In the aftermath of the Texas Rangers ALCS-opening loss to the New York Yankees, the debates were raging over the way the Rangers bullpen imploded in the eighth inning, allowing the Yankees to rally for a victory.
What a relief for the Rangers.
The focus is on the field.
The Rangers won the AL West for the first time in 12 seasons, advanced to the ALCS for the first time in the franchise’s 50-year existence, and won a postseason home game for the first time ever in a 7-2 victory against the Yankees in Game on Saturday, evening the best-of-seven series at one game apiece.
A year of off-field upheaval has been pushed into the background.
Fans are debating pitching changes, fielding blunders, and missed scoring opportunities, not the bankruptcy of previous owner Tom Hicks, the auction to sell the team or manager Ron Washington’s positive test for cocaine slightly more than 15 months ago.
Regardless of what happens the rest of this month, the Rangers are winners thanks to the way this season has redirected the public attention.
"It is important that the focus is now put on the team and its performance, and not all the other things that have gone on,” said Hall of Famer pitcher Nolan Ryan, the team president and a part of the new ownership group. "This is where we obviously want the focus to be, and it is getting there. The other things are in the past.”
"It made for a long year as far as things going on not on the field,” admitted Ryan.
Hicks’ empire went to pieces, leading to him defaulting on $525 million in debt. His most notable creditor was Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who is still owed $24.9 million of deferred payments from the 10-year deal he signed with the Rangers.
Ryan and Chuck Greenberg had an initial agreement to buy the team from Hicks, but the bankruptcy judge ordered the team put up for auction. The Ryan/Greenberg group won the bidding against NBA Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, although the process did raise the price they paid from $525 million to nearly $600 million. The auction, however, wasn’t held until Aug. 4.
As a result, the Rangers operated under the direction of Major League Baseball the bulk of the season, relying on MLB to help pay the bills in light of Hick’s bankruptcy. Every signing and trade the Rangers made required approval from MLB officials.
"It wasn’t like our hands were totally tied,” Ryan said. "They gave us enough freedom to be creative.”
As a result, the Rangers were able to address in-season concerns, and didn’t hesitate making moves, acquiring catcher Bengie Molina on July 1 and left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee the first week of July, instead of waiting until the July 31 trading deadline, the target date most teams use for making deals.
Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels felt that the team was better off moving early, and having an additional four-to-five weeks of service from the additions, rather than getting involved in an extended haggling session.
"We felt it was important to pull the trigger and fill needs,” Ryan said. "We were fortunate we had the talent in our system that people wanted. That made it easier for us to make a deal.”
Washington became an issue for fans to debate during spring training when word of the positive drug test surfaced. Ryan, who was the team president under Hick’s ownership as well, stood behind Washington, and by season’s end Washington not only won over fans, but was a prime candidate for AL Manager of the Year.
"I’ve never seen a manager who cares as much about his players as he does,” Ryan said during the spring in a discussion about Washington’s status, "and the players realize that.”
The Rangers were inconsistent early, which added to speculation about Washington’s job security. The Rangers lost six in a row from April 15-22, and fell into last place in the division. However, they rebounded to win 13 of their next 18 games, and after moving atop the division on May 2, they were atop the AL West for all but four days the remainder of the season, and were never more than a half-game back.
The Rangers moved seven games out front on July 26, and never had a lead of less than seven games the rest of the way.
"We were never truly threatened,” said Ryan.
And now the Rangers have reason to look ahead with a smile.
Not only have they enjoyed the success on the field, but their finances are in order thanks to the sale being finalized, and the future is promising thanks to a 20-year television deal signed with Fox Sports Southwest that is worth close to $3 billion.
That will help in keeping the team together, including signing Lee to a long-term deal instead of allowing him to test the free-agent market this off-season. Speculation is he could command as much as $100 million for five years.
Just as important, said Ryan, is rebuilding the farm system.
"We have had a lot of prospects leave the system in the deals we have made, and it will be a challenge to find ways to fill in needs for the ballclub because we don’t have as big a talent pool as we had,” said Ryan. "But we will still put an emphasis on the draft and player development, and we still have the staff together that developed the talent we were able to deal to fill our needs.
"It’s all part of the challenge of not only building but maintaining a team,” said Ryan.
And it is a challenge that the Rangers welcome a lot more than the off-field challenges they are now a part of their history.