Just as I was taking the Ballpark Way exit yesterday, Boston's "More Than a Feeling" started up on the radio.
I'm not a fan of Boston and never was, but "More Than a Feeling" always throws me back to my senior year in high school, because (even though the song was more than 10 years old then) it seemed like Coach Schrantz played it on the way to every Hillcrest Panthers game. The song is still classic rock caricature to me, but it never fails to generate that hard-to-replicate mix of adrenaline and jitters that I felt when it was my day to pitch, and for that reason I typically leave the dial right where it is, against my better judgment.
Yesterday, the adrenaline-jitters mix worked for me even more. I usually try to get to the final regular season home game in Arlington every year, and this year things were different. There was a strange feeling, knowing that this would probably be the final time I'd be at a Rangers game in 2009 - but maybe not.
I half-smiled and turned "More Than a Feeling" up a bit, noticing as I circled the exit ramp that the cars on the Six Flags roller coaster that fringes Ballpark Way were moving up, and appreciating the simplicity of the whole arrangement like the melody in Green Day's "21 Guns," or Michael Young's throwing mechanics, or Saturday night's moment when Max, as always, held his hand over his heart during "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
I walked up to the Ballpark in perfect Sunday afternoon weather, already sad that it was home game number 81. Historically for this franchise, Fan Appreciation Day is, in part, a mourning, but this year, given what the team has accomplished and the fact that the schedule ended the home 81 with another seven games still on tap, there was the chance - especially with a win and an Angels loss - that the sendoff might have been along the lines of "looking forward to seeing you in six months . . . unless we see you in a week and a half."
When you think about it, the phrase "Fan Appreciation Day" can be taken two ways. The idea is generally the organization showing its appreciation for us, the fans, an effort this year that began as the gates opened at 12:30 with most of the Rangers players standing inside the ticket gates, greeting Sunday's crowd.
But yesterday, there was a vibe in the building that the "Fan Appreciation" was just as much appreciation by the fans as it was appreciation for the fans. The 2009 Rangers have given us a ton.
You don't need me to write about the game itself. You probably saw it, you've probably read plenty about it, and don't want to read more. Brandon McCarthy answered the bell, Elvis Andrus and Marlon Byrd and Nelson Cruz came up big, and the trio of Darren O'Day, C.J. Wilson, and Frankie Francisco - who have collectively retired 75 percent of the hitters they've faced this season - were asked to protect a 5-0 lead, and recorded two outs in the span of 11 Rays. Those three came into the game with a combined ERA of 2.67, and allowed five runs in two-thirds of an inning (67.51). McCarthy needed 97 pitches to get through 7.2 innings. The bullpen threw 57 pitches in an inning and a third.
A friend of mine and I were talking from our seats about the game on September 30, 2004, when the team emerged from the dugout seconds after a home win over the Angels to close out the home schedule, and circled the entire warning track, shaking the hands of the fans who had been behind them for that surprising season that ended with 89 wins. We agreed that the team wouldn't do the same on Sunday, not when there was still a chance to extend the season past 162.
And we had that conversation before what seemed to be a safe lead disappeared. Celebrating 2009, understandably, wasn't going to happen right after such a gut-wrenching loss.
It was one loss, just one, but a big one. Texas is in Anaheim for four, and any Rangers loss eliminates them from playoff contention, forcing the players to sit in the road dugout and watch Los Angeles celebrate on the field. There will be something to be gained from that experience, not that that's any carpe diem consolation.
Despite all that this team has been through in 2009 - several massively significant injuries, problems at the top of the rotation, reliance on an extraordinary number of rookie players - if the Rangers win five of these last seven, they'll get to 90 wins for just the fourth time in the franchise's 38-year history. Someone pointed out to me on Sunday that Nolan Ryan was only fortunate enough to play for three 90-win teams in his 27-year career, Jim Sundberg only two in his 16 big league seasons. Seasons like this don't come along as often as we'd like.
As I made the annual regular season finale walk out of the ballpark, always a strange walk, lonely in a way, I had to remind myself how many times this team's resilience has surfaced this season like smelling salts.
I drove away from 1000 Ballpark Way yesterday afternoon looking forward not quite yet to 2010, but instead to the Angels series that starts tonight, and I saw the cars on that same roller coaster diving down. But at least the roller coaster wasn't empty.
It's been a helluva ride. One that's not quite over, though the end is now very much in sight.
One helluva ride.
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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