ARLINGTON, Texas—Darren Oliver has lived through the Rangers' two "golden eras."
Oliver was a starting pitcher and just beginning his career when the Rangers won their first two division titles in franchise history, capturing the American League West in back-to-back seasons in 1996 and 1997. The left-hander is 41 years old now and a reliever with the Rangers, having had stints with seven other clubs since being on those the division winners. Thus, Oliver can add some perspective on the franchise now that he has been part of back-to-back AL pennant winners. The Rangers wrapped up their second straight title last Saturday by beating the Tigers in six games in the American League Championship Series and will face the Cardinals in the World Series beginning Wednesday night at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
"It's just so different now," Oliver said. "It's a different world. When we were in the playoffs in the '90s, there wasn't nearly as much media around. The internet wasn't a big deal at that point, you didn't have Twitter, and there weren't four ESPNs. I'm not saying there wasn't a lot of interest, but it’s a much bigger deal now.”
Oliver also believes the fans of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex are more turned on to the Rangers than ever before. His reasoning is simple: "We never got past (the Division Series) in the '90s. Getting to the World Series gives you more credibility."
It is safe to say that the Rangers have never had more credibility as a franchise than they do now.
Born as the expansion Senators in 1961 when the original Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins, the only thing the franchise was noted for during the Washington days was Frank Howard's massive home runs. Owner Bob Short moved the team to Arlington, Texas, situated about halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, before the 1972 season, but it was still considered one of the worst franchises in baseball until winning three division titles in four seasons between 1996 and 1999.
Then one bad move by then-owner Tom Hicks ruined everything. He decided to make a splash when the Winter Meetings came to Dallas in December, 2000 on the heels of the Rangers falling into last place in the AL West by signing free agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252-million deal, then the largest contract in professional sports history.
Rodriguez hit 156 home runs in his three seasons with the Rangers from 2001-03, but the Rangers finished last each year. With so much of their payroll committed to Rodriguez, the Rangers didn't have the financial wherewithal to surround their superstar with the necessary talent to be a contender. Throw in the fact that Rodriguez made it clear almost from the start that he was unhappy in Texas, and it not only turned out to be a marriage made in baseball hell but dragged the Rangers down well into the first decade of the new millennium.
The Rangers traded Rodriguez to the Yankees just before the start of spring training in 2004, but they remained in the abyss. They finished third each season from 2004-06, then dropped back to last place in 2007 in current manager Ron Washington's first year on the job.
However, things finally started to change as the Rangers climbed to second place in both 2008 and 2009, then broke the Angels' chokehold on the AL West by winning the division title in 2010 and again this season. Now, they are headed back to the World Series, and second baseman Ian Kinsler gives a rather simplistic explanation of how the Rangers have risen to the upper echelon of major-league franchises.
"When I first got here, you could tell there were certain guys who weren't committed to winning, who hadn't bought in to what we were trying to do," said Kinsler, who made his major-league debut with the Rangers in 2006. "We got rid of those guys, and now we have an entire team of guys who believe in what we're doing. It makes a big difference, a really big difference when everyone believes."
Washington gives a three-point reason for the Rangers' recent success: "It comes down to attitude, it comes down to commitment, and it comes down to effort."
It also has come down to pitching and defense. Hitting has rarely been a problem since the franchise moved south nearly four decades ago, as the ball tends to fly at Rangers Ballpark (and before it, Arlington Stadium) because of a jet stream that blows almost constantly from the prairieland near Arlington.
However, the Rangers have improved dramatically in run prevention since Washington, a noted defensive instructor during his time as a coach with the Athletics, replaced Buck Showalter as manager five years ago. The Rangers were fifth in the AL in runs allowed this season, giving up 4.18 a game, which in turn helped them finish second in the league with a 1.10 run differential per game. They were also second in the major leagues with a .722 defensive efficiency, trailing only the Rays (.735), whom the Rangers beat in the Division Series in four games.
"No. 1, we certainly had to learn how to pitch," Washington said. "We had to learn how to stay in the ballgames. We had to learn how to get our starters to go deep in the ballgame. We certainly had to learn how important defense is. We had to catch the ball. We had to learn how to run the base paths. We had to learn to take advantage of the talent we have and let that talent go out there and expose itself and find out what it can do and what it can't do. And we allowed them to do that. We've given many opportunities to young kids that maybe in other organizations wouldn't have had that opportunity. We nurture our players. We certainly support every one of them throughout the whole organization. And I think that's what it's about when you talk about success."
The Rangers have plenty of talented young players to nurture, as their farm system includes such prospects as first baseman Jorge Alfaro, third baseman Michael Olt, shortstop Jurickson Profar, center fielders Leonys Martin and Engle Beltre, left-hander Martin Perez, right-handers Neal Ramirez, Barret Loux, Cody Buckel and Luke Jackson, and reliever Tanner Scheppers. Throw in the fact that the Rangers' 20-year, $1.6-billion television contract with Fox Sports Southwest begins in 2015, and it's little wonder that club president and former Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan says, "We feel like we're situated pretty well for the future," which is fairly amazing considering Ryan and a group of investment bought the franchise out of bankruptcy court just 14 months ago.
The Rangers, though, are more concerned with the bright present than a bright future. They are back in the World Series and want to put on a better showing than last year, when they lost in five games to the Giants in their first appearance in the Fall Classic.
Washington believes Michael Young, the franchise's career hits leader, set the tone for 2011 when he told his teammates in a brief meeting following the Game 5 loss, "Enjoy your winter, but don't turn it off mentally because we're capable of getting back."
Now the Rangers are back.
"We're happy to be going back, but we're not satisfied," Young said. "There is still a lot of work to do. We don't want it to end here, not again this year."
Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz: "I'm not surprised by what he's doing in the postseason because when he gets hot, he gets unconsciously hot. The best way to attack him is to try to beat him with inside fastballs, but he's on that pitch right now. Pretty much the best thing to do if I'm the Cardinals in the World Series is just pitch around him and let (David) Murphy try to beat me."
Cardinals third baseman David Freese: "I know a lot of people hadn't heard of him until he won the MVP (in the National League Championship Series), but he's a guy who made some big strides this season. He's learned to turn on inside fastballs for power but he also has started to handle breaking pitches much better. He's closed up a lot of holes in his swing, and I've got to believe (Cardinals hitting coach) Mark McGwire had a lot to do with that."