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Sunday, October 16, 2011
Rangers are story of the moment

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Nearly a week ago, when the Texas Rangers headed to Detroit with a 2-0 lead in the American League Championship Series, the baseball world was less fixated on a spirited series between the last two AL teams standing than it was on the careening soap opera situated in Boston with the Red Sox, both on the insidious Red Sox collapse and its aftermath and whether the Chicago Cubs would ultimately land the Sox's general manager, Theo Epstein.

The Rangers and Tigers put on a terrific show in the ALCS, what with Nelson Cruz doing his best Roy Hobbs impersonation (eight hits, all for extra bases: two doubles, a record six homers), and the Tigers displaying heart and magic through injuries and pain, doing their fans and league and city proud. Yet the baseball towns closed for the winter received the buzz: Epstein and the Red Sox stole the headlines. In fantasy, on the silver screen, Oakland's Billy Beane, the most famous general manager in the game, owns the box office.

TBD
Rangers GM Jon Daniels, right, has been the architect of the two-time AL champions.

Yet where it counts, in the American League, when the confetti cannons were at last exhausted, the AL pennant was settled in the exact same place as a year before, in Texas, with the exact same pitcher on the mound, Neftali Feliz, with the exact same result, the Rangers winning the league.

They do not have the national reach or the historical pedigree or the ratings potential or the mega-payroll, but the Texas Rangers have something neither established American League superpower in Boston and New York has -- the AL pennant in consecutive years. Coming off the World Series, the Rangers began the season as a potentially formidable team and then, over the course of the season, proved it by winning the AL West by 10 games and toppling Tampa Bay for the second straight year in the Division Series.

By beating the Tigers, with their 15-5 Game 6 clincher serving as a rousing exclamation point, the Rangers turned lofty aspiration into accomplished mission. Aside from the Yankees, who won consecutive pennants from 1998 through 2001, the Toronto Blue Jays were the last team to win the AL in back-to-back years, nearly 20 years ago in the 1992 and 1993 seasons. For all its power and reputation, Boston hasn't won consecutive pennants since 1915 and 1916. The Rangers are the second team since those Blue Jays teams to back up a first pennant with an immediate second.

"The other teams that did it won the World Series, so I'm not sure I'll put us in that category yet," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "You can't put us in that group, but we have really tremendous guys. This doesn't happen without tons of people."

Equally important, but perhaps less noticed while the likes of Beane and Epstein suck up all the oxygen, is the Rangers establishing themselves as not only a good team on the field, but as a formidable organization upstairs, in the front office, where the organization was best known for its chaos, its bankruptcies, its ill-fated attempt to buy respect a decade ago to the tune of a 10-year, $252 million contract for Alex Rodriguez. The Rangers were in disarray, in a bankruptcy auction, wondering if Mark Cuban would buy the club, in a division owned by the Angels in the standings. The Rangers did not consider themselves a superpower, but over the past two years have competed and defeated both the front-office mess and the Angels.

The Rangers had made the playoffs three times in their history -- getting dusted by the Yankees in the 1996, 1998 and 1999 Division Series -- and won just one game before beating the Rays (in five games) and Yankees (in six) to reach the World Series last season.

For nearly a quarter of the 2011 season, the Red Sox were the worst team in baseball, and the Rangers were responsible for putting them there. They swept Boston three straight to begin the season and then began the Red Sox's swoon with an offensive bombardment at Fenway Park in early September.

The Rangers don't spend big money, so the group of Daniels, Ryan and the Texas front office can't do what the superpowers do -- simply outspend mistakes by throwing more money into the free-agent market. Daniels is rightfully self-deprecating. As the confetti fell during the pennant celebration, he stood on the pitcher's mound and talked of how he was given a chance that he "perhaps wasn't ready for," and was grateful for the opportunity.

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Nelson Cruz, the ALCS MVP, was traded by the Mets, A's and Brewers before landing in Texas.

While the bigger name general managers such as Brian Cashman and Epstein have virtually unlimited funds, it is nevertheless true that because of their resources, it is unclear just how good they are at their jobs. Daniels, meanwhile, has signature deals to his credit.

Saturday night's championship was built in the shadow of the big names. Beane and his people acquired Cruz and then traded him to Milwaukee for Keith Ginter, who played all of 51 games in 2005, hitting .161. Ginter never played in the big leagues again, while the Brewers gave Cruz exactly seven plate appearances in the big leagues to prove himself. When the Rangers acquired Carlos Lee in 2006, Cruz was the throw-in, one who has turned into gold.

David Murphy played in five of the six games, and hit .412, including the bases-loaded single that began to break open a tense Game 6. Murphy, too, lives in the shadow of the superpowers; he was selected with the 17th pick of the first round of the 2003 draft by the Red Sox and traded to Texas for Eric Gagne in 2007.

Daniels' last connection to his moneyed East Coast rivals came in the offseason, when it appeared the Rangers were about to sink back into the middle of the pack, unable to compete with the big boys when Cliff Lee left a pennant winner in Texas to sign with Philadelphia. For the Rangers, the momentum of winning the AL seemed to suffer slightly -- then Daniels signed Adrian Beltre -- who had played for a year at $10 million for the Red Sox -- to a six-year, $96 million deal.

"We thought we made a good effort to sign Cliff," Nolan Ryan said. "We went down there. We put our best offer forward. We were serious about it, and it didn't happen, but we were always optimistic about our young pitching.

"Acquiring Adrian Beltre was big for us, and there is no question he's the best third baseman in the American League."

But more than that, signing Beltre lessened the sting of losing Lee. It meant that the Rangers, beaten in the World Series a year ago, were in the act.

And Beltre was terrific in the ALCS, offensively and defensively and emotionally, playing through the pain of a knee contusion suffered in Game 4.

The Rangers, at $92.2 million, defended their title against the $201 million Yankees, the $170 million Red Sox and the rest of a league that must now deal with a new, stable power in the league, with consecutive pennants 16 months after being in bankruptcy.

"It is hard to repeat," Ryan said. "If people knew all transpired over the last four years, it is an amazing story, to put a club in the position it is now in … are we elite? I wouldn't say that, but I think we're as good a ballclub as what's out there."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.