Throughout the spring and into the summer, the Texas Rangers carried the title of defending American League champions while fighting a narrative of non-belief. The Rangers had won their first pennant, losing the World Series in five relatively easy games to the San Francisco Giants, but their hard-fought quest for long-term legitimacy was less assured.
Immediately following their World Series defeat, Cliff Lee used his free agency to return to baseball-rich Philadelphia. His exit signaled a blow to the idea that the baseball team in a football state had finally grown up, ready to compete not just on the field but in the imagination of star players looking for a championship location to call home. Internally, the Rangers suffered another hangover of winning: infighting both within upper management with the ouster of charismatic CEO Chuck Greenberg as well as between star player Michael Young and general manager Jon Daniels. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Angels, perennial powers in the AL West, added $33 million to their payroll with the expectation of returning to their place atop the standings.
But nearly a year after the Rangers' greatest of their 40 seasons since moving from Washington, D.C., the Texas Rangers are again on the national stage. They've matured and seasoned without Lee. They have solidified their front-office voice, as Nolan Ryan is now the lone voice of ownership. And Young, who had asked to be traded before spring training, produced his sixth 200-hit season.
The Rangers lost Lee, but convinced another big name, third baseman Adrian Beltre, to choose Texas. The Rangers competed directly with the power teams of the league, accepted the Angels' challenge, beat them by 10 games, and now have home-field advantage against the Detroit Tigers for the opportunity for a second consecutive pennant.
"Of course it's gratifying having been able to do this, especially after Cliff left, but what was more was what happened last year, when the Giants took us out in the World Series," Washington said. "After we lost, we sat there behind closed doors. It was just us. We committed to getting back to the World Series, and I'd be damned if those guys didn't do it and commit to it. I'm so proud of them and they pulled it off and now we have a chance to go back to the World Series."
The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies are the game's established superpowers, but with a second consecutive appearance in the American League Championship Series, a core of talented young players, suddenly stable ownership and a staggeringly rich local television contract that will put them in the conversation to afford big-name players, the Rangers want a seat at the table. In 2011, New York ($201.6 million), Philadelphia ($172.9 million) and Boston ($161.4 million) led the league in payroll, combining for more than a half-billion dollars in player salaries, each owning a special identity within the game. The Yankees are the signature team in the sport. The Red Sox have won two World Series titles in eight years and are a flagship destination for top players. The Phillies won a title in 2008, went back to the World Series in 2009 and have won five straight National League East titles. Each of the three is wealthy and successful, and more. They are the glamour franchises that attract free agents and control the game's fast track in player movement.
The Rangers spend but hardly lavishly. In winning the 2010 pennant, Texas was 27th in payroll at $55.2 million and this year was 13th at $99.2 million. While entry to the adult table doesn't just require winning, but being able to attract and retain players -- ALCS Game 1 starter C.J. Wilson will be a free agent at the end of the season -- the Rangers are close to achieving milestones that just might elevate them to entry into a very exclusive club.
With the exclusion of the Yankees, the American League has seen just two teams over the past 40 years -- the 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays and the Oakland A's dynasties of 1988-90 and 1972-74 -- earn consecutive World Series appearances. With consecutive league championship appearances, Ryan has done something as an owner that he never did as a Hall of Fame player. The Rangers do not expect to spend with bigger teams in the game, but with stable, charismatic management and the ability to deliver on the tough talk and attitude from Ryan and Washington, Texas is proving itself to be an emerging tough out.
The Texas way
It all changed on Sunday, June 12, in the visitors clubhouse at Target Field in Minneapolis, the city where Washington once played infield, roomed with Kirby Puckett and honed a tough defensive edge under Tom Kelly. The Rangers had split the first two games with the Twins but over the final two were outscored 14-2, losing 8-1 and 6-1. In the 6-1 loss, Francisco Liriano twirled a perfect game through six innings and held a no-hitter into the eighth. The Rangers, one of the highest-scoring teams in the league, skulked off the field after amassing two hits. Washington followed his team into the clubhouse and closed the door.
"It was the series in Minnesota," Michael Young recalled. "We lost three of four and Wash called our only meeting of the year. No screaming or yelling and the point wasn't winning or losing. It was about not playing our style of baseball in that series. From then on, it was about playing our kind of baseball. Results come after that."
The Rangers held a game-and-a-half lead over Seattle, got on a plane for New York and lost three more to the Yankees, a pair by big 12-4, 12-4 scores, followed by a tough 3-2 loss in 12 innings. The lead was down to a half-game.
A month later, the Rangers had won 21 of their last 28 games, including 12 in a row.
"They got the message," Washington said of the Minnesota meeting. "I didn't go up there screaming and hollering. That wasn't necessary. What I saw was a lot of guys dropping their heads. I saw a lot of guys pointing the finger at each other. You see it during the game. You see it in the clubhouse. I wasn't having that kind of stuff.
"So what I said was this: 'We take our ass-whupping when we get one, and then we focus on giving the other team an even bigger ass-whupping. That's what we do in Texas," Washington said. "And if that criteria doesn't fit you, you can get the hell out of here. And if you don't, I'm going to make sure to get you the hell out of here.' Michael Young came in here and said, 'Wash, that was the best meeting I've ever been a part of,' and I told him, 'The clubhouse is all that matters. If you make sure they get the message we'll be fine.' And he did. That's a leader."
In the age of incessant pitch counts, devaluation of the win statistic and other traditional benchmarks of a pitcher's effectiveness, the Ryan influence cannot be understated. If Washington strives through heart and candor and commitment to coax trust and performances from his players, Ryan's combined power of personality and credential is no less formidable. When Lee went to Philadelphia, Ryan issued the challenge for the Rangers' young pitchers to take the mantle; otherwise, there would not be much of a season. Lee was gone. The Rangers did not replace him with an A-list, free-agent starter. Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando and Derek Holland combined to go 43-22. Holland, 24, pitched 57 1/3 innings in 2010, 198 in 2011. Ogando, 27, pitched 41 2/3 innings in relief last season and tossed 169 innings in 2011. Harrison, 25, had never pitched more than 84 innings in a season, and pitched 185 in 2011.
"You don't understand what commitment is until you go through a full 162-game season," Washington said. "Those kids grew up. They took on a load they never had to. Harrison, Ogando, and Derek Holland. Derek was back and forth last year, Ogando was pitching to one batter a game, and Harry won 14 games. This year, they all took on 30 starts."
In the clubhouse, the arrival of Beltre caused a rift between Daniels and Young, who felt the general manager was not being forthcoming about the team's plans to replace him at third base. Credit, ego and fatal miscommunication destroy title teams as much as injuries and tougher opponents, but Washington assured Young of his value and Young responded with a season that will garner him AL MVP consideration. Beltre signed a six-year, $96 million deal -- proof that the Rangers were not content to regress after a magical pennant -- and he responded with big numbers, including a three-homer game in the division-series clincher against Tampa Bay. But he also provided a critical bridge that prevented the team from collapsing.
"Adrian filled a void that Vlad [Guerrero] left, and I'm not just talking about production, but leadership that our young Latin kids could follow," Washington said. "He fit perfectly. We have fun, but we go out there and play the game. We don't play it like it's life or death. We want to win, but he has more fun than anyone I've ever been around. He is a quality human being. You hear what I'm saying? A quality human being. He shows up every day to do his job. And he wants beat the other team, every game.
"Adrian was the leader on the Latin side, Michael on the American side. That doesn't mean things were divided. They weren't, but it does mean the right message has to come from the right people."
The playoffs started and the Rangers took a world-class pounding, a 9-0 home loss to rookie Matt Moore and Tampa Bay. The next day, the Rays took a 3-0 lead and the Rangers' AL pennant defense appeared destined to be a short one. Then the Rangers came back and won 8-6, and then 4-3, and again 4-3 in St. Petersburg to finish the upstart Rays. There were no more meetings
"There's a toughness and a mental attitude to this team," Washington said. "We got beat. We didn't throw the ball around and we didn't give them anything and because of that, I said let's take a shower and go back. The next day, they dropped three runs on us, but we caught a break. [James] Shields got a little cocky and we caught a break and it opened up for us. They were on a high, and they beat us, but do I expect them to beat us like that every night? Hell to the [expletive] no.
"We didn't meet [as a team] after we won the series. We didn't meet after we clinched the division," Washington said. "[The players] know what they have to do and they don't need me adding to it. Listen, you can't put yourself ahead of the real deal, and the real deal is the players. Let the players be the spokesmen for this team."
As the Rangers bid to be an unlikely superpower, they are also perhaps altering the blueprint of how to become one. The power of Ryan and Washington (backed by 2.9 million in attendance and the big television deal) has created an attitude and a reliance on old-school values of toughness and loyalty (as much as it is possible in sports) that has translated in the standings.
"Be tough, play your ass off, and have each other's back at all times," Michael Young said. "Those things never take a day off with this team. It is fun to be a part of that."
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.