TALES OF THE CITY Holy Fastball! We’ve got a winner!

At last Ranger fans have something to cheer about-even if they don’t know who’s on third.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact day I stopped worrying about the Rangers. It was like being in analysis for fourteen years and then realizing, suddenly, that you are normal. The moment was unremarkable-it could have been the White Sox series, or maybe it was Seattle-but the feeling was overwhelming. Of course, I wasn’t crossing the street at the time. I was sitting in my usual place, watching us fall behind-yes, I believe it was Seattle-for no apparent reason.

I felt inexpressibly calm. Not once did I think, “Please God, just one time can we please score some runs in the ninth inning?”

Not once did it cross my mind to say, “Take him out immediately, please, now, it only gets worse!” (This would have been in keeping with my former theory of Ranger pitching rotations, whereby we should use all of our pitchers every game-one pitcher per inning-under the assumption that nine Ranger pitchers amount to about nine innings of good pitching.)

But on this night, I was not an embittered man. I was actually statesmanlike in my supreme detachment from the temporary setback.

“We have these guys,” I said. It was a certainty. We were slowly getting to their pitcher. We were waiting for the Gary Ward double that would tie it up and the Pete In-caviglia grounder through the infield that would win it. I knew it wouldn’t be anything dramatic-no game-ending home runs for us. That’s too-I don’t know- easy. We’re like a little Subaru stalled in traffic. One little maneuver, a quick dart to the left or right, and we’re past everyone in the stalled lane. No one even notices it when it happens. I imagined everyone in, say. New York picking up their morning newspaper during the month of June and saying things like, “Hey, Dad, just for fun, do you ever look at the American League West standings?”

“Now why would I do that, son?”

“Remember the Rangers?”

“That team down in Texas? Sure.”

“They seem to be in first place if I’m reading this thing right.”

I imagined it to be like reading about a Zulu War in Tanzania, or a triple murder in the Yukon, or last night’s results from the Miss Globe Beauty Contest held in Frankfurt, Germany. It had just enough of that bizarre element to hold your interest for two or three minutes.

That’s what the 1986 Rangers are-a strange blip on the radar screen, a phone call from someone informing you that Bo Derek would like to marry you immediately. It’s something you can’t ignore, but not something that instills confidence in the reporting.

Who are all these people anyway? I’ve watched them all season, and they still seem like a bunch of ragtag boys chopping it around the sandlot. The players who seem to have the most intensity are the Puerto Ricans. Guzman on the mound, enigmatic, a little mean, glowering like the bully from the next block. The infant Correa, oblivious to everything except the hitter, with none of the apparent self-doubts that seem to afflict young pitchers. Orlando Mercado, technically the third-string catcher, suddenly thrust into impossible big-league situations, making Correa and Guzman pitch better than they knew they could. Ruben Sierra, the boy wonder, so intense that sometimes I think his teeth will cut through his lower jaw.

Then we have the old men on the team. When Charlie Hough pitches, it’s like having your grandfather on the mound-supreme confidence. You know he’ll drive safe, he won’t eat too much salt, and at the end of the day he’ll come and tuck you in. When Charlie pitches, the whole city relaxes, as though one game in every five automatically belongs to us. Tom Paciorek is like your big brother; you want him hanging around the sandlot to take Ruben’s bat away the next time he gets homicidal on us. Darrell Porter, looming behind the plate like Samson, is the very image of a veteran. And, of course, Toby Harrah, our only spiritual link to the Rangers of old. It’s too bad, in a way, because many of the fans don’t really regard Toby as a Ranger anymore. Every time the ball is hit to second, we’re plunged into a time warp. “Oh yeah, Toby’s still here.”

Fortunately, the Rangers are blessed with the most unknowledgeable fans in professional baseball. I don’t say this derisively. There’s a certain innocence about going to a Rangers game. Yankee Stadium has myths and heroes; Arlington Stadium has Animal House in the stands every night. I don’t know if professional baseball keeps statistics on this sort of thing, but Arlington Stadium undoubtedly leads the league in the following categories:

●Percentage of patrons attending the gamebarefoot.

●Percentage of patrons attending the gameprimarily to participate in “The Wave.”

●Percentage of patrons attending the gamebecause “somebody at the office had thesetickets and I usually come out once everyyear

And, finally, most important:

●Percentage of patrons who, observingthe game over the lip of paper Budweisercontainers roughly the size of Montana,come to identify with the players as potential roommates and investment partners. (Atthe Minnesota series in June, one man became so convinced that the Twins were throwing at Pete Incaviglia’s head that he almost tumbled onto the field while shouting, “Look out, Pete! Look out!”)

At every Rangers home game they give prizes to whoever can answer a baseball trivia question-usually something like “What St. Louis Cardinal led the National League in slugging percentage for four seasons but failed to win the batting title?” A more realistic Ranger-like question would be “Who plays third base for the Rangers? Right now. He’s standing out there. Can you name him?” And then somebody would win dinner for two at Mr. Catfish. Most people at the Rangers games know only one thing. Third base? It’s that good-looking young boy who hit the double on the Sunday TV game.

His name is Steve Buechele. He plays on an infield with three other “good-looking young boys” named Fletcher, O’Brien, and Wilkerson. Good, consistent, not flashy, farm-fed, Ail-American (we’re talking about perceptions here-who cares what these guys are really like?) ballplayers. Any one of these guys could have been Robert Redford’s inoffensive roommate in The Natural Add an outfield of Gary Ward, the team’s steadiest hitter; Oddibe McDowell, who always seems to be muttering to himself as he pops up to the plate, waving his bat around like Gumby in a hitter’s crouch; and Larry Parrish, the giant home-run hitter, and you have the beginnings of a Ranger family we could all start to get real comfortable with, instead of worrying which ones are going to run off to Guam next year or get their brains wallpapered by some insecure manager’s idea of why they don’t know how to play baseball. Bobby Valentine has already won the most difficult battle of all-to make himself just another name on the roster. Once a city starts talking about the players instead of the manager, you know you’ve got something.

What we haven’t had-yet-is a star. The Inkman, Pete Incaviglia, hasn’t really warmed to his role as the fan favorite, the pudgy, baby-faced slugger. Mike Mason and Greg Harris, the team’s most dependable pitchers after Hough, don’t have personalities to fire the imagination. Everybody loves Pete O’Brien, but he’s somehow plain vanilla. But while the season has progressed, perhaps unbeknownst to the Rangers management, thousands of women have already fallen in love with. . .Mitch Williams. Twenty-one years old, brash, cocky, a fastball relief pitcher, Mitch for some reason wears the tightest pants in professional baseball. This is Dallas, after all. I think Mitch is our boy.

No longer do I say, “Please God let this one-run lead last two more innings.”

All I think of now is: “As soon as this inning is over, Mitch will finish it off for us.” And then I sit back, serene, confident, aware that the man has the fervent prayers of every lady in the stands. Once he gets out there, nobody wants to do “The Wave” anymore.


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