Not long ago, the announcement of the American League All-Star team sounded like a roll call of Boston and New York notables. Fans of the Little 12 had little choice but to be content with their one or two representatives — maybe three in an especially good year.
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Was it fair? Not really. But the Red Sox and Yankees had the fullest ballparks, deepest passions and loudest voices. They stuffed the ballot box because they could. And it was justified, given how the two franchises ruled the baseball landscape.
It’s different now.
The Texas Rangers are the most popular team in the American League — at least among their own fans.
This isn’t about history: The Yankees won 20 world championships before the Rangers played their first season in 1972. The pinstripes have a special place in baseball lore, as does Fenway Park. The Rangers’ back-to-back pennants haven’t changed that. They have, however, jolted misguided notions about the game’s supposed lack of traction away from the coasts.
Monday, Major League Baseball released its most recent update in the AL fan balloting for the All-Star Game (7:30 p.m. ET, July 10 on FOX). Rangers led the vote at five positions: Ian Kinsler (second base), Adrian Beltre (third base), Mike Napoli (catcher), Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz (outfield).
To put it another way: Less than three weeks before the formal announcement, baseball’s body politic wants the Texas Rangers to account for more than half of the AL starting lineup. That’s astounding. It was only five years ago that the Rangers sent one representative (Michael Young) to the Midsummer Classic. And he didn’t play.
As for the Yankees and Red Sox, they have only three leaders between them: Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson for New York, David Ortiz for Boston.
Detroit’s Prince Fielder is the only non-Ranger, non-Yankee, non-Red Sox in position to start. He leads Paul Konerko in a close competition at first base — which not long ago looked like the domain of the Yankees and Red Sox. But New York’s Mark Teixeira is running third, and Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez isn’t among the top five.
Even if we acknowledge that fan opinion spins like a windsock, the Red Sox should be concerned with this turn of events. Ortiz is the only Boston player in first or second place for any starting job. (The injured Jacoby Ellsbury is the top vote-getter among Red Sox outfielders; he ranks 14th.) Ortiz joined the Red Sox nearly 10 years ago and is eligible for free agency after this season. So, where is the next wave of talent? Does Red Sox Nation want to recall the current roster? It doesn’t help that Boston is languishing in last place.
The Rangers, who have led the AL West every day since April 9, are enjoying the opposite phenomenon. In an area of the country where football reigns, Texans adore the Rangers with passion once reserved for the Cowboys and college teams. The familiar names in the Rangers’ everyday lineup have become their guys, and the All-Star voting reflects that.
Josh Hamilton, with 3.8 million votes, is the overall leader — and it isn’t even close. Matt Kemp, who leads the National League, is more than 1.2 million behind.
Hamilton will be a free agent after this season. The overwhelming support for him could be interpreted as a plea from Rangers fans that he be re-signed. Their fervor could turn to frustration if management declines to grant their wish this winter. For now, though, the enthusiasm for Hamilton — and his born-again story of redemption from drug and alcohol addiction — is a boon for the franchise.
In addition to Hamilton’s nationwide stardom, the Rangers are eminently relatable because of their enthusiastic, carefree style of play under manager Ron Washington — who, by the way, will be this year’s AL skipper. Kinsler and David Murphy have inspired Little Leaguers to wear their socks up to the knee; Beltre and shortstop Elvis Andrus are perpetually smiling on the left side of the infield. Young is admired for his leadership, consistency and commitment.
“We’ve got a talented group, and they’ve also been here together for a period of time,” general manager Jon Daniels said in a Tuesday telephone interview. “We’re fortunate to have a lot of likeable players who play with a ton of energy and really connect with the fans.”
Daniels cited two key reasons for his team’s strong showing in the All-Star vote. One is that the consecutive World Series appearances have raised the organization’s profile, locally and nationally. (“That’s the best infomercial we can get,” Daniels said.) Napoli leads the catcher vote, even though his production isn’t what it was in 2011 — when he was likely one strike from being named World Series MVP. “He’s having a good year, but I think you can tie back his support to those big moments he had in the postseason,” Daniels said. “That’s the way people remember him.”
Attendance is another huge factor. The Rangers, on pace to draw three million fans for the first time, entered Tuesday with the highest average crowd in the American League: 43,452. My-team-only ballots, submitted to an in-stadium box, are a time-honored baseball tradition. And it helps that the Rangers have already had 16 sellouts – six shy of the full-season franchise record.
“I know some of the voting is done online now, but we’re averaging more than 40,000 fans a game,” Daniels said. “They’re coming out en masse. We’ve got a leg up on the competition from that standpoint, because we’ve got more voters going to the polls.”
Daniels, a New York native, recognizes the mystique of the Red Sox and Yankees. He isn’t about to declare that the Rangers have risen to their stature within the game’s history. “We’re a few decades behind them,” he acknowledged. But when Joe Buck announces the American League All-Stars on July 10 at Kauffman Stadium, the Texas Rangers will be second to none.