For the first time in a long time something other than high school football, the Dallas Cowboys, and barbecue matters in Arlington, Texas.
Cliff Lee matters. Baseball matters. The Texas Rangers and an October pennant race matter.
As the first week of August rolls on, the Rangers find themselves in unfamiliar territory, territory that has been reserved for the Angels, Athletics, and Mariners since the millennium turned.
The Rangers lead the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by eight games in the American League West. Talent evaluators believe that the Rangers are for real and that they can sustain this lead over the Angels for the final two months of the regular season because they are simply the best team in their division.
It’s been 11 years since anyone has said that about the Texas Rangers, who last made the playoffs in 1999 when they finished first in the A.L. West by winning 95 games. The eventual World Series winner, the New York Yankees, swept the Rangers out of the playoffs in the Division Series.
The year before, Texas also finished first in the division and went to the postseason. The eventual World Series winner, also the Yankees, swept them in the first round, too. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez was the linchpin of those teams and Johnny Oates was the manager.
In fact, you have to go back to 1996 to find the last Rangers playoff victory. Texas won one game that postseason and lost in the first round to—who else—the Yankees.
John Burkett threw a complete game and beat David Cone at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the ALDS. And that, folks, is the lone postseason win in the history of the Texas Rangers.
So, yes, when the heat becomes unbearable this time of year and opposing pitchers come to Arlington to melt with the Rangers holding a substantial lead in the division, you bet it matters. Texans want to savor this summer. The humidity at the ballpark has never felt more soothing.
How did the Rangers get caught in a rut of hardship and failure over the last decade?
Answers vary, but it always begins with the top of management, which, until now, has been owner Tom Hicks.
The Rangers never had a strong scouting and player development system in place to replenish their big league roster with homegrown talent. Due to their home ballpark and its propensity to favor hitters, the Rangers seemed content to try to slug their way to division titles.
It worked in those late 90s years, but the lack of pitching depth became exposed immediately once the playoffs began. The old adage still lives; you need power arms to win in October.
Texas hoped that Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Rusty Greer, Rafael Palmeiro, et al., could hit the Rangers to a World Series title.
When that didn’t work and the Rangers bottomed out in 2000 by winning only 71 games and finishing fourth in the division, Hicks opened up his wallet and gave Alex Rodriguez the then-richest contract in baseball history. For 10 years and $252 million, A-Rod became a Ranger.
Hicks more than doubled the Rangers payroll during that time, eclipsing the $100 million mark in 2002 and 2003, the only two years the Rangers have come within $30 million of the century mark in payroll.
As good as Texas’ offense was in those years—they ranked third in the A.L. in runs in A-Rod’s first year with the club—its pitching held the franchise back.
Since Texas’ last playoff appearance, the Rangers have only had four seasons of an ERA better than 4—out of a possible 50—from its starting pitchers. Kenny Rogers did it twice, and Kevin Millwood did it last year after Nolan Ryan had gotten his paws on the pitching staff.
All of this makes the impending sale of the Rangers extremely important.
Texas’ bankruptcy issues have been well documented this year, but the organization’s real financial status remains unclear as the club actually added payroll at the trade deadline this summer and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Russell Nelms listens to bids on the club in an auction set to occur Wednesday in Fort Worth.
It appears that the new owner of the Rangers will be either current club president Nolan Ryan or Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Ryan and his attorney, Chuck Greenberg, submitted a proposal of $520 million to purchase the team, $306.7 million of it in cash. Cuban must reportedly eclipse the cash portion of Ryan’s proposal by $15 million to enter the bidding.
Cuban will almost certainly spend the cash he thinks is needed to secure ownership of the Rangers, but that is not what MLB wants. Cuban told Commissioner Bud Selig in 2008 that he would pay more than $1 billion to buy the Chicago Cubs.
Afraid of Cuban’s obstreperous personality and reputation for his public damnation of NBA referees, Selig said no, and Tom Ricketts bought the Cubs for at least $100 million less.
Selig would be most comfortable with Ryan buying the Rangers, but that wouldn’t be best for the future of the club. Look, Ryan could be a great owner, but his value comes in being a hands-on consultant for the team.
In May, Albert Chen of Sports Illustrated wrote a piece titled “Nolan Ryan’s Crusade,” documenting how Ryan took control of the Rangers pitching staff by bringing in pitching coach Mike Maddux prior to the ’09 season and changing the culture of pitching in Texas.
Ryan wanted his pitchers to work deeper into games, to shun pitch counts, to take ownership of their starts. The results have been remarkable and the reason why Texas is so dangerous this year.
If Ryan became the majority owner, he would still want to have that impact, but that never works. Owners can’t run the bank account and craft the product, too. One takes away from the other.
Cuban, on the other hand, is as smart as they come in the business world. He has deep pockets, he listens to the right people, and he gets out of the way. He'll spend the money to win, but there won't be idiotic contracts. There won't be any contracts which the club still pays for seven seasons after the player left (like the Rangers are doing this year with A-Rod).
Most importantly, he’s an owner that actually cares about winning titles more than making money. You can handle the outbursts and the fines because, as a fan, you know he’s always looking to put the best product on the field.
The perfect solution would be to have Ryan and Cuban both involved. Cuban as the majority owner and Ryan as a minority owner who oversees the baseball operations. Ryan’s expertise would come in player development and Cuban’s would come in financial decisions and the overall fan experience.
Would that ever happen? Probably not. It seems clear that Ryan wants to be the owner in charge, and Cuban doesn’t need to buy-in to a team just for the sake of doing it. He’s got the Mavericks.
But Cuban would bring new blood and a fresh perspective to the game, two things baseball has been continuously harped on for lacking. Baseball is built on traditions and outdated customs more than any other major sport. This is comfortable for the old suits that still reminisce about their fathers’ MLB.
That doesn’t work anymore. Times change, technology changes, and every business needs to engage the social media era and the young consumer more than ever.
Major League Baseball wouldn’t lose if Nolan Ryan becomes the owner of the Texas Rangers.
But the league would lose dearly if Mark Cuban didn’t.
Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.