So this is what it feels like. This is what it feels like to watch the baseball team you have been following for 38 years reach its first World Series, dominating a long-time nemesis to get there. This is what it feels like to watch your alma mater knock off the No. 1 team in the BCS standings, whipping a longtime rival that only three years earlier had spoiled a dream season not once, but twice. And how was your weekend?
I was a naïve 15-year-old living in the Dallas area when the Texas Rangers arrived from Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1972. Save for a respectable season here and there, the baseball was pretty bad. O.K., really bad at times. Over the first couple of decades, the Rangers were mostly an after-thought, a big-league franchise playing in a minor-league stadium.
As luck would have it, Texas started winning about the same time that the Yankees reemerged. When the Bronx Bombers won three championships in four seasons starting in 1996, the Rangers were New York's Division Series victim each time. I liked to point out that my team held a lead in all four games of the '96 series, even if they did drop the last three. Hey, it was something.
Naturally, as this year's playoffs approached, I grew tired of the non-stop reminders that the Rangers were only the franchise in Major League Baseball without a postseason series win. I finally exhaled after Cliff Lee beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the fifth and deciding game of the ALDS, but my excitement was tempered knowing who was waiting for us in the ALCS. Anybody but the Yankees!
This Rangers team, however, was different from the homer-happy outfits of the 1990s. Weren't they? Sure, they could beat you with the long ball, but they could also beat you with pitching and defense and speed and base-running. And for the first seven innings of the first game of the ALCS, they played textbook baseball. Then came a meltdown of epic proportions. It started when usually reliable set-up man Darren Oliver walked a pair of hitters in a four-run game. New York scored five times in the eighth and won 6-5. Same old Rangers.
I was an emotional wreck, so I took a drastic step: I refused to watch Game 2. College football could keep me occupied, and my mood brightened considerably as I watched my undefeated but underdog Missouri Tigers walk into College Station and thump Texas A&M. The rest of the afternoon and early evening was spent flipping from game to game, all the while trying to avoid the ESPN Bottom Line. Texas won 7-2. Maybe these weren't the same old Rangers.
Even though Lee was pitching, I didn't watch Game 3 either. What can I say? I'm superstitious. My 15-year old son, Steven, did tip me off about Josh Hamilton's first-inning home run, and as the night dragged on, I snuck a nervous peek or two at the score on my cell phone. In the eighth inning I took the dog for a walk. Only when the lead swelled to 6-0 did I decide it was safe to tune in.
I flew to Missouri on the day of Game 4, and my change of venue along with knowing the Rangers were guaranteed of bringing the series back to Arlington emboldened me to watch. Texas rallied for a 10-3 victory. Were these really the Yankees? Were these really the Rangers?
I dismissed New York's victory in Game 5, deciding that it was only fair that the Rangers wrap up the series at home. Game 6 would be viewed from the basement of my college friend's house in Columbia. Pat Neylon and his wife, Karen, are Cardinals fans, so they know what it feels like to win a pennant, a World Series. Six others in the room could have cared less who won, and while Steven (diehard Red Sox fan) and my wife, Leigh (baseball is not her thing), were pulling hard for the Rangers, I was the only one who had a vested interest in the outcome. Yet as I counted down the outs, I could sense that everyone else knew how much getting to the World Series meant to me. There were fist bumps and high-fives all around after Neftali Feliz buckled A-Rod's knees for the final out. Neys, no doubt tired of hearing me say at the start of every season since 1976 that this was going to be the Rangers' year, produced a bottle of champagne. "Let's save it for tomorrow night," Steven said. Everybody laughed.
The trip to Columbia had been planned in the summer. We hadn't been back for a game in a couple of years, and the homecoming opponent was ... Oklahoma? Who in their right mind schedules the Sooners for homecoming? If nothing else, it would be a great time to catch up with old friends. I never imagined that the No. 1 and No. 11 teams in the BCS would be playing, in primetime on national TV, that ESPN GameDay would make its first appearance at Mizzou, that for one fall Saturday Columbia would be the center of the college football universe. When I told Leigh on Monday that the atmosphere was going to be something special, she replied, "That's the fourth time you've said that."
Teased if not tortured over the years, Missouri fans are among the most loyal in college football. The Fifth Down game of 1991 and the Flea-Kicker in 1997 only begin to tell the story of a program and a following whose hearts have been broken time and again. Yet the fans keep showing up. Oklahoma had been one of the biggest culprits. Heading into Saturday the Sooners had won seven straight and 18 of 19 in the series. Two of those losses came in 2007. The first cost the Tigers a perfect regular season; the second a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
Nevertheless, from the time I hit town last week I felt a buzz that suggested things would be different this time. On Saturday morning Steven and I were among the estimated 18,000 who descended on Francis Quadrangle for GameDay, shattering the previous record by some 2,200. That night, a packed house of 71,004 erupted when Ghan McGaffie returned the opening kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown. The Sooners went three-and-out on their first possession, but when usually reliable return man Carl Gettis fumbled the ensuing punt near midfield, the air came out of Faurot Field. Oklahoma scored and I knew we were in for a long, tension-filled night. Over the next 3½ hours the teams traded shots. Though Oklahoma never led by more than a point, I couldn't get one thought out of my mind: In what painful fashion would we manage to lose this time? Others around me in section HH were thinking the same thing. I could see it on their faces and in their eyes.
If only we could have looked into the eyes of the Missouri players. This was one opportunity they weren't going to let slip away. Quite simply, the Tigers made more plays than their opponent, dominated on both lines, showed a balance on offense that kept the OU defense on its heels. The Tigers turned the tables on the Sooners, not unlike what the Rangers had done to the Yankees. When Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops inexplicably threw in the towel with 2:30 remaining, opting to punt from deep in his own territory, down by nine with no timeouts left, Faurot exploded one more time. The postgame celebration was unlike any other I have witnessed -- students storming the field from the side of the stadium where Leigh, Steven and I stood in disbelief, another sea of gold on the opposite side of the field, nobody wanting to leave.
The Rangers' dream season may end against the Giants in the World Series, and for the third consecutive week the Tigers are underdogs, against Nebraska on Saturday in Lincoln. Whatever happens, I know this much: I'll be watching. On Sunday night, I chuckled as critics questioned how good the Tigers really are. Suddenly the teams Mizzou is beating up on aren't as good as they were before Mizzou beat them. But nothing can diminish what I experienced last weekend. The Rangers are going to the World Series. Mizzou is 7-0 for the first time since 1960. Every long-suffering fan deserves a moment (or two!) like I had.
As we waited for the rental car shuttle bus in St. Louis on Sunday morning, a middle-aged couple asked if we had attended the game. (In his gold Mizzou hoodie, Steven was a dead giveaway.) "I've been waiting to experience something like that for 35 years," I said with what little voice I had left. The woman mentioned that as Oregon fans, she and her traveling companion couldn't have been happier with the result. The Ducks have a fine team and are sitting second in the BCS standings, four spots ahead of the Tigers. As we got off the bus and said our farewells, I told the couple, "Good luck the rest of the way." I paused, then added, "Maybe we'll see you in Glendale."