A meaningless game in August 1986 in Baltimore serves as one of the snapshots of the Texas Rangers franchise. The Rangers took a 6-0 lead that night, fell behind 11-6, then won the game 13-11 despite allowing two grand slams. The fact that they won is not important, but the final score is: For most of their 38-year existence, including this year, the all-or-nothing, always-entertaining Rangers have rarely been out of a game, and rarely comfortably ahead.
The Rangers seemingly always have a good offensive club, and seemingly have never had enough pitching. Their history includes future Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez, two-time American League MVP Juan Gonzalez and the great Nolan Ryan, but more fitting symbols of their franchise are reliever Mitch Williams, who allowed more walks (544) than hits (537) in his career -- think about that for a minute -- and slugging outfielder Pete Incaviglia, who from 1986 to 1988 became the first player in history to strike out at least 150 times three years in a row.
In their first 18 games this season, the Rangers hit 38 home runs and allowed 31 -- the 69 home runs were the most that any team had ever hit and allowed in the first 18 games of any season. The last team to lead the major leagues in home runs hit and home runs allowed in the same season was the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers, but the 2009 Rangers have a shot at that record.
"For a manager's standpoint, that would be a bad thing,'' said Rangers manager Ron Washington.
In this decade, the Rangers have hit the most homers in the major leagues, and allowed the seventh most. Last year, they led the major leagues in runs scored, but finished under .500, becoming the sixth team in history, and only the second American League team (the first since the 1929 Tigers), to score 900 runs and not finish over .500. They had a 5.37 ERA, highest in the major leagues, 1.02 higher than the league average and nearly two runs higher than the ERA of the Toronto Blue Jays. The year before, the Rangers didn't have a complete game or a shutout.
Why? Why are the Rangers always so offensive, and always so short on pitching? Is it the heat? It is the ballpark? Is everything, as the saying goes, bigger in Texas, including scores of games? How can an organization that has included Ivan Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Al Oliver, Buddy Bell, Jeff Burroughs, Alex Rodriguez, Ruben Sierra, Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, Julio Franco, Michael Young and now Josh Hamilton have only three pitchers in its history with 100 career victories as a Ranger, led by knuckleballer Charlie Hough's 138?
"Over the years, I think it has been the philosophy of the club, everything that's been done here has been about hitting and scoring runs,'' Washington said. "But the last couple of years, we're really trying to develop pitching. But with youth, comes growing pains. We tell our guys, 'Keep the ball down, keep the ball down.' But when you don't keep the ball down in the big leagues, bad things will happen.''
In this decade, the Rangers' ERA is 5.15, the highest in the major leagues. The last season they finished with an ERA under 4.00 was 1990. The only time in their history that they've led the league in ERA was 1983, and in August of that season, they traded the league's ERA leader, Rick Honeycutt, to the Dodgers. But that season was played in old Arlington Stadium; the last 16 years they have played at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, which has a reputation for being one of the best hitters' parks in the major leagues. Last year, 204 home runs were hit there -- only U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago (226), Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati (214) and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore (204) had as many or more.
"Our park gets a bad rap,'' said Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler. "The ball jumps in a lot of places, the ball flies to left field in Baltimore. The NL Central has several small ballparks. It bothers me. It's not the park. Our pitchers are just going through a rough stretch.''
Rangers designated hitter Hank Blalock agreed, saying: "There are seven or eight parks I'd rather hit in than ours. The ball travels to right and right center, but otherwise, you really have to hit it. It's 390 [feet] to left center field. Believe me, there has never been a time when someone comes back to the dugout saying, 'I broke my bat and that the ball went out of the park.' That never happens here."
Washington says, "The ballpark has not affected one game in the three years I've been here.''
Ranger pitchers aren't so sure. One pitcher who didn't want to be named said: "Right center isn't fair. The ball just flies.'' Former Rangers pitcher Darren Oliver, now with the Angels, said: "The park is a factor, no doubt. You can be standing on the mound and you can feel the breeze on your face blowing toward right field. The wind gets in the park and swirls.''
Over the years, I think it has been the philosophy of the club, everything that's been done here has been about hitting and scoring runs. But the last couple of years, we're really trying to develop pitching. But with youth comes growing pains.
”-- Rangers manager Ron Washington
The heat doesn't help the Rangers' pitching, either. It is indescribably hot in Arlington for at least three months of the season. It is logical that the ball is going to travel better in hot weather than in cold. It is also logical that a pitcher is going tire quickly throwing in 100-degree heat.
"It does wear a pitcher down,'' Washington said. "A pitcher who is out there for six innings is going to wear down faster than a hitter who's taking four at-bats per game. And when a pitcher tires, what usually happens? He elevates the ball. And when you elevate the ball with all the big boys up here in the major leagues, they're going to crunch you.''
Of the heat, Oliver said, "The grass is so short and so dry, and the field is so hard, when the ball is hit on the ground, the ball just shoots through the infield on the way to the outfield.''
Blalock says he isn't buying the heat or the park. He says the reason the Rangers are such a good offensive team is "because our hitting coach [Rudy Jaramillo] is one of the best in the game. He is constantly challenging us, challenging us to average six runs a game on a road trip, challenging us to score 1,000 runs in a season. He'll tell you to get your head out of your [---] if you're not swinging well, and he'll pat you on the back when you're swinging well. He is really something special. We score a lot of runs mainly because of him.''
The Rangers are trying to change the culture. They're trying to develop pitchers, and they have several top pitching prospects in the minor leagues. But it's hard to get free-agent pitchers to come to Arlington, given the limited history of winning in the organization and that the ballpark is hitter-friendly. The Rangers hired Mike Maddux, one of the best pitching coaches in the game, away from the Brewers after last season.
"He was our biggest acquisition of the offseason,'' Kinsler said of Maddux. Maddux hasn't been with Texas long enough to determine why the Rangers have been pitching poorly for so long, but "the idea is to change the mindset because pitching is a mindset. The mindset that we must have here is to be on the attack.''
That is the same mindset that is being instilled by the club president, Nolan Ryan, who has worked individually with Rangers pitchers in hopes of getting the team ERA under 5.00. But in the end, the kids in the system aren't ready, and those on the big league club don't appear to be ready to make giant strides now. Which means, be prepared for more 13-11 games.
But the Rangers, as always, will be entertaining to watch.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.