Any number of activities were more enjoyable than watching the Texas Rangers play baseball in the ’70s and ’80s: dental surgery, the S&L crisis, an episode of “Knight Rider.” The Rangers finally arrived at the party in 1996 after 24 seasons of trying to get past the postseason doorman at Club Pennant AL West. Now, the long-simmering Dallas-Fort Worth love-hate relationship with the Rangers is heating up into a passionate affair to remember. But none of the recent success has come quickly or easily.
For the Rangers, the beginning of the uphill battle fell on April 15,1972: the team’s first game. Bob Short, a Minnesota businessman, had brought a floundering Washington Senators franchise from D.C. to Arlington after heavy lobbying from Mayor Tom Vandergriff. Short was hoping to boost his bottom line and the club’s performance in a fresh new ballpark. The Rangers, with manager Ted Williams at the helm, lost a close 1-0 game. They were off like a herd of turtles.
Then-unknown Whitey Herzog was brought in to man the wheel for a 1973 season in which the only highlight was financial. Eighteen-year-old Houston phenom David Clyde drew crowds every time he started, and that was good news for both a struggling front office and the spiritual nativity of a club badly in need of a lift.
Clyde had the talent to develop into a good pitcher with some nurturing, but that wasn’t the next manager’s style. The abrasive Billy Martin took over at the end of the ’73 season. Matched with new controlling-interest owner Brad Corbett, a 36-year-old New York businessman, Martin actually had the ’74 club running as if there were more than a hamster under the hood. But Corbett, who seemed to have a finger in everything, began to do what he did worst-trade. He had the “buy it and they will win” philosophy coupled with a strategic vision akin to a game of Twister.
Managers weren’t faring much better. Martin was replaced mid-season of “75 by Frank Lucchesi, who lasted until 1977. Eddie Stanky moved into the open slot, decided to quit after one game (a Rangers win) and was replaced by Connie Ryan until the arrival of Billy Hunter-all in six days. Hunter had two winning seasons before being put out to pasture, and next-guy Pat Corrales gave way to Don Zimmer in ’80.
Oilman Eddie (“I’m mad, too”) Chiles bought the controlling interest in the club from a cash-strapped Corbett in 1980. Under Chiles and a front office led by former Rangers player Tom Grieve, the team eventually began to develop players for the future instead of trying to acquire them today. Still, the early ’80s were not a pretty sight for the fans. Zimmer was canned midway through the ’82 season.
Doug Racier, who once characterized himself as a “Tahitian warlord, ” took over for interim manager Darrell Johnson in 1983. Of the many things that can be said about Rader, starting a winning tradition isn’t one of them. He lasted until 1985 and was replaced by Bobby Valentine after three seasons of whipping a dead horse.
The Rangers threw it into reverse in 1987. a season mirrored by the Steve Howe episode. Howe, who had a known substance-dependency problem, convinced the Rangers that he was a good pitcher and that he was clean. He turned out to be a so-so pitcher for the last couple of months of the ’87 season and then disappeared from a mini-camp in January. When he finally surfaced 48 hours later, he was on his way out of baseball for good for violating probation.
The ’88 season went by with a sigh, and the Rangers moved into offensive mode for 1989. Grieve signed proven hitters Rafael Palmeiro and Julio Franco, but the coup was the signing of veteran major league pitcher Nolan Ryan. New owners also were waiting in the wings for a purchase deal to be OK’d by major league owners. George W. Bush, now governor of Texas, and Dallas banker Rusty Rose had put together a group that included Fort Worth investor Richard Rainwater to take the team off Chiles’ hands. The Rangers finished fourth that year with their second-highest victory total in the ’80s. The biggest highlight of the season was Ryan, who by his own admission had not only pitched more consistently than ever, but made it into the record books Aug. 22 when he sent Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A’s packing on his 5,000th career strikeout.
Through the fog of the ’80s, the Rangers emerged as a team gathering momentum for the ’90s. Ryan continued to show a return on Bush’s investment in 1990 with his sixth no-hitter on June 11 and a landmark 300th career victory on July 31 against the Milwaukee Brewers. Still, his performances alone weren’t enough to bring the Rangers to the postseason.
Valentine was gone by July ’92 and was followed by two managers in as many seasons.
Good or ugly Arlington Stadium went the way of the dinosaur on Oct. 3.1993, to make way for the new “retro” Ballpark in Arlington, a facility so beautiful and immense that it’s worth the trip just to see the structure. Opened for the 1994 season, the Ballpark witnessed another turning point: Johnny Oates was named manager of the ball-club, and that move sowed the seeds of glory to come.
The 1995 season came and went, largely to be remembered as the Season Before the Great One. As for what happened in ’96, besides the retirement of Nolan Ryan’s No. 34 (another first in Rangers history), suffice it to say that the club finally got over those awkward teenage years. The American League West pennant brought an end to the drought. The Rangers club has finally matured and taken its long-awaited place in the annals of baseball.
So where to from here? Don’t throw the confetti yet, but keep it close by. You might need it come October.-Michael Hope