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March 20, 2012

Western Front

They Slugged Like Ed Brinkman

by Geoff Young

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With the Texas Rangers coming off their second straight World Series appearance and the Angels making a monumental splash this past offseason in signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the AL West has become a two-team race, a land of the haves and have-nots. Arlington and Anaheim are the new Boston and New York.

Hyperbole aside, it is worth remembering that things weren't always this way. When the Rangers first moved to Arlington from Washington D.C. in 1972, they were coming off a 63-96 showing and didn't have much going for them. The Oakland A's, who had won 101 games the previous season, were the division's powerhouse. And although Dick Williams' A's got swept by Baltimore in the 1971 ALCS, that club laid the foundation for the 1972-1974 version that would win three consecutive World Series.

The Angels, by this time, had been in the league for about a decade but had never finished higher than third place (they wouldn't reach second until 1978, their 18th year of existence). The Seattle Mariners weren't yet a twinkle in anyone's eye, and teams in Chicago, Kansas City, and Minnesota still called the AL West home.

Oakland led the charge in 1972, followed closely by the White Sox (they had the American League's second-best record but played in the wrong division). The Twins, Royals, and Angels all huddled in the middle like cars stuck in rush hour traffic, with places to go but no realistic way to get there.

Then came the Rangers, at 54-100, 38 ½ games back of the A's and 20 ½ back of the fifth-place Angels. By comparison, the distance between first and last place in the AL East that year was 21 games.

* * *

The Rangers' inaugural campaign was difficult in many ways. For starters, the season was delayed by a players' strike that left a bitter taste in fans' mouths. A letter sent to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, AL President Joe Cronin, union chief Marvin Miller, Rangers owner Bob Short, and Arlington Mayor Tommy Vandergriff—excerpted in an April 21 UPI story penned by future J.G. Spink Award winner Milton Richmanexpressed a common sentiment:

Having a major league baseball club in this area was a wonderful idea. I probably would've become a loyal fan and supporter of the Texas Rangers' ball club. Apparently, we cannot obtain a refund on our tickets, the reserved parking, or anything else we paid for in good faith in advance.

I think it's a sad and sorry situation when a bunch of overfed, overpaid, would-be athletes engage in collective bargaining deals in order to obtain something to which they are not entitled.

I will personally never visit your stadium in the future although I did attend the minor league games that were played there every year. Furthermore, I am going to urge my friend and acquaintances, and my business associates to do the same thing.

I am not sure what the “obtain a refund on our tickets” refers to, although the strike delayed the season's start and forced MLB to shorten its schedule (most teams played 154, as in pre-1961 expansion seasons, but a few played more), which meant that some tickets were not honored as originally specified. As the April 21 Mid Cities Daily News notes:

...a mild inconvenience could result tonight to fans who try to enter the ball park with tickets dated April 21.

That is the correct date, all right, but only ducats which were sold for the original opening day game April 6 will be accepted. The April 21 passes must be exchanged for new ones, or they may be held and exchanged later in the season for another game in the same manner as a rain check.

Suffice to say, these were not the optimal conditions to launch a new franchise under. And this “rain check” policy may help explain why more than 15,000 empty seats remained in what should have been a celebration of Arlington's new big-league team. Empty seats became a recurring theme; the club would draw fewer than 9,000 fans per game that year, 10th of 12 AL teams.

Fans weren't the only people affected by the work stoppage. Texas skipper Ted Williams opined that “hitters have a problem in regaining timing” after returning from the unscheduled two-week layoff. Lending support to this theory, the Rangers went hitless through six innings in the opener, while Texas native Burt Hooton spun a no-no for the Cubs against the Phillies on the season's second day.

Timing? In the case of Williams' hitters, they never did regain it.

* * *

The Splendid Splinter, who had managed the team in D.C., came southwest with the Rangers and saw his charges score 461 runs—a tick under three per game. Even accounting for the era's relatively depressed offensive environment, that is anemic production. As a team Texas hit .217/.290/.290, which is 2008 Michael Bourn with less batting average (or if you want to go old school, take your pick of shortstops from the '60s and '70s—Darrel Chaney, Ed Brinkman, Mark Belanger, Gene Michael, Roger Metzger). Thankfully Williams, one of the greatest hitters ever to play the game, was spared the indignity of leading the league's worst offense. The Angels tallied seven fewer runs that season.

Since then, the Rangers have scored fewer runs just once—they scored 452 in 1981, in 49 fewer games (they also finished with three more wins). On three separate occasions, they have more than doubled their 1972 runs total (928 in 1996, 940 in 1998, 945 in 1999), albeit in eight or nine more games.

On the downside, the Rangers also didn’t have the Angels' pitching staff. Not that California had great pitchers (25-year-old Nolan Ryan and some decent secondary guys), but its 3.06 ERA at least was league average. Williams' Rangers checked in at an AL-worst 3.53. They couldn't score runs, nor could they prevent opponents from doing the same. That's how you lose nearly two-thirds of your games.

The team featured no real stars. First baseman Frank Howard had been one of the league's top sluggers a few years earlier, but he slipped a bit in 1971 and was on his way to plunging even further. He would provide the occasional spark for Texas, but be gone by the end of the season and out of baseball soon after that.

Shortstop Toby Harrah didn't hit much as a 22-year-old rookie for the Senators but had shown glimpses of offensive ability in the minors (most notably in a 46-game stint at Class-A Burlington in 1969). With a humble .259/.316/.321 line, he was one of the Rangers' best hitters in their inaugural season. He would later become a serious threat, providing the template for the first wave of offensive-minded shortstops in the '80s (Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell, Barry Larkin).

Third baseman Dave Nelson could run; he swiped 51 bases, a total exceeded in franchise history only by Bump Wills (52 in 1978). Right fielder Ted Ford led the Rangers with 14 homers. He would play 11 more games after the '72 season and finish his career with 17 homers. Catcher Dick Billings led in hits, with 119. The late Don Mincher did some damage, hitting .236/.384/.382 in a limited role.

But this team couldn't hit. At all. And it must have driven Williams crazy.

* * *

The pitching was nearly as bad. The rotation consisted of Pete Broberg, Dick Bosman, Rich Hand, Bill Gogolewski, and some combination of Don Stanhouse and Mike Paul. Aside from Paul and veteran reliever Paul Lindblad, nobody did anything.

It is difficult to imagine a less memorable corps of starters. Here are their career numbers (winning percentage included despite our understanding of that metric's severe limitations):

Player

IP

WPct

ERA+

WARP

Pete Broberg

963.0

.366

78

-0.1

Dick Bosman

1591.0

.491

93

7.9

Rich Hand

487.1

.381

88

0.4

Bill Gogolewski

501.0

.385

85

4.4

Don Stanhouse

760.1

.413

96

0.3

Mike Paul

627.2

.360

89

6.7

Stanhouse was a character and enjoyed a couple of inexplicably good seasons (132 ERA+ despite 6.3 BB/9 and 4.6 K/9) under Earl Weaver in the late-'70s before becoming a colossal free-agent bust for the Dodgers in 1980. Not that my 11-year-old self is permanently scarred from that and the Dave Goltz signing or anything.

Broberg's claim to fame is that he went straight from Dartmouth to the big leagues. Bosman has been a pitching instructor in the Rays organization since 2002. Hand, whom Williams had a soft spot for (Williams complained to Hand that he hated pitchers. Hand replied, “Ted, I've heard that all year, and I've never met a manager I liked.”), blew out his shoulder and was done by age 24. At age 27, a back injury finished Gogolewski, who returned to his hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and became a member of that hamlet's Advisory Park Board. Paul lasted a little longer, making it to age 29.

* * *

The Angels and Rangers have a rich history together. Nolan Ryan, a prominent figure on those Angels clubs of the '70s, later played for the Rangers and now owns them. Ryan's first appearance against his current team came in the seventh game Texas ever played. The Rangers scored three runs—courtesy of a Mincher home run—before Ryan recorded his first out, and they knocked him out of the game in the third inning.

Texas was in the midst of an uncharacteristic offensive outburst. The Rangers scored five runs against Ryan that Sunday in Arlington, the third of four straight games in which they would plate at least five. They duplicated that streak in June against the Brewers and the Yankees, but otherwise never scored as many as five runs in more than two consecutive games all season (and they only did that six times).

The Rangers went 31-46 at home in 1972 but won their first four games there. In the opener, Texas jumped out to an early lead and then held on for dear life as the Angels scored five runs in the final four innings but fell short, 7-6. Frank Howard launched a 460-foot solo homer to center off Clyde Wright with two out in the first to begin the scoring, while Lenny Randle and Toby Harrah knocked three hits each. Howard downplayed his contribution, saying that he was “glad the fans liked it,” but that “as far as I'm concerned, the only satisfaction I have is that we won the game.”

It may not have garnered high marks for aesthetics—the teams committed six errors between them, with four by the home club (including Randle's fourth in the franchise's first five games)—but it counted as a win in the standings. Bosman worked into the sixth inning to earn the victory, with Lindblad notching the save by striking out pinch-hitter Billy Cowan to end the game.

A week earlier, the two teams met in Anaheim, in the Rangers' first-ever contest. Bosman started that one as well, taking the loss when Lindblad, who entered with the bases loaded and nobody out, uncorked a wild pitch in the ninth to bring home Sandy Alomar for the game's only run. The winning “rally” had consisted of two walks and an error by catcher Hal King on a sacrifice bunt attempt.

The Rangers, meanwhile, had done nothing against California starter Andy Messersmith. In a harbinger of things to come, the 26-year-old right-hander held Texas hitless until King singled to right field to start the seventh. (He was immediately erased when Howard rapped into a 6-4-3 double play.) Harrah singled the following inning, but beyond those two blemishes, nobody had a clue what to do with Messersmith except hope he missed the plate (he issued five walks).

* * *

The Angels and Rangers have played exactly 600 games against each other over the years. That is the most games the Rangers have played against any team (they've played 599 against the A's). The Angels lead the series, 313-287, and have outscored Texas by 100 runs. The Angels have dominated at home, winning 57 percent of the 298 contests held in Anaheim. The Rangers, by contrast, have won just under 53 percent of their meetings in Arlington.

Despite their strong start against the Angels in 1972, the Rangers lost the season series, 10-7. The Rangers didn't win the series until 1977, when they took 10 of 15. They duplicated that feat in 1978. Their best showings against the Angels came in 2001 and 2011, when the Rangers won 12 of 19. But more often than not, the Angels have come out on top. The worst beatings came in 1980, when the Angels won 11 of 13, and 2005, when they won 15 of 19.

Of course, the AL West looks much different now than it did when baseball first arrived in Arlington. The Rangers won 96 games and the Angels won 86 last year, while the post-Moneyball A's won 74. The Mariners exist. So does the AL Central, where the White Sox, Royals, and Twins now reside.

Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre combined to hit 64 home runs for a Texas team that slugged .460. The 1972 Rangers hit 56. On the pitching side? With the caveat that these players are still active, the career numbers of guys in the 2011 rotation look a little better as well:

Player

IP

WPct

ERA+

WARP

C.J. Wilson

708.0

.551

126

10.7

Colby Lewis

618.2

.500

92

5.4

Derek Holland

393.2

.551

96

2.9

Matt Harrison

411.0

.612

100

3.1

Alexi Ogando

210.2

.654

145

3.3

Like everything else in life, the Rangers' current run of success is not permanent (and certainly not all the components that led to the run are permanent, as Wilson has moved west, replaced by the promise of Yu Darvish). Still, it is a refreshing change for a franchise that has seen its share of disappointment over the years.

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