It was only this spring that the Rangers seemed on the verge of unraveling. The career of manager Ron Washington was on life support after he publicly admitted in March to cocaine use during the 2009 season. Debt-ridden owner Tom Hicks could find no buyers for a financially mismanaged team that would, in May, become the second major league club in 17 years to file for bankruptcy. Their streak of playoff-less seasons stood at 10. Dethroning the Angels to win the AL West title appeared to be the least of the club's worries.
And yet here is Texas four months later, dominating the division under Washington (a leading Manager of the Year candidate) and, after months of being overseen by MLB, with new ownership in place. In the wee hours of Aug. 5—a few hours after the team rallied from three runs down to beat the Mariners—a group headed by Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and Pittsburgh sports lawyer Chuck Greenberg outbid Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA's Mavericks, in a dramatic and contentious 15-hour bankruptcy auction. It was well past midnight in a Fort Worth federal courthouse when Ryan and Greenberg raised their bid to $593 million. "I looked over at [Cuban], and he nodded and winked at me," says Greenberg, 49, who has owned two minor league teams and partnered last year with Ryan, the Rangers' president since 2008. "I turned to my lawyer and said, 'I think he just conceded.'"
Moments later the crowd in the packed courtroom stood and erupted in cheers for Ryan and Greenberg's group, which also happened to be commissioner Bud Selig's preferred ownership choice. The sale now positions the Rangers, who have long played second fiddle to the Astros in Texas, to emerge as an AL superpower, just as the Red Sox and the Angels did after their ownerships changed hands in the early 2000s. "This franchise is a sleeping giant," says Greenberg, noting that the Dallas market is the largest in the majors with just one team. The only current franchise never to win a postseason series, the Rangers have seen attendance and TV ratings rise as they've extended their division lead to 7½ games through Sunday, the largest margin in the majors.
Even with the club's financial woes over the last year, general manager Jon Daniels has shrewdly built a World Series contender. (He nabbed free-agent slugger Vladimir Guerrero for one year and $6.5 million, a deal that looks like a bargain with Guerrero batting .320 and headed for his first 100-RBI season in four years.) Texas added almost $5 million to its payroll with four July deals, most notably the acquisition of ace Cliff Lee from Seattle. Daniels, who in his five seasons as G.M. has turned the Rangers' minor league system into one of the game's deepest, will soon have money to complement his team-building smarts: The club's current $74 million payroll is expected to increase next season. (The steep price paid by Ryan and Greenberg "will have no impact on the payroll," says Greenberg.)
August 15, 2010
Texas's top priority is now to re-sign Lee, who is headed toward free agency this fall. The Rangers have already put together what the front office calls the Cliff Lee Model—a payroll projection based on what they believe it will take to sign the 2008 Cy Young winner, who last Friday became the first pitcher in 14 years with 10 consecutive outings of at least eight innings after he shut down the A's for a 5--1 win.
"We're going to do everything we can to keep Cliff Lee," says Greenberg. "If the auction proved anything, it's that we're in it to win it."