Commentary

Rangers battling for heart of Texas

With one more win they can erase 51-year title drought, initiate cultural shift in Texas

Updated: October 27, 2011, 4:18 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- So here they are. After 50 title-free seasons, those Texas Rangers are one win away.

But one win away from what? That's the question.

Look, we know they're one win away from winning the World Series. That's the easy part. That's the part we could see with our own eyes in the next 24 hours, now that the raindrops have stopped splattering and the Rangers and Cardinals can finally play Game 6 on Thursday night.

But if the Rangers win this World Series, it will unleash ripple effects that extend well beyond baseball. You get that, right?

This is a franchise that has been around for 51 seasons now. And until lately, it's safe to say it hasn't ever been confused with the Yankees.

[+] EnlargeTexas Rangers fans
AP Photo/Matt SlocumFans in Texas love the Rangers, but the team's fan base still doesn't quite rival that of the Cowboys.

We're talking about a franchise that took 36 seasons just to win a postseason game, if you count its 11 seasons disguised as the Washington Senators.

We're talking about a franchise that took 50 seasons -- and four trips to October -- just to win a postseason series.

We're talking about a franchise that has lost more games (4,270) since its first year of existence, in 1961, than any other team in baseball -- and would be 704 games behind the Yankees in the standings if this last half-century had been one giant season.

So what is now within the Rangers' reach is something far more momentous than most of the continent seems to have grasped. After all, did you know that …

• Not a single franchise in baseball has been in existence as long as this one without winning at least one championship?

• Only one other franchise in any major North American professional sport -- the Minnesota Vikings -- has been in existence as long as this franchise without winning at least one championship? (The Vikings, coincidentally enough, have also been around for 51 years -- but are not one win away.)

• There are only two other franchises in baseball that have staggered through a longer title drought than this one? That would be -- guess who? -- the Cubs (14 or 15 centuries and counting) and the Indians (64 seasons and counting).

So this is big, big stuff. Yet as the Rangers have closed in on the end of this bumpy road, you might have noticed something.

In Texas, this run has been a good ol' time, a tremendous excuse for a party and a thoroughly joyful experience for hundreds of thousands of people. But …

Unlike, say, when the Red Sox won (for the first time in 86 years) or the White Sox won (for the first time in 88 years) or the Giants won (for the first time since moving to San Francisco), no Doris Kearns Goodwin types have arisen to try to speak poetically for the masses and put this triumph into monumental historical context.

We've seen no succession of front-page stories in the newspapers about kids and parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, all weeping in unison over the end of generations of heartfelt suffering.

We've seen no outbreak of "NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE" T-shirt shops.

And we haven't unearthed a single Texan who has stepped forward to take credit for personally ending this long title-devoid nightmare by digging up Ruben Sierra's piano from the bottom of the Rio Grande.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

It's just different. That's all. And that's fine.

This is not the Red Sox. And people in Texas, best we can tell, don't even want to be the Red Sox. Especially at the moment.

Remember that, for the most part -- except possibly among 12-year-olds -- there is no such thing as a "lifelong Rangers fan." Well, just to be clear here, we should probably say there's no such thing as a lot of them, anyway.

"Yeah, there are," said pitcher C.J. Wilson. "They hit me up on Facebook sometimes."

[+] EnlargeMichael Young
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireAs the longest-tenured Ranger, Michael Young has been a part of the team during much leaner times.

"A couple of people have told me that," said the Rangers' all-time hits leader, Michael Young. "But mostly, they tell me how much they've enjoyed this club, and the last couple of years. And I totally understand that."

Nobody, in fact, would understand it better than Young. Even though he wasn't drafted, signed or developed by the Rangers, he's played for the Rangers longer (since 2000) than anyone else in his clubhouse. So you don't have to spell it out for him that North Texas isn't New England, or that the Rangers' place in Texas culture is a whole different phenomenon than the Red Sox's place in New England culture.

"We flew under the radar for a long time," Young said. "I mean, I don't want to say our team was lost in obscurity, but it's kind of true. Other teams that have existed this long have at least competed for championships, especially the teams that built those winning traditions over years. But it's exciting for us to be a part of the team that's going to kick that off in Texas."

Whether the Rangers win or lose this World Series, though, they might already have kicked that off. Nolan Ryan and their ultra-sharp general manager, Jon Daniels, have constructed one of the best organizations in baseball. And they're only beginning to harvest that field.

In only 12 months, these Rangers have transformed their franchise from an outfit that had won exactly one postseason game in 49 seasons to a team that has played in two World Series in a row. And how amazing is that? The only other franchise in history that went to back-to-back World Series while riding a half-century title drought was the old Brooklyn Dodgers, in the '50s. Doris Kearns Goodwin could tell you all about it.

But Texas in the 21st century isn't too reminiscent of Brooklyn in the 1950s, in case you hadn't noticed. Yeah, Dodgers fans had to compete with Yankees fans and Giants fans. But there was no such thing as "Them Cowboys" in Brooklyn, sucking every sports fan within 500 miles into their practically irresistible gravitational force field.

"Think the Mavs are bigger than the Cowboys?" Young asked, with all due respect to the most recent championship team to pass through his neighborhood. "I'd say no. And I give the Mavs a ton of credit. They've been on a great run for years. Then they went out and beat a great Miami team in order to win a championship. But the Cowboys are the top team for a reason -- because they've got a ton of rings."

So if this love affair with the Rangers -- as raucous as it's gotten -- still doesn't equal Cowboys Fever, "it doesn't bother us one bit," Young said. "I'm a Cowboys fan myself. But I'm pretty sure that if you asked our crowds back at the Metroplex, they're all pretty fired up about our team right now. And that's good enough for us."

It's a lot of fun to be a part of a team that has taken this organization to someplace it's never been. Hopefully, we're the group that starts fans passing their love of the Rangers down to their kids, and so on and so on.

-- Michael Young

It takes more than two special seasons to erase the stuff that used to constitute the most vivid memories of Rangers history (Non-Nolan Ryan-No-Hitter Division) -- Jose Canseco deflecting a home run over the fence with his head … Bobby Witt getting yanked in mid-no-hitter (thanks to eight walks and four wild pitches) … and the 1977 Rangers ripping through four managers in a week.

And we're not even going to get into the uplifting sight of having the franchise auctioned off in bankruptcy court -- at 1 o'clock in the morning.

But finally winning the World Series? Now, that might exorcise all those ghosts.

"It's a lot of fun to be a part of a team that has taken this organization to someplace it's never been," Young said. "Hopefully, we're the group that starts fans passing their love of the Rangers down to their kids, and so on and so on. That's when building traditions gets to be a lot of fun, when it starts getting passed down to generations."

So there's something almost perfect about the scenario the Rangers find themselves in this week -- chasing their first World Series title against the Cardinals, a team that has played in, and won, more World Series games than any team in baseball not known as the "Yankees."

"The Cardinals are a classic example," Young said. "Their fans pass it down from generation to generation. And I think we'd like to establish something like that in Texas."

Well, here they are now, just one win away. If, in fact, they win that one game, it may not be the tearful, poignant, existence-affirming experience that winning has been in other towns we know. But if these Rangers find a way to win just one more time, life in Texas may never be the same all-Cowboys-all-the-time universe again.

And in Texas, that's a big, big deal.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com