Some pains linger for a long, long time.
I began listening to the late legend Mark Holtz and the living legend Eric Nadel call Texas Rangers baseball in 1991. I did not have a driver's license yet but that wouldn’t stop me from commandeering the family car radio every chance I got. It was the year Brian Downing led off at DH and Dickie Thon split time at shortstop with Jeff Huson. It was all about Nolan Ryan that year, to be sure, but it was also about rooting for the team when Scott Chiamparino was on the mound. I was not disappointed by the lack of playoff baseball that first year but as time crept by I started to get envious of other teams that were contending or had produced World Series wins in the past. The most tender part of my sports-lovin’ teenage heart just wanted the rest of the world to love my Rangers for one night as champions a tenth as much as I loved them on a random Wednesday afternoon on the road playing the Minnesota Twins in the Metrodome.
We identify with the overarching story of a franchise and yearn for the heights of the proverbial mountaintop. When our team wins, we get to celebrate both as a fandom and as scattered pockets of friendship bound by a shared journey. If we vicariously reach that apex, the jubilation - if we are being honest with ourselves - comes mixed with something far less boisterous. There’s a quiet relief that comes from - simply - not losing when perched on the threshold of history. This is due to the immutable law of sports that dictates: the closer you are to winning it all and fail to do so - the deeper the psychological wound.
Fans of the Dallas Mavericks who were around for the 2006 NBA Finals know all about this pain. Up two games to none and leading the Miami Heat late in game 3, what proceeded to unfold was the stuff of nightmares. This pain was so acute that the only balm that could salve the wound came five years later in the most healing episode of poetic justice DFW sports fans have ever received.
As much fun as it is to relive those happy memories from the 2011 NBA Finals when I need to manufacture a smile on a lousy day, that year is inexorably linked to a different pain. Just as 2006 remained ever present until 2011 brought cosmic balance to the Mavericks, the 2011 World Series still grips fans of the Texas Rangers who lived through it twelve years later. That is the pain of being One Strike Away - twice.
With the Rangers dismissing the Tampa Bay Rays and dispatching the Baltimore Orioles, they are headed back to the Championship Series to play for a chance to return to the biggest stage in the sport. It is hard not to think about how much better it felt to be a Mavericks fan after 2011 and how much redemption would mean to Rangers fans. Dirk and Jet were still there five years later and that mattered so much - yet it is safe to say that Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, and the Dutch Oven himself would feel some warm fuzzies from afar if the Rangers win it all. Even if it would not change history - it would certainly change the perception of the franchise.
The Mavericks and Rangers have endured something America’s Team never has. No matter how many years of mediocrity and unfulfilled expectations follow the Super Bowl wins of the 90s, the Dallas Cowboys are intoned with reverence by national TV broadcasts. Opinion shows aside - as those are easy to avoid if you abhor them - the national audience routinely gets treated to commentators taking the Cowboys seriously. By contrast, the Mavericks were never taken seriously by the prevailing punditry until game 6 during those waning moments of the fourth quarter when the impending reality was no longer deniable.
Leading up to that game and with only a few outliers, the NBA world believed the Heat would win. It was only after the championship was sealed that Dirk Nowitzki began to get the respect he deserved outside of DFW. 2011 changed everything for the Dallas Mavericks.
Could 2023 do the same for the Texas Rangers? When John Smoltz fawns over the Baltimore Orioles so blatantly - his reaction to the Mitch Garver grand slam in Game 2 began with “Well, unfortunately...” - Ranger fans are reminded of hearing Joe Buck break out the pompoms for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 by intonation and inflection to the point where many of us could never stomach the sound of his voice again. The Rangers will never get respect until they #goandtakeit. They are 8 wins away from doing just that.
If they do, the pain so many of us remember from being so close twelve years ago won’t go away but it will be balanced out like an overdue piece of pickled ginger after a bad sushi roll. Yet I must admit, with every step they take...the prospect of enduring disappointment heightens just as it did during the Mavericks' journey to ultimately defeat the Miami Heat in 2011. But here, the only way out is through. Hold onto your collective britches DFW, we may yet be One Strike Away again and this time find it. But first things first, our Texas Rangers need to take out the trash can brigade.