This isn't a column that breaks down the Texas Rangers with nifty statistical analysis or in-depth scouting reports, so be warned.
Three or four years ago, Rangers fans were guaranteed that this team would be ready to contend in 2011 and likely ready in 2010. We were teased in 2008 and again in 2009, but this past winter fans felt the internal pressure start to really build. If Josh Hamilton could rebound, if Nelson Cruz could continue to be great, if Vladimir Guerrero could be awesome once more and if the starting pitching could realize its potential -- then 2010 could become a very interesting season.
After a shaky start, the Texas Rangers have rocketed to the biggest division lead in all of baseball and head into this weekend's series against the Angels ready to truly start to walk away with the AL West. We've seen this before, in 1996 and 1999 especially, as those Rangers teams ended up with division crowns. Yet those seasons ultimately ended in disappointment; this year the Rangers have the potential for so much more.
At 60-42 the Texas Rangers are on the cusp of putting together the best overall season in franchise history, cashing in on years of careful and strategic building by GM Jon Daniels. Despite some early hiccups, there's no doubting that Daniels has emerged as one of the craftiest general managers in baseball, especially considering what he's been able to do with the financial restraints forced upon him by the team's ownership fiasco. He's built a team around a nucleus of young players that have come up through the system, one that was substantially bolstered by the Mark Texeira trade in 2007. With some key free agent acquisitions and some smart trades, the Rangers have been able to build a winning team without have to go out and "buy" one.
Starting there, it's easy to see what is so great about the 2010 Texas Rangers. Everyone loves a winner and everyone loves to show up and spend money on a team that's winning consistently. Yet after spending the past two weeks in Dallas and being around fellow Rangers fans for an extended amount of time, you get the sense that it's so much more than that. Sure, it's always nice to be cheering for a team that wins but this team gives you so many more reasons why watching baseball heading into August in Dallas this year is just plain fun as hell.
Having a player on the Texas Rangers putting together an MVP-caliber season is nothing new. Yet this season, with Josh Hamilton, it's so much more different. Alex Rodriguez was a hired gun, a jerk of a teammate who put up monster numbers for a horrible Rangers team. Juan Gonzalez won the AL MVP in 1996 and 1998, mainly behind incredible power numbers that were likely fueled by some ... enhancing ... products.
This season, with Hamilton, it's different. He's quiet, he's far from flashy and his past has turned him into one of the more humble players in baseball. Yet he's a triple crown candidate and is leading all of baseball in batting average as he's become perhaps one of the best all-around players in the majors this season. He's not just a power guy any longer, he's a dangerous hitter that is just as content with an opposite-field double as he would be with a home run porch rocket.
Watching this man having such a phenomenal season right before our eyes is reason enough to love this team. That he's accomplishing all this on one of the best teams in baseball makes it even more incredible.
The Claw, The Spotlight and The Antlers
Every year, great teams emerge. Sometimes it's the usual suspects and sometimes it's someone new. Many times, these great teams play with supreme confidence and sincerity, focused on nothing but winning and accepting nothing less than the highest level of success. These teams have immense pressure put upon themselves, as well as by the media and the fans, and it it may lead to winning but it also takes away the actual "fun" of the game. The team and the players are so serious that they forget how much fun baseball is supposed to be.
The Texas Rangers are not one of those teams.
This isn't a team that was built through free agency. This is a nucleus of players that have been with the Rangers over the past few years, growing together as individuals and as a team, until they've become the loose and seemingly stress-free group we now see before us. Being able to be a true "team" is insanely important, especially when you don't have the ability to go out and get top-end talent every offseason. Baseball is a game driven by individual accomplishments, but the Rangers are proving how being a team goes a very long way towards success.
I know that many think the "claw," "antlers" and "spotlight" are dumb, but these hand signals during the game just go to show how much fun these players are having together. They push each and how nothing but support for every single player on the team, and there is nothing more satisfying than seeing Hamilton, Cruz and Ian Kinsler in the dugout, frantically trying to get Mitch Moreland's attention after his first career hit in the majors -- all so they could do the "claw" along with him.
The Texas Rangers of 2010 embody everything that is supposed to be great about team sports, and it's always that much easier to love a team when they are obviously enjoying the games just as much as you the fan are.
Enthusiasm and confidence
The Texas Rangers know they have a great team and they understand they're building towards something special. What's important is that they still understand there's a ton of work to do and they still react to every great play, every big hit and every big win like it was completely unexpected.
They take nothing for granted and relish every moment. This keeps the team hungry and looking forward to their next opportunity for success, something that's immensely important when fighting through adversity -- something the Rangers have certainly had to deal with this summer.
It's this enthusiasm for success and the joy behind every accomplishment that's most enjoyable to watch.
CJ Wilson's intense reaction to Neftali Feliz's successful save after he pitched a gem against Los Angeles at home.
Nelson Cruz not watching the ball, just pointing into the dugout at his teammates after knocking a walk-off home run to the moon and back.
Seeing the joy, surprise and astonishment on every players' faces after Bengie Molina hit a triple.
The neverending cream pies after a big win.
Cruz's and Hamilton's reactions in the dugout after Taylor Teagarden's first home run of the season.
I could go on forever with this team.
The Texas Rangers finally have pitching -- and defense
Even before the trade for Cliff Lee, the Texas Rangers of 2010 were already fighting against history. The Rangers were always the team with the big sticks and no pitching, always relying on the long ball to win high-scoring games.
Not this year -- although the contributions on the mound this season have come from very unexpected sources.
Before the season began, the pitching success of the Rangers seemingly depended on Rich Harden, Scott Feldman and Frank Francisco as the closer. Four months later it's C.J. Wilson, Tommy Hunter and Colby Lewis that's providing the pitching performances of the decade in Arlington.
With Cliff Lee now heading up the rotation, there's no reason why the Rangers can't head into the postseason with perhaps of the best pitching staffs from top to bottom in all of baseball.
Yet these pitchers would be lost without the defense that's behind them. Elvis Andrus has had the biggest impact on the Rangers in the field, yet it's also been the above-average defense of Kinsler, Hamilton and Cruz that's helped to make up for any mistakes the pitchers did make.
While Rangers fans have always been used to seeing the hitters tee off in Arlington, these two new aspects of this team has made watching games even more fun than before. The Rangers have proven that big bats alone don't automatically mean success, and fans are now getting a taste of just how exciting and important pitching and defense can be.
This team is just plain good
Throughout the course of a 162-game season there's going to be some highs and lows and some frustrating moments. Rangers fans are certainly more used to the lows than the highs, and also tend to focus on the negatives at times.
Such as the horrid production the team is getting from first base and catcher.
Yet in truth, from top to bottom, this is one of the most talented teams in baseball; when's the last time the Rangers could boast a statement like that? From the pitching, to the defense, to the bats -- the Rangers are stocked across the board. There's always room for improvement, evidenced by the recent trades for Bengie Molina and Jorge Cantu. Yet when you get to watch a team this good night in and night out, it becomes insanely easier to just sit back and enjoy each and every game.
The enthusiasm at The Ballpark
I could gush on and on about this team, but this is my final point. The team on the field is great and having one hell a of fun time this season, yet it's how that enthusiasm has bled over into the stands that's making this season truly special. Rangers fans turned out in droves for this past homestand, with over 170,000 showing up for the four-game series against the Angels.
What's been incredible is seeing how those fans acted at The Ballpark. For the first time in over a decade, Rangers fans built up what many considered a playoff-atmosphere -- and this happened in July. The fans were loud and they were was supportive as they could possibly be. The "Beat L.A." chants still give me goosebumps as I think about it, as 46,000 fans joined together to raise the noise level in Arlington to brand new heights.
What was even more special was seeing the players' reactions to the fan support. In the bottom of the ninth against Los Angeles, with Feliz on the mound to close out the win, the noise near the field was almost deafening. I watched Kinsler turn to Chris Davis between pitches, and the two shared a wide-eyed look of astonishment at just how loud it had become.
The players understand that this is special for the fans as well, and that's what's making this season pure joy to witness.
This isn't just fans cheering on a team. These players have built an atmosphere about that them that the fans and the team are one, and we all share in the celebration after a big play or an incredible win. We're in this together this season, the Texas Rangers and all the fans, and there's still a very long ways to go.