It was the position of Texas Highway Patrolman G. E. Fort during a lonely early-morning dialogue on a shoulder of the Fort Worth Turnpike last Saturday that the visiting motorist was in clear, perhaps willful, violation of the state laws governing speeding.
The patrolman, a tall, smiling, nearly unctuous public servant, was expostulating on the fuel crisis, highway safety, the mounting traffic toll and related matters when the visitor, the very model of obsequiousness, interjected the plea that he had, only minutes before, departed a 14-inning, four-hour and 18-minute baseball game between the Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox and was, therefore, in uncharacteristic haste to retire for the evening. If he was exceeding the speed limit, he explained respectfully, it was only out of exhaustion, ignorance of the law and—playing the local angle—grief over the Rangers' tragic 8-7 loss.
Patrolman Fort, obviously moved, set aside his note pad, leaned against the rented yellow Maverick and inquired almost plaintively, "Say, just what is wrong with the Rangers lately? Here we were goin' great guns, then all of a sudden...."
The visitor escaped with a written warning, exonerated on grounds of "extenuating circumstances."
The point here is not so much that the law was just and charitable but that citizens of the so-called Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, even those zealously pursuing alleged wrongdoers, seem now to care what happens to the Texas Rangers. The Texas Rangers? Losers of 105 games in 1973? The financially wobbly, publicly ignored and conceivably transient Texas Rangers?
Yes indeed, for the Rangers in their current manifestation bear about as much resemblance to last year's harlequins as their feisty manager, Billy Martin, does to Guru Maharaj Ji. And Metroplexites have responded to the rejuvenated Rangers by attending at a rate of close to 16,000 per game, best in the American League. Through the weekend, attendance was some 100,000 ahead of last year.
Martin, who managed the team for only the last month of the 1973 season after being dismissed by Detroit, is himself a new face. Typically, he has surrounded himself with some old ones—Ferguson Jenkins, Cesar Tovar, Leo Cardenas—that are new to Ranger followers, who had become accustomed to seeing beardless striplings represent them on the ball field. Martin prefers a comfortable mixture of veteran and young players, and Jenkins, particularly, has proved a good mixer. In fact, he is acclaimed by his juniors as the savior of a prodigal pitching staff.
"Before Fergy," says 23-year-old Rightfielder Jeff Burroughs, as if the BF were a BC, "it used to get boring in the field. Our pitchers would walk so many hitters and get behind so many others, you'd lose your concentration. Fergy is always around the plate, so you have to be alert."
"Ferguson Jenkins is the greatest pitcher I've ever played behind," says 25-year-old Shortstop Toby Harrah reverentially.
More important to the long-term stability of the operation is the team's new ownership. Even when the Texas Rangers were the Washington Senators, their purportedly impecunious proprietor, Bob Short, had sought to unload them. When several potential sales were aborted for one reason or another, Short packed up after the 1971 season and, in defiance of those purists who insisted the national pastime must remain in the nation's capital, moved to Texas. By his own estimate, Short is about as popular in Washington today as you know who.
"If he and I were to run for mayor there," Short said the other evening, "I think he would win."
Despite much more favorable circumstances, Short did not prosper in Texas. The Rangers were still dead-enders and the fans regarded them with justifiable disinterest.
Short's first good move was hiring the dynamic Martin. His second was peddling the team for $10 million shortly before this season opened to a group of Metroplex tycoons spearheaded by Brad Corbett, a youngish, portly, plastic piping manufacturer whose frenetic pacing about suggests an advanced case of St. Vitus's dance. However, neither Short nor Corbett will assume full credit for this largely fortuitous transaction.
Buying the Rangers was the farthest thing from Corbett's mind when he sat down with Palm Beach Attorney Francis T. Ryan this spring to discuss a possible merger with another pipe firm. It so happens that Ryan is also Short's personal lawyer and his former partner in the ownership of another team bartered by Short, the Minneapolis Lakers.
"I could see Corbett was a dynamo," says Ryan, understating the man's energy. "I told him he ought to own a baseball team in his own backyard. He seemed interested, so I got Short on the phone and told him I had a fellow who might just be his man."
Short's response was predictable: "Hold onto him, for God's sake."
Corbett, with help from Bill Harvey, a Fort Worth real-estate developer, immediately rounded up a group of heavy investors and consummated the deal, which will be final at the end of this month. Short will retain a 10% interest.
A second happy accident occurred. Although Corbett had played some minor league baseball, he had not the vaguest notion of how to run a major league franchise. Fortunately, he did know somebody who knew something—Dr. Robert W. Brown, a distinguished Fort Worth cardiologist who, as Bobby Brown, played in the New York Yankee infields of the late 1940s and early '50s and had a World Series batting average of .439.
"They [the Corbett group] began to ask me a lot of basic questions," says Dr. Brown, at 49 still lean and athletic looking. "I was just trying to be helpful. It never occurred to me to get back in baseball after 20 years."
To his own surprise he found himself taking a two-month leave of absence from his practice to become "interim president" of the Rangers.
Brown is enjoying the work so much he may agree to take it on full time if it does not take too many hours away from medicine or if, as he unclinically puts it, "I don't fall on my tail doing this."
The good doctor's enthusiasm for his temporary employment may in part be attributed to friendships renewed. Martin and Coach Charlie Silvera were Yankee teammates of Brown's. Coaoh Frank Lucchesi was a high school teammate. "Brownie got straight A's," Lucchesi recalls, "but, man, could he hit."
Although he believes the new management will give the team increased local identification, Dr. Brown observes wryly, "People don't come out to watch the owners."
Until recently, what they had watched had been surprisingly adept play by the high-spirited, positive-thinking Rangers. The team won 15 of its first 24 games and was in first place from April 24 until last Thursday night when the Kansas City Royals unseated them in a game all too reminiscent of 1973, featuring, as it did, colliding outfielders and cinch double plays gone awry. The difference was that a year ago these misadventures would have been accepted as normal; this year, such play is considered anomalous.
"Billy kept telling us all winter we're gonna win," says the burly, freckle-faced Burroughs, who hit 30 home runs last season and leads the team in home runs (six) and runs batted in (29). "A lot of us were skeptical at first. Last year, this was where other teams would go out on the town because no matter how bad they felt the next day, they knew they could beat us. But not any more."
On Friday night, before 28,157, the largest crowd of the season, the Rangers lost the 8-7 game to Chicago, their sixth straight defeat after the promising start. Worse yet, Dave Nelson, the fine second baseman, and Lenny Randle, playing center field, collided while chasing what was once known as a Texas leaguer. Randle suffered a badly bruised left arm, Nelson a broken nose and a neck injury.
Martin, who urged his charges to brush off the previous evening's loss, was inconsolable after this one. "It's up to them whether they want to go back to last year or move ahead," he said, tossing a shoe angrily into his locker.
Once the Rangers' clubhouse in defeat was indistinguishable from the Rangers' clubhouse in victory. This one was like a morgue. Losing, no longer inevitable, had become intolerable.
The next evening the Rangers proved they were ready to move ahead when 19-year-old David Clyde pitched a 3-2 victory over the White Sox before 18,762 happy fans. It was Clyde's second win of the year and the second complete game in his brief career. In a way it seemed a pity that Patrolman Fort could not personally be apprised of this dramatic reversal of form. But then....