning the length of Don Mattingly’s sideburns to the point of absurdity.

Funny. Even funnier when Mattingly was actually suspended the next season for refusing to cut his hair. (I love the image of Mattingly as rebel. Someday I will write something about Mattingly and John Cougar Mellencamp as dual Indiana idols who seem different but are actually surprisingly similar.)

The thing about Mattingly though, is that he was Mattingly. He could afford to protest. He was a beloved figure. Steinbrenner had him suspended, but then the issue was resolved quickly. Everything went back to normal. Could you imagine a lesser player attempting something similar? Luis Sojo?

I once worked at a restaurant that required clean-shaven faces from its male staff. There was an open kitchen, so even the back-house guys had to shave. Once, I showed up with about a day’s worth of shadow – maybe even slightly less – and was scolded by a manager for it. I’m not what you would call a regular shaver, and I thought it was a stupid rule, but the job paid really, really well. I picked my battles.

In retrospect, I’m sure my manager didn’t care about my beard. It was a power-play. Steinbrenner was likely the same way. It’s hard to imagine him with strong feelings about the aesthetic value facial hair. It’s easy to imagine him maneuvering in a Machiavellian way to cement his status atop the franchise. Reds owner Marge Schott, a similar if more evil strong-armer, also had a no-beard rule.

For Steinbrenner and his imitators (Willie Randolph and Joe Girardi instituted no-beard policies with the Mets and Yankees respectively – though tellingly, Mattingly hasn’t with the Dodgers), rules can exist solely as a manifestation of power – and a reminder of who’s boss. When Danny Tartabull and Paul O’Neil shaved in the morning, they thought of George Steinbrenner. They remembered their place in the world. They remembered who was boss. It’s hard to imagine a New York Met player having a similar thought.

The Texas Rangers are Fearless and Friendly

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.

texas rangers ron washingtonThere 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.