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Rangers Are No Strangers to the Fine Art of Losing

September 16, 1998|RANDY HARVEY

You are correct in presuming that the Angels and Texas Rangers have never played more important games against each other than the two-game series starting tonight in Arlington. But they will have to be magnificent games indeed to become more memorable in Texas than a couple of games between the adolescent franchises a quarter of a century ago.

Those in the state who make their living off the land are still talking about the 1973 doubleheader played on "Farm and Ranch Night," not so much because of the baseball but because of the certificate for a free bag of fertilizer each of the first 10,000 customers received.

There was disappointment for the home team between games, when the Angel pitching coach, Tom Morgan, beat Ranger pitcher Jackie Brown in a cow-milking contest.

The Rangers vindicated themselves, however, by winning both games behind the pitching of Jim Bibby, Henry Bibby's brother who, for some forgotten reason, preferred to be called Fontay O'Rooney, and David Clyde, the rookie a few weeks removed from high school who, according to erstwhile sportswriter Mike Shropshire, was the biggest gate attraction in Texas since "Jo-Jo the Lizard Boy at the state fair."

Despite their very occasional successes, the Rangers lost 105 games that season. It would have been 106, but American League President Joe Cronin took pity and didn't require them to forfeit a game after pitcher Jim Merritt confessed he had experimented with a greaseball.

Since expansion gave birth to the Angel and Ranger franchises in 1961, it has become accepted as fact here that the Angels are cursed. The Rangers have no excuse. They have simply been hapless, starting in their first incarnation as the second edition of the Washington Senators. The original Senators inspired the slogan, "Washington--First in War, First in Peace and Last in the American League," and the musical "Damn Yankees," but the tradition was safe with their successors.

In 37 years, the Angels have at least advanced to the playoffs three times and came within one pitch of a World Series berth a mere 12 years ago. The Rangers, who assumed that name when they moved to Texas in 1972, were leading their division when the strike ended the season in 1994 and didn't reach the playoffs until two years later, when they were eliminated in four games by the damn Yankees.

Those, so far, are the franchise's glory years. They, however, were not the subject of Shropshire's book, "Seasons in Hell." He concentrated on the 1973-76 seasons because those are the years he covered the team for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram and also because they were infinitely more amusing.

The result is a book that makes "Ball Four" seem by comparison like "The Diary of Anne Frank," particularly when he describes the literal comedy of errors that turned the '73 team into, to quote third baseman Jim Fregosi, "the worst . . . I've ever been associated with."

That included Angel teams that lost more than 90 games in four of his 11 seasons with them.

Fregosi and Nolan Ryan rank among the more notable players to have labored for both franchises. The most notorious was Alex Johnson, who won the AL batting title for the Angels in 1970, then was fined, benched and suspended the next season for "failure to hustle and improper mental attitude" and, finally, traded to Cleveland.

After Johnson landed in Texas in '73, Ranger manager Whitey Herzog told Shropshire, "A guy like that can poison a ballclub. But how do you poison this club?"

The Angels and Rangers made a deal with each other that season, the Rangers acquiring first baseman Jim Spencer.

"Trade? What trade?" Spencer said in the Angel clubhouse when Shropshire asked him to comment. Nobody from the Angels had the heart to tell Spencer about it.

Besides Johnson, Spencer's new teammates included:

* Charlie Hudson, a left-handed knuckleballer who went on the disabled list after shooting the middle finger of his pitching hand while cleaning his .38 revolver.

* Steve Foucault, the closer who went on the disabled list because of a broken collarbone after colliding with pitching coach Jackie Moore while shagging fly balls in the outfield.

* Pete Broberg, a pitcher from Dartmouth who seemed none too smart on the mound. The Red Sox, however, were impressed with his Ivy League credentials and offered Dwight Evans for him. Proving that no one in baseball could be dumber than he was, Texas owner Bob Short turned them down.

They were with the Rangers through thin and thin, unlike the unsuccessful infield candidate in spring training who was born with two spleens and had appeared as a teenager on "I've Got a Secret."

Herzog finally lost it during his first season as the manager, accusing the Milwaukee mascot, Bernie the Brewer, of stealing signs by clapping his white-gloved hands once for a curve and twice for a fastball.

Soon after, Herzog was fired because of Short's concern for the "artistic state of the Rangers," which was something like a bag of fertilizer. Compared to the Rangers described in Shropshire's book, the Angels have a heritage as rich as the damn Yankees.

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