An Ode to the Arlington Oasis
There will be time for remembrances, and for laments of the late, great Ballpark. Remembrances the likes of which we never wrote for that minor league edifice turned Major League pretender, Arlington Stadium (AKA, the Stadium formerly Known as Turnpike).
For anyone born after 1990, it’s almost impossible to understand what the Ballpark in Arlington meant when it was unveiled. And yes, it was, is, and always will be The Ballpark, regardless of the corporate sponsor de jour. When it arrived in 1994 – complete with Van Cliburn’s piano being helicoptered on the field for the Anthem – it was a revelation. Before the stadium club was installed behind home plate, there was a circular jet stream that knocked down the salvo shots to left of the great Juan Gonzalez and expedited his departure to Detroit – yeah, that bandbox – and probably prompted his spiral into the depths of steroid use.
But before we look back with fond memories – we have years yet for that, and more and greater memories yet to be written – let’s look forward (rendering courtesy CBS11):
This is a huge step. Consider the move announced late last year that Arlington made to try and turn the Cowboys-Rangers triangle into a “sportsplex mecca”. That’s right – Texas Live!:
“The new entertainment district will be located just south of the ballpark, and will have an entertainment area, shops, restaurants, a 300-room hotel and 35,000 square feet of meeting and conference space. During the Wednesday morning news conference, Rangers announcer Chuck Morgan called it, “The next step to the Arlington entertainment district.”
The goal is to offer free public events for the community and create an energy in Arlington even when the Rangers are not playing at home.”
I hope this is great. I think it could be.
There’s a major piece missing – mass transit, which Arlington has been loathed to implement under the rather haughty idea that with mass transit comes all manner of riff raff. I can’t speak for either the riff or the raff, but I try to represent myself well on the train from Plano to my offices downtown, and I’ve managed to do so many times without somehow tripping and falling into gang life or drug use. So they might want to reconsider, given the regular traffic crush at Cowboys and Rangers games and the very real threat that parking prices will price some true fans out of the market before they ever see a turnstile. But I digress.
There have been effective implementations of the sports-entertainment marriage elsewhere – those cursed Cardinals to the north have seen success with this model, as have Kansas City and (to a lesser extent) Baltimore. But understand, I’m skeptical. Anyone who has been around since the “overselling of Victory” by the Mavericks and Stars would be. Stadiums do not make an entertainment district, and Victory has taken a rather long run up to relevance – and still not on the scale once imagined – despite the obvious pull of its proximity to Dallas’ urban center, and the millions of Perot and Cuban dollars poured into it.
There is, however, an argument to be made for the central oasis nature of this Rangers-Cowboys hub.
The reason Arlington works so well as a home for the Rangers is, in large part, because it doesn’t belong to either Dallas or Ft. Worth, and thus truly makes the Rangers a Metroplex team. I don’t have any stats on this, but I’d be willing to guess that our neighbors from Ft. Worth and further climes west would be quicker to claim fandom for the Rangers than any team bearing the “Dallas” given name. There’s a pride thing going on there.
And no city takes more pride in the Rangers than their host city. Barely 20 years after opening a ballpark nowhere close to its expiration date, the Rangers and the city leaders of Arlington have enough faith in that pride to ask voters to foot a half-billion dollar price tag. No city in the Metroplex south of Dallas would dare meet that price tag, save Arlington. It, alone, has shown a willingness to bear the civic brunt of sports splendor that’s normally left to affluent suburbs like McKinney, Allen, and Southlake. But Arlington stands alone.
There are a number of reasons, stated and unspoken, for a new stadium. There’s a showpiece counterpart to Jerry World as a draw to “Texas Live!” as a sports and entertainment mecca. There’s the obvious competition with Jerry World, too, to be the premier venue in each of their respective sports. There is the multitude of built-in advances that avail themselves in a stadium 25 years younger than The Ballpark. But above and beyond is what goes above and takes this beyond; it’s all about the roof.
If you think a new stadium would even be a discussion point if Globe Life were roofed, think again. The lack of a roof gave that stadium a short shelf life from its first conceptual drawing. For the first quarter century of the Rangers’ time in Arlington, the heat of the North Texas summer was repellent to both fans and free agents alike. The conversations between players, agents, and GMs – especially in the age before social media – fell somewhere between the CIA and secret societies in terms of the level of secrecy. But the whispers were always there that top-notch free agents – especially pitchers – were loathed to voluntarily weather the Texas heat on their home dates. This was true especially of the late 1970’s Rangers teams when Arlington Stadium was akin to death valley for power hitters. The heat wore on the hitters, too. Before finally overcoming the long road to the playoffs in 1996, it was oft-speculated in clubhouses and newspaper columns, alike, that the Rangers were destined to fade in the searing late summer.
Well, not exactly; the numbers suggest they actually weather the heat quite well – then fade down the September stretch, their energy reserves (and hydration levels) fully spent. When you look at the Rangers overall record in late summer as compared to their season win percentage, July and August stand AHEAD. The disparity is even greater, on average, at home. Among winning Rangers teams, 1972 to 2015, here are their summer (June – August) overall and home records mapped against their season win percentage:
But with a few exceptions – the first inklings of sustained winning in Texas, that being the 1977-1979 squads; the 2011 Broken Hearts Club; and the 2015 Never, Ever Quitters – Rangers teams won better (often considerably so) at home and overall in July and August than in the stretch run of September to early October. Again, my theory here is simple: the team puts everything they have into owning home field in the hottest of times, and takes advantage of other teams failure to acclimatize. But once that stretch is done, they have barely more than .500 ball left in them to close the season. Combine that with the inevitable pulls, sprains, tweaks and strains that come from stifling heat and dehydration, and you have short-handed teams running on empty.
So the argument that the roof will ease the Rangers road down the stretch run into September and October actually DOES hold up, in that it could help them sustain themselves for the final sprint of a marathon season. Just as likely, the road teams suffer far more in the extreme climate of North Texas in July and August than do the Rangers, due to acclimatization.
So there’s one-upmanship, and there’s winning. But why else the roof?
Simply put: because of us. I can remember sitting in the metal bleachers at Arlington Stadium for series with Oakland in 1990 and literally coming home with minor burns to my legs. I’ve had more than my fair share of sunburns sitting in the upper deck behind home plate at The Ballpark. And there’s not enough cold beer in Texas to cool you off during a 1:05 start time in early August in Arlington. And that’s precisely why there are so few of them. The Rangers have quite literally given into the weather when it comes to scheduling. For one, you can count their mid-summer afternoon home games on one hand, no matter how much Sundays and Thursdays beg for them. And, we’ve all stayed out well past our bedtime watching the long line of cardiac closers – from Jeff Russell to the late-but-never-great Shawn Tolleson – try to wrap a game before 11PM on a weekday because game time was pushed back a half hour to try and let things cool to the low 90s before first pitch.
So the roof’s partially for free agents, partially a manhood-measuring contest with Jerry and the football neighbors just to the west, and partially an answer to staying competitive despite the draining effects of Texas summers.
But at its core, this is about a civic love affair – one between the Texas Rangers and the city of Arlington, with each trying to outdo the other on the gift-giving front – which is impressive, given that these two have been married for 40-odd years. If all goes as hoped, they’ll split the cost of this billion-dollar baseball playground right down the middle with a common understanding: first, the Rangers will turn a blind eye to any wooing by either Fort Worth or, especially, Dallas. And secondly, sometime before the lease expires in 2054, the city planners in Arlington will have to find a suitable stretch for a parade route.
If that happens – and I’m predicting it will even before the new digs break ground – It’ll be a celebration worthy of a love affair between a team and the most unlikely of host hubs. By staying somehow apart from both Dallas and Fort Worth, the Rangers have made themselves – even in a football town – an inevitable part of the fabric of every city and suburb from the Red River south to Waco.
Because everything’s bigger in Texas. And come 2021, that’ll be true of the ballpark, too, even if it sits square in the center of a relatively small city whose heart is held together by 108 stitches.