Commentary

Don't mess with Texas

With Nolan Ryan in charge, the Rangers' arms are powering them into October

Updated: August 26, 2009, 8:14 AM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the September 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine. The video diary above was filmed for ESPN Insider by Rangers' pitcher C.J. Wilson and will be a recurring series on Insider.

C.J. Wilson sits in front of his locker, a sock halfway up his right foot, and wrestles with a dilemma: How would he summarize, concisely if possible, the difference between the Texas Rangers pitching staff this year and those of previous seasons? Wilson is quirky in a New Age kind of way. He fought, and won, a battle to bring organic food into the clubhouse. A generation ago, his articulate, slightly off-center demeanor (think straight edge, thrash-metal Barry Zito) would have earned him the label of flaky lefty. He ponders his assignment for a moment before launching into a hypothetical story about a group of hikers who come across a bear in a forest.

"There's a question each of the hikers has to ask himself," Wilson says. "How fast do I have to be to survive?" The answer, of course, is simple: Each needs only to be faster than the slowest member of the group. And that adage, according to Wilson, summarizes the traditional futility of Rangers pitching. Past staffs operated under the principle that mere survival was good enough. There were built-in excuses: It was too hot over the course of a Texas summer; the team was built for offense; the ballpark was a pitchers' graveyard. Bad pitching had become the lovable quirk of the only major league franchise that has never won a postseason series. Incompetence was almost expected. You just shrugged and stayed a step ahead of the slowest guy.

Cultures develop within institutions, whether the institution is as broad as a society, as specific as a family or as diverse and itinerant as a big league baseball team. The culture of the Rangers included the routine underperformance of the pitching staff. It had become a systemic infection. Even the uneducated could come up with the diagnosis, but treatment remained a mystery.

When Nolan Ryan took over as team president, in February 2008, he promised a new approach. The team couldn't keep doing the same things and expect a different result, so the greatest Texas pitching legend let it be known that mere survival would no longer be good enough. Excuses would be replaced by expectations. It all sounded good, but how would it work?

To read the rest of this Nolan Ryan/Texas Rangers feature -- including some new information on the development of Scott Feldman -- you must be an ESPN Insider. Insider

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com