Ruben Sierra was in the Rangers clubhouse after the game, chatting first with Rougned Odor, then with Nomar Mazara, and by the time we left, Carlos Gomez. The mood was still heavy after a 3-1 loss to the Yankees, but not as heavy as one might expect. I didn’t recognize Sierra at first; all my best and most crystal-clear Ruben Sierra memories involve him in the late 1980s Nolan Ryan-era uniforms, and probably 100 pounds slimmer than his current barrel-chested frame. I’ll get to today's game eventually, but we’re going to take the scenic route.
When I was nine, I went to my first ever major league baseball game at the old Arlington Stadium. The Rangers were playing the Twins, and as a kid who was still learning the basic rules of the game, I couldn’t tell you who won, or anything about the game except this: we sat in the $2 right-field bleachers, and my two younger brothers and I spent more than a couple of innings yelling “RUUUUUUUUBEEEEEENNNNNNN” in an attempt to get some acknowledgement from the local hero. There were only a couple dozen people in the seats with us, so no one was too bothered by it, least of all Ruben Sierra, who was in the middle of what I still believe should have been an MVP season.
Sierra was the anointed face of the franchise, a bona fide superstar in Texas, and–when he finally relented and turned to wave at three persistent-but-annoying kids at their first baseball game–he became one of the galvanizing forces in my baseball fandom.
But after that 1989 season, he was never the same. There are stories from some who were around the club back then that Sierra took not winning the MVP hard, and tried to bulk up too much, losing some of the speed and agility that made him such a valuable player. He did have another great season in 1991, finishing eighth in the MVP voting, but by 1992 he was deemed expendable enough that he was traded, along with Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell, to the Oakland Athletics for Jose Canseco.
1986-1991 Ruben Sierra is today’s metaphor for the offseason expectations for the Texas Rangers. They've been great for over a half-decade, and came oh-so-close to more franchise-defining wins than I dare to recount here. 2016 felt like a series of magic tricks, but it was still a surprise when they lost so quickly in the ALDS. This year, with everyone healthy, it seemed like they were poised to challenge for the division, and could be dangerous in the postseason. Instead, by the trade deadline, it began to feel distinctly 1992, especially when a superstar was shipped off to California.
Did you know that Ruben Sierra played until he was 40 years old, retiring after the 2006 season? Perhaps fittingly, his last at-bat came at this very stadium, facing the Rangers as a member of the Minnesota Twins on July 9th, 2006 while some new generation of kids no doubt attended their first baseball game. Sierra got one at-bat, a pinch-hit appearance in the ninth inning against Akinori Otsuka. He struck out swinging at a 3-2 pitch, ending the game, and–though he didn’t know it yet–his career. Between that trade in 1992 and that July 9th strikeout, Sierra played for the A’s, Yankees, Tigers, Reds, Blue Jays, White Sox, back to the Rangers, back to the Yankees, and finally that one last season with the Twins.
Sierra never hit .300 after he left the Rangers the first time, and aside from one 23-home run season with Texas in 2001, he never hit for the kind of power he once had in his early years. In short, the one-time superstar had become ...an underdog.
But his post-1992 career wasn’t a sad and despairing path of misery. Sierra played in 31 postseason games after he left the Rangers (mostly with the Yankees). I always rooted against the Yankees, given their treatment of the late-90s Rangers playoff teams, but even though I was thrilled when Pudge Rodriguez’ Florida Marlins won the 2003 World Series, and again when the Gabe Kapler’s 2004 Red Sox pulled off their miraculous comeback in the ALCS, becoming the first team in baseball history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game series. But on both occasions, there was one twinge of sadness: I wished that it hadn’t come at the expense of Ruben Sierra, the first baseball player we had ever annoyed into acknowledging our existence.
So about today's game.
The Rangers, if we can take a step back and assess honestly, are not a team that should be competing for the AL Wild Card. Adrian Beltre missed the first fifty games, and will probably miss the last thirty. They were sellers at the deadline. Their starting pitcher today, delivering one of the best performances of the year, was neither Yu Darvish nor Cole Hamels, but Andrew Cashner, who gave way to bullpen ace Alex Claudio, and when the game was tied in the ninth inning, Jeff Banister handed the ball to Ricky Rodriguez, who started the season as a Down East Wood Duck. When Rodriguez wasn’t able to stop the bleeding, it was Nick Gardewine’s turn.
Meanwhile, Rougned Odor has mishandled plays in two consecutive games, and while it didn’t stop Texas from winning last night, today’s poor throw on what would have been a double play certainly contributed to the final two runs scoring in the 3-1 loss. They got one hit, and it came from Brett Nicholas, It was a double that scored Will Middlebrooks.
I’m not using any of these names as pejoratives. Luis Severino is arguably one of the five best starting pitchers in the AL this season, and he had a great day. His 97th pitch of the game was a 100mph strike at the knees. Today's Severino would have given any big-league team fits.
And yet, when Andrew Cashner left the game after hitting Brett Gardner with a pitch to lead off the eighth inning, he left with a 1-0 lead. This team of misfits is still in the thick of things.
Every loss is tough in September when you’re in a playoff race. They all sting. Everyone is a little banged up–the Rangers even moreso after today when Carlos Gomez suffered a high ankle sprain exiting the batter’s box in the first inning.
We have long ago put a stake through April’s expectations. It is now September, and Drew Robinson and Will Middlebrooks and Ricky Rodriguez and Alex Claudio and Brett Nicholas and Andrew Cashner and Miguel Gonzalez and a dozen other names that you might not have expected to be the torch-bearers for the 2017 Rangers… these are your underdogs.
The math will tell you that the sun is setting.
On October 9th, 2004, with the Yankees trailing the Twins 5-1 in the eighth inning of Game Four of the ALDS, Bernie Williams singled home Gary Sheffield to pull the Yankees to within three runs at 5-2. Juan Rincon then struck out Jorge Posada and to the plate strode 38-year-old Ruben Sierra, who had hit just .244 for the Yankees that season in 307 plate appearances. With the count full, Sierra kicked his signature leg-kick, swung his signature swing and lofted a ball towards God himself.
It landed at the top of the blue wall over the right-centerfield Metrodome fence, and the game was tied. The Yankees would go on to win in eleven innings, advancing to that fated ALCS against the Red Sox. I had been pulling for the Twins, but if the Yankees had to win, I was happy for Ruuuuubeeeeeeennnnnnnnn.
Perhaps the Rangers are finished in 2017. Lord knows we’ve made that assumption a few times. Perhaps there is another improbable moment waiting for them. And it’s entirely possible that it might be some combination of both. Maybe the improbable magic moment leads them to a heartbreak never before seen in the sport (but somehow familiar to Rangers fans).
We won’t know til it’s over. I won’t try to predict it. I’ll just keep annoying the players and watching the games and hoping against hope that it's not July 9th, 2006 just yet.