I don’t pay much attention to baseball anymore but at one time it was a major obsession of mine. I wrote history papers in junior high on the origins of baseball, spent hours poring over the Baseball Encyclopedia, often on Saturdays while a game was being played. I collected cards with my friends and spent alone time in the back yard practicing my swing with a Johnny Bench Batter Up. My favorite board game was Strat-o-matic. My favorite player was Ozzie Smith who played for my favorite team at the time, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The reason I loved the Cardinals was simple. My father went to high school in Missouri and his brother and family lived in St. Louis. So I felt a connection to the area. Also, because I had an interest in baseball history the Cardinals kept popping up in my reading; my Strat-o-matic team was the 1934 Cardinals—the gashouse gang. Most importantly, as a small kid in the 1980s, the Cardinals were good (3 NL pennants and a World Series win) and fun to watch and the Texas Rangers, the local team, were definitely not.
But things change and, fortunately for me, they started looking up around the time I started driving. After suffering through teams whose best players were knuckleballer Charlie Hough and occasional All-Star reserve Buddy Bell, the Rangers started acquiring good players in the early 1990s.
This was a perfect storm for me. In 1991, I was 16 years old with a car (I inherited my fathers ’82 Mazda so that my mom wouldn’t have to drive me to 6:00am swim practice), the Rangers had potential that they never had before, and most importantly, owner George W. Bush hadn’t yet finalized the deal on the new Ballpark in Arlington. Arlington Stadium, three years from demolition, had well over 10,000 bleacher seats, all for the price of $4.00. Even at the time, that was 2/3 the price of a movie ticket. My friends and I went to as many games as we could. I likely went to more major league baseball games in 1991 than I have been to in all other years combined.
But though the price made it possible, the real reason we schlepped from Carrollton to Arlington night after night, catching series after series was because they were finally, mercifully, good. Or, at least, talented. I was recently drawn back to that 1991 roster and was shocked at how stacked the team was, but also at how bad they were. They only won 83 games and finished 3rd in the AL West, 10 games behind the Minnesota Twins. I looked at the Twins roster and was underwhelmed by its talent (Kirby Puckett and Jack Morris, aside).
The roster of the 1991 Texas Rangers, on the other hand, included:
SP: Nolan Ryan (Hall of Fame)
C: Ivan Rodriguez (Hall of Fame)
RP: Goose Gossage (Hall of Fame)
LF: Juan Gonzalez (2x MVP)
SP: Kevin Brown (2nd place in Cy Young)
RF: Ruben Sierra (2nd place in MVP)
RP: Kenny Rogers
1B: Rafael Palmeiro
2B: Julio Franco
CF: Garry Pettis
SP: Oil Can Boyd
DH: Brian Downing
3B: Steve Beuchelle
That is a good team. Potentially a great team. The weakest position was Jeff Huson/Mario Diaz (ironically our favorite player on the team) at short stop. But this was the pre-Jeter/Nomar era where short stop was generally an 8th or 9th batter in the lineup so pretty typical of the time.
It is a potentially great team, which is the problem—potential. The thing about this team is exemplified by the ages of its two best players—Nolan Ryan and Pudge Rodriguez. The team, as a whole was either too old or too young. When Ryan pitched to Rodriguez, the ball travelled 60 feet 6 inches and 25 years. Ryan, at 44, was two years older than I am now and Pudge, at 19, was only three years older than I was then! Remember, Rangers’ owner George W. Bush was the president’s son and not the guy who broke everything. This was a different world and I’m still not as old as the best player on the team.
Goose Gossage, whose stats suggest he was better than he was since he tended to give up other pitchers’ runs, was 39. Juan Gonzalez, who, at only 21, was 5 years away from winning his first MVP, while Brian Downing batted leadoff* at the age of 40! About the only player who was at the peak of his career was Ruben Sierra, whose stat-line was (amazingly) comparable to his 1989 campaign, which got him 2nd place in MVP voting. And he was only 25! Rafael Palmeiro had yet to discover steroids.
My knowledge of baseball has diminished over the years. I know who some of the great players are and followed the Rangers closely in 2011 when they lost one of the greatest World Series ever to my old favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals.‡ But I don’t really pay attention to potentially great teams anymore. I do wonder, though, despite my obvious bias, what other team had this much talent while finishing 3rd in their division because of bad timing.