Need a hero? Don't forget Feldman

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The most incongruous thing about Opening Day at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Monday wasn't the fact that a former Army sergeant with no legs parachuted in with the honorary game ball, or that a Pro Football Hall of Famer threw out the ceremonial first pitch, or that outgoing owner Tom Hicks sat elbow-to-chummy-elbow with soon-to-be successor Chuck Greenberg in the owner's box next to the dugout.

Nor was it Nelson Cruz one-arming a rather routine-looking fly ball into the jet stream and, ultimately, the Texas bullpen to tie the score in the seventh, putting an end to what had been, up to that point, an offensive embarrassment for the Rangers.

No, the most amazing thing by far in the Rangers' feel-good, come-from-behind 5-4 Opening Day victory over the Toronto Blue Jays was the guy who tossed the first official pitch of Texas' 2010 season.

Maybe your hero of the day was Cruz, whose four-RBI afternoon was the second-best in Rangers Opening Day history. Or maybe it was Michael Young, whose leadoff double set the tone for the ninth-inning comeback. Or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whose bases-loaded, one-out single plated the winning run.

You pick your heroes, I'll pick mine. Give me Scott Feldman and I'll give you the field.

This time a year ago, Feldman was no one's idea of an ace. You could have flipped a coin between him and Roger Staubach -- Monday's ceremonial first-pitch chunker -- as to which had the better chance of someday starting a Rangers opener. House money would have been on Staubach, believe it or not.

That was back before Feldman produced perhaps the most surprising 17-win season since Steve Comer (remember him?) did it for the Rangers back in 1979.

Until Feldman's remarkable 2009 season, his greatest claim to fame -- or infamy, depending on your perspective -- was in throwing the worst-looking punch in Rangers history. We'll touch a bit more on Feldman's pugilistic misadventures momentarily.

First, though, a not-so-distant history lesson.

There was hot debate among Rangers officials as the team prepared to break camp last spring. Some thought recycled veteran Kris Benson was the best fit as the team's fifth starter. Some fervently believed that Feldman had earned that spot with his team-leading 13 quality starts (in 25 tries) in 2008 and worried how he might react if relegated to the bullpen again.

That internal discussion prompted this quote from a highly placed Rangers official, who shall be nameless to spare him embarrassment.

"If we're worrying about [bleeping] Scott Feldman, we've got more problems than who our fifth starter is," he said.

So Feldman quietly went back to the bullpen … but not for long. Benson lasted all of two starts in the rotation before heading for the disabled list, and eventually his release. Feldman moved back into the rotation April 25 and promptly reeled off five straight wins in his first eight starts. He hasn't looked back since.

Looking back, in fact, just isn't his nature.

"I just try to think about what I'm going to do next," Feldman said after giving the Rangers seven scrappy innings Monday. "I don't dwell much on the past … maybe when I'm older."

Maybe, but don't count on it. That's just who Feldman is. He worries only about things he can control right now.

Maybe that's why manager Ron Washington tabbed him as the Rangers' Opening Day starter. In many ways, Feldman is the essence of what the Rangers are all about. He's a gutty overachiever who doesn't awe opposing teams until they realize he's just beaten them.

"He stayed out there for seven [innings], and you can't ask more than that," Washington said. "They got three runs [off Feldman]. You got to figure with three runs, we are in the ballgame."

That's what Feldman does best. Even on a day when he didn't have his best stuff -- he had no clue on how to get Toronto's Adam Lind or Vernon Wells (a combined 6-for-7 with two home runs and all four RBIs) out -- he found a way to keep his team in the game.

"For the most part, if we have games pitched like that where we give up four runs, we're probably going to come out on top quite a bit," Feldman said. "I just kind of battled. Nothing really came easy for me.

"I wanted to stay out there as long as I could. The deeper you get in the game, the more chance you give your team a chance to win."

His teammates learned about Feldman's character late in the 2006 season, when the Rangers found themselves in a Vicente Padilla-fueled beanball war with the Angels. The Angels had hit the previous Rangers hitter, so when Feldman came in from the bullpen, he promptly plunked Angels second baseman Adam Kennedy.

Kennedy charged the mound with violent intent. Feldman -- who is 6-foot-7 but has the demeanor of Barney the Dinosaur -- stood his ground and threw an awkward half-slap, half-punch at Kennedy before the two grappled and wrestled each other to the ground.

My grandmother, God rest her soul, could throw a better right hand than that. Feldman has taken a lot of ribbing about that punch, but what his teammates remember most about it now is that he did what he had to do and that he never took a step backward.

"That was a bad punch," Feldman agreed with a chuckle. "I'm never going to throw another sidearm haymaker, I'll tell you. That didn't work out too well."

Depends on how you look at it.

On a day when opposing pitcher Shaun Marcum had a no-hitter going for 6 1/3 innings, when things looked bleak and a crowd of 50,299 sat wondering what had happened to the Texas offense, Feldman quietly battled to keep his team in the game.

"I can't say what our record will be," Young said in the festive Rangers clubhouse when it was over. "But I can tell you how we're going to play: We're going to lay it on the line for nine innings every night."

On this day, that attitude all began with the starting pitcher.


Not any more.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.