Oh, So Close

 

August Speaking of Sports
Juan Gonzalez did his best to lead the Rangers in the ‘96 playoffs. (Photo: articles.philly.com)

In March of 1996,

this reporter found himself in deep. Way past knee deep. I was hip deep with two Rangers pitchers, Kevin Gross and Dennis Cook. Hip deep in salt water, that is. (Even 20 years younger, I tried to steer my way clear of deep do-do.) The salt water was in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Rangers pitchers were in deeper water than I was. They were fishing, I was “reporting on them fishing,” my cameraman Kerry Smith was … drowning. Not literally, but it is tough to operate a 45 pound camera when you are hip deep in water.

Still, this was an opportunity we could not pass up. On an off day during spring training the guys went fishing and invited us to come along. As I watched them cast and reel, cast and reel, I knew that this was going to be a fun Rangers team to cover.

As we left Port Charlotte in late March,

Manager Johnny Oates was saying that if he could get 15 wins out of each of his starters then the Rangers could make the playoffs.

Well, yeah! To this day, if a team can get 15 wins each from five different starters, the post-season is a good bet. But betting on that quintet may have included long odds. As it turns out, Ken Hill won 16; so did Bobby Witt. Roger Pavlik won 15, Darren Oliver was a starter back then and won 14, and Gross got to 11 wins. Of course, the Rangers acquired John Burkett after mid season, and he added five victories of his own. Johnny was hoping for 75 wins from his starters – he got 77.

One of the best stories

of the entire season was shortstop Kevin Elster. A second round pick of the Mets in 1984, Elster had a few good years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But from ‘92-95, he bounced around to four different teams. A shoulder injury allowed him to play in only 49 big league games over the course of four seasons.

Then came 1996. Elster played in 157 games for the Rangers, and he hit 24 home runs after hitting only 36 in the previous nine years. Elster drove in 99 runs that year and finished the season with a career best .252 batting average. He might not have even been invited to spring training, if not for his agent/brother Pat. “His brother was persistent, “ said then-Rangers GM Doug Melvin. “I said if he wants to come in a compete for a job, that shows me something.”

Elster came to Port Charlotte to show Doug something. But he knew he was competing for a job as a back up to young phenom Benji Gil. As it turns out, Benji sat and Kevin played 157 games. Kevin Elster won the American League comeback player of the year award in 1996. Actually, there was so much to love about that season – Juan Gonzalez was the AL MVP, Johnny Oates was co-Manager of the Year, an honor he shared with Joe Torre of the Yankees, and, of course, the team made it to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Still if you mention that season

to the players today, you might notice them shaking their head with a resigned sigh. Oh, they loved that team; it’s just that they hate the way that season ended.

The first playoff game in Rangers history was a win over the legendary Yankees in the Bronx. Behind Burkett the Rangers beat David Cone and the favored Yankees. The heartbreaker was game two. Gonzalez told his teammates to get on his back; he would carry them to another victory. After Juan hit his second and third home runs of the series, the Rangers had a 4-2 lead in the seventh inning. The Yankees scored single runs in the seventh and eighth to tie it and won Game Two with a run in the 12th.

Game three was the first-ever playoff game in Arlington, and the Rangers took a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning. But the Bronx Bombers did it again. They scored two in the ninth and gave the ball to their closer, John Wetteland, who closed the door on a 3-2 Yankees win. Wetteland saved game four, too, a 6-4 Yankees win, and the Rangers started shaking their heads. As they left the ballpark that rainy October night they felt like they were the better team. Many of them still feel that way. For their part, the Yankees went on to win the World Series that year.

That ‘96 team was honored

earlier this season. When they gathered in the Rangers interview room, they laughed and cried and hugged and remembered. They remembered everything from pre-season fishing expeditions to post-season disappointment. Like any fish story, this one gets a little bigger and better as the years go by, but the facts remain: The Rangers were this close to sweeping the Yankees.

Oh what might have been!