The Great Game
I began playing baseball at the age of eight, but was rather indifferent towards the game my first couple of years because the coach usually hit me towards the bottom of the order and played me in right field. At the end of our second consecutive losing season, our coach rewarded the precocious Athletics squad by taking the entire team to a Ranger game, which during this particular time period was not much of a prize. The Rangers had begun to be somewhat interesting with young players such as Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, and Rafael Palmeiro, but were largely off of my radar due to my preference for Cowboys football. After all, the Cowboys were coming off of an 11-5 season and a first round playoff victory. So, while I was excited to be going to a Ranger game in early June, my sports brain was looking more towards autumn.
We would attend the Ranger game at the old dilapidated Arlington Stadium on the night of June 7th, 1992. The Rangers were hosting the defending world champion Minnesota Twins (feels very bizarre to write that), and had just pulled to within one game of first place. My father also attended because spending time with your son at a baseball game is what fathers are required to do. I believe the rule is in some type of handbook.
We sat down in our seats in the left field bleachers minutes before first pitch, and I can remember a distinct smell of the grass, hot dogs, and sweat emanating from individuals due to the high humidity. In a way, the smell was magical. Something about sitting so close to the field and the players made the game feel so much more important than the prior game I attended when we sat in the nosebleed section.
Bobby Witt started for the Rangers and worked a scoreless first couple of innings. In the bottom of the second, 22 year-old Juan Gonzalez stepped to the plate with his gorgeous flowing mullet and ravishing pencil thin mustache. It is hard to believe now, but Gonzalez was starting in center field and hitting sixth in manager Bobby Valentine’s order. While Gonzalez’s physique still resembled a string bean, he had the ability to hit baseballs a long way, and he destroyed a 1-0 Scott Erickson pitch into the bleachers not far from where the young Athletics were sitting to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. We clapped, we cheered, and we might have chest bumped.
Witt worked another pair of scoreless innings after striking out future hall of famer Kirby Puckett and inducing a fly ball from first baseman Kent Hrbek, which stranded Shane Mack at second to end the top of the 4th.
Gonzalez again stepped to the plate with one out in the bottom of the inning and crushed another Erickson pitch far beyond the wall in right center to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. Gonzalez circled the bases and I could not believe I had just witnessed a major leaguer hit two home runs in his first two at bats. I had only dreamed of seeing such rare occurrences.
After the dot race was held, the Rangers would score another run in the following inning when third baseman Dean Palmer hit a sacrifice fly that scored Al Newman, and the Rangers had what seemed like a comfortable 3-0 lead. The young A’s and the crowd in Arlington were experiencing a wave of indescribable exhilaration. The Rangers were about to take a series from the defending World Series champions.
However, in typical Ranger, and now Yu Darvish fashion, Bobby Witt was unable to execute the shut down inning as Chuck Knoblauch hit a sarifice fly to score Greg Gagne. After a single by Puckett, Hrbek destroyed a Witt pitch deep into the right field seats to give the Twins a 4-3 lead, and deflate the A’s, me, and crowd of over 33,000 fans. I heard a fan behind me utter, and I am not kidding, “Typical Rangers. Always blowing leads in the later innings.” I chuckle at the fact 21 years has passed and fans still say the same things about completely different human beings just based on the uniform they wear, but that is an opinion for another day.
Twins manager Tom Kelly brought in reliever Mark Guthrie to work out of a jam in the bottom of the 6th inning, which he was able to do. Guthrie went out for the 7th, and after walking lead off hitter Julio Franco, Guthrie retired the next three Rangers to preserve the one run advantage. I was growing restless and did not want to go home disappointed.
Bobby Witt retired the Twins in order in the top of the 8th to keep the Rangers at a one run disadvantage. Yes, managers at this time would allow their starters to pitch deep into the game despite allowing four runs in one of the middle innings. Difficult to imagine, I know.
Guthrie returned to the mound for the Twins in the bottom of the 8th. This might be hard to fathom considering we are so accustomed to defined bullpen roles, but the relievers were still somehow able to get outs despite not knowing which inning they would be used.
Kevin Reimer singled off of Guthrie to lead off the inning and up to the plate stepped the potent slugger Juan Gonzalez with a chance to be the hero. I can still remember Rangers public address announcer Chuck Morgan saying, “center fielder, Juannnn Gonnn-zalez!” I mentioned to my friend I had hoped for a home run. But, three home runs in a game? No way we would have the privilege of witnessing such a glorious feat.
Guthrie delivered the first pitch to Gonzalez and JuanGo crushed the pitch well past the wall in deep right center field for his third home run of the game to give the Rangers a 5-4 lead. As Gonzalez rounded the bases, the raucous crowd had erupted with joy and I was jumping up and down in the bleachers with my Nolan Ryan Rawlings glove screaming, “I LOVE THIS TEAM!” The state of bliss during that particular moment is something I will never forget, and the moment I became obsessed with the Rangers and the sport of baseball. The fact I was able to experience Gonzalez’s magnificent accomplishment with my friends and father is a moment I will always cherish until my time on earth has ended.
Kenny Rogers was brought in to face Kent Hrbek to begin the 9th, and would induce a ground ball to second to retire the burly Twins first sacker. Valentine then called on Jeff Russell to record the final two outs. Kelly decided to pinch hit Gene Larkin, and the strategy worked as Larkin singled. If you do not remember the name Gene Larkin, he had the series winning hit in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series against Atlanta
Despite not retiring the recent World Series hero, Russell would work his way out of the small jam by recording the next two outs to ensure the 5-4 victory over the defending champs. I was ecstatic and high fived all of my teammates as the Rangers had moved into a tie for first place in the American League West with, of course, the Oakland A’s.
While I prefer to use statistics and not base my opinions on emotion, I still can speak in a glowing manner about the sport I adore without referring to a player’s OBP, or what his WAR is. Watching an insanely talented baseball player accomplish what Igor did on that night made me appreciate the game in no way Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus ever has. Gonzalez would become my favorite player, and no steroid accusation or tale about how disgruntled he was off the field will ever change the joy he brought me on that June 7th night in 1992.
I was surprised to learn Gonzalez’s win probability of .682 against the Twins that night was tied for only the 55th highest single game total in team history. Sorry, I tried to write an entire article without mentioning an advanced statistic. Anyways, I look forward to talking about the Rangers and baseball with all of you passionate fans in the future, but prepare yourself for a lot of statistics.