By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 11:58 PM
ARLINGTON, TEX. -- This was the cheer-drenched night when the Texas Rangers found their way out of the baseball wilderness at last and marched into the center of the sport's universe, the World Series.
After 39 years without even one such a grand occasion, you might think they'd have arrived with sagebrush dragging from their cleats and the scraggly beards of dry-hole wildcatters. Instead, they wore crisp white uniforms, blue hats and grins.
From the moment, half-an-hour before the first pitch, that the record crowd of 52,419 was told, "It's time to get your antlers up," the bellows began. Toto, we're not in Yankee Stadium any more.
By the time rookie Mitch Moreland hit a three-run homer off the Giants' Jonathan Sanchez in the second inning, igniting a 4-2 win in Game 3 of this Series, Rangers Ballpark was up for grabs from the dugout box seats to the top bleacher row. For one night, Texas embraced every Ranger single as if it were a home run and erupted for actual homers as if they were . . . well . . . touchdowns.
Many a town understands this concept of the baseball "wilderness." It takes different forms. The Red Sox waited 86 years between world titles until '04; the next year, the White Sox ended an 88-year drought. The Cubs are at 983 years and counting. Even the Giants haven't won a Series since they moved to California in '58.
But the Rangers are in a different category entirely: the franchise that has never even gotten to a Series. Now, there are only two such entities left - the Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals, ex-Montreal Expos.
This Series night, the same jubilant scene with its own unique rich wrinkles, will come to both those places. No one knows when. That's the torment. But, as North Texas can attest after this night, it's a big part of the crescendo of released pleasure, too.
Hereabouts, baseball may be something that fans follow during the 17.3 days a year when there's no regular season football or spring football or preseason football. But, for one night, all the years when the Rangers were a punch line - as well as those last 11 seasons in Washington when they were the expansion Senators - could be forgotten. This was real baseball at its apex.
However, Rangers fans, especially if there are considerably more of them in future years, will have to give extra credit to those who keyed this victory. Those 72/3 victorious innings by Colby Lewis, who allowed solo homers to Cody Ross and Andres Torres, weren't just delivered in any old Series game. Moreland's homer, as well as a monstrous solo shot by Ranger superstar Josh Hamilton, carried far more than normal weight.
This wasn't merely the first Series game ever played here. It would also, almost certainly, have been the last meaningful game in this 106th Series if the Rangers hadn't won it. Now, this Giants-Rangers affair has come to life. With Cliff Lee on tap for Texas in Game 5, it's now the Giants who'll feel roughly as much pressure in Game 4 as Texas, even though San Francisco is ahead.
Some postseason games are elimination games. However, in baseball, there is also such a thing as a de facto elimination game. If you fall behind by two games to none, then you must win Game 3 or you're dead. And everybody knows it.
Sure, there's one exception - the '04 Red Sox against the Yankees. But that legend was bred of a blood feud generations old.
The Rangers are just a normal Series team, and perhaps not quite that considering the weight of their history as comic relief. So, the Rangers knew that the first home Series game in their history was also do-or-die. Doesn't seem exactly fair, does it?
After waiting so long, shouldn't your first night on the big stage be for celebration and ceremony, not tension and astronomical stakes? Well, that's not the Rangers fate.
Before the game, Rangers Manager Ron Washington listed what his team needed if it wanted to start winning. "If we can do those things," he said, "that eliminates any tension of feeling that it's the end of the world if things don't happen."
Is introducing the phrase "end of the world" really proper psychology? On a water hole, the only words a golfer should never think are "don't hit it in the water." All your subconscious hears is "hit it in the water." Why? Because your subconscious is like your dog. (There are other theories. But they're wrong.) If you say, "Mac, we are not going for a ride in the car, so don't spin in circles," all he hears is "Mac . . . ride in the car . . . spin in circles."
That's why individuals who are capable of separating themselves from the state of their team's psyche are so vital. In a sense, they play above the team, on their own plane, by their own standards.
But would you expect the players who separate themselves from their team's tensions to be a pitcher who was a Hiroshima Carp last season, a rookie who was third on the Rangers depth chart at first base in spring training and a recovering drug addict?
"They are examples of what the Texas Rangers are about," said Washington of Lewis, Moreland and Hamilton.
Hamilton's story is too familiar to repeat. As he circled the bases with fireworks turning the sky to a kind of blazing-red noon, Hamilton thought, "It's pretty sweet."
"It was all great, got some family in town, the fireworks," he added. "But [rounding the bases] I was actually thinking about the couple of at-bats before" when he'd popped up and grounded out with a man on base. Maybe that's how you hit .359.
A pitcher can hardly be humbler than Lewis, who spent '08 and '09 as a Hiroshima Carp. This guy's stuff was so lame that in '03 as a Ranger he had a 7.30 ERA with a 1.835 WHIP in 23 starts. Will that get you in an over-40 rec league? Instead of Japan being a payday at the end of the line, it turned out to be a new beginning.
Lewis beat the Giants with the same savvy fearless work that licked the Yankees twice in the ALCS Every time you see a so-called "mediocre" big leaguer who seldom touches 90 mph and seems to have no other flashy pitch, think of Lewis. Sometimes it takes years to master four pitches, each just barely good enough to complement the others, then learn the maniacal focus necessary to pinpoint them all. He's now the patron saint of mound journeyman.
"For sure, we didn't want to go three [games] down," Lewis said. "People chanting [your name], it's an awesome, awesome feeling. It first happened to me in Japan. But you try not to think about it too much now." Save those memories. They last all winter.
If the Rangers come back to win this Series, and they're still bucking the odds, the key instant may be Moreland's homer off Sanchez, who was the hardest-to-hit starting pitcher in the NL this year (opponents batted .204 against him). The lefty Moreland had never hit a homer off a southpaw as a big leaguer. And he's only gotten to play down the stretch because the hotshot in front of him at first base for Texas - Justin Smoak - was a make-or-break piece of the trade that brought Cliff Lee to Texas. See the serendipity in miracles.
So, Texas comes back home, gets to use a DH and who ends up batting No. 9 but is a real 230-pound thumper. The Giants pitched around vet Bengie Molina to put men at the corners with two outs, but there was no soft-touch pitcher heading to the plate. That's the difference between the leagues in a nutshell.
Moreland, one of the toughest Ranger outs the whole postseason, fouled off four two-strike pitches - slider, slider, change-up, change-up. Sitting dead red, kid? "I fouled off some off-speed stuff. Then I got the fastball, kind of down and in," Moreland said coyly. To a lefty rookie slugger, looking fastball down and in and getting it in the Series is like hitting the Mega Millions. Now, a fan 15 rows in the right field bleachers has a nice lopsided ball for the family mantel.
Maybe it helped Moreland that, during a mound meeting, the volatile Sanchez had to listen to the Texas PA system blast out Johnny Cash thundering, "I fell into a burning ring of fire."
Until Moreland's blast, the Rangers looked like a mighty tight bunch. Thereafter, they looked happy, loose and delighted to soak up a night jammed full of affection and ovations. Now, perhaps, with Lee lined up to pitch Game 5, the Rangers can relax and finally, show their wares.
For Rangers fans, even the first and last moments of this symbolic night were perfect. Hall of Famer and Ranger President Nolan Ryan threw out the first pitch. With the last pitch of the night, a 99 mph fastball for a strikeout, the Rangers' Neftali Feliz broke the record as the youngest pitcher to get a save in the World Series. The old mark was set way back in '69.
By Nolan Ryan.