Beyond the Boxscore
Josh Hamilton goes LeBron James: Rangers morph into Miami Heat of baseball,traveling circus included
If you get to throw out the first pitch one night and they hand out a bobblehead of you the next, it's safe to assume you're the star of the show.
Nolan Ryan knows better.
This may be the Ryan Express' latest public Houston homecoming — his Astros 50th anniversary season homecoming no less — but it's Josh Hamilton's world.
With a healthy helping of Yu Darvish, Ron Washington, Elvis and all the other characters who make up the Texas Rangers' star-studded universe. Forget about just being the best show in baseball. The Rangers are hunting much bigger game than that.
They're a crossover, beyond-sports, story now.
"He's a phenomenal player who is very fun to watch," Nolan Ryan says. "I don't believe there's anybody who's ever played the game who is any more talented."
President Obama infamously (sports infamously) called the MLS champ LA Galaxy of Donovan and Becks, "the Miami Heat of soccer" this week. Right idea. Wrong team. Wrong sport.
The Rangers are the the ones who are the Miami Heat of baseball. This truth is never more apparent than when they roll into the home of their Houston counterparts, their American League forced, would-be future division rivals, and absolutely take over.
Make no mistake, this is what's happening at Minute Maid Park this weekend. It doesn't matter if you're among the many (maybe 60 percent?) of the 34,000-plus (take that Dynamo!) rooting for Rangers or if you're among the valiant throng trying to stick up for H-Town and all that's holy about hating anything Dallas, this series is all about the Rangers.
They're the fascination, the It Boys of summer.
It starts long before the first pitch — or even Ryan's ceremonial pitch — of what turns out to be a rather workmanlike 25th win (4-1, no Hamilton heroics required) for the team from The Metroplex as Ryan more than a little annoyingly puts it. It begins with Hamilton gracing Houston with one of those walk year press conferences LeBron James used to have to hold in every city.
Only Hamilton will not be taking his talents anywhere. God will.
"Where God wants me to be is where I'll end up," Hamilton says, the free-agent-to-be surrounded by cameras and tape recorders in the visitor's dugout at Minute Maid. ". . . It's not about where I want to be, it's about where He wants me to be."
The Merry Band
Hamilton is barely out of the dugout before a reporter from Fort Worth is telling everybody, "He's said that a million times already," fighting a very unsuccessful fight to keep more screaming Josh Hamilton free agency headlines from rocketing around the country and rousing the interest of his own editor.
Sorry, mere men do not dictate the headlines from the Miami Heat of baseball. Now, if only Adrian Beltre or someone would scream at Ron Washington a la Dwyane Wade v. Erik Spoelstra.
The Rangers are the the ones who are the Miami Heat of baseball.
Good luck with that though. The Rangers manager is much too merry. In this Friday night pregame, Washington plays catch on the side and then jogs over to talk with two female Japanese reporters, part of the small horde following Darvish across America. The reporters seem flattered by Washington's interest in their homeland and it's a good 20 minutes before he excuses himself with a "I've got to go work."
Hamilton's hitting group is stepping into the batting cage. The manager tosses BP to Hamilton.
It's the least he can do for the guy who hit eight home runs in a week, the superstar around which all of baseball suddenly orbits. You know, the guy who will overshadow Nolan Freaking Ryan on his own bobblehead night. Oh, they'll line up awfully early at the gates of Minute Maid Saturday afternoon for the Ryan bobbleheads. But they line up awfully early on Friday just to see Hamilton hit BP.
"He's a phenomenal player who is very fun to watch," Ryan says. "I don't believe there's anybody who's ever played the game who is any more talented."
That's crazy praise from a living legend who only threw seven no-hitters himself. Ryan is no dummy as a team owner/CEO. He knows who's pushing the train — and where his loyalties need to dwell. Ryan may be an Alvin boy who's followed the Astros for every one of the franchise's 50 years, even watching the water get pumped out of a giant hole to build the Astrodome, but the Rangers now win any fight of conscience for him.
Houston team officials have an old Astros uniform ready for him for first pitch Friday night, just in case he wants to don it one more time and give the fans a supersized thrill. Ryan declines and goes out there and throws it in his Rangers purple polo.
"My preparing days are over," Ryan laughs when asked if he practiced at all for the ceremonial first pitch. "Whatever it is, is what it is.
"I guarantee I'll keep it in the park."
That, he does. Keeping Hamilton in that once charmless park in Arlington (amazing how winning changes things) for years to come will be a much tougher task. The Rangers seem determined to enjoy the circus for now, no matter how long it lasts or how many times they continue their LeBron-like tradition of losing in the ultimate series as well.
Hamilton still has something of an impish air about him, even as his 31st birthday beckons on Monday, and his daily battle to avoid any type of substance abuse relapse continues. He wears his white sunglasses on the brim of his blue hat as he runs around Minute Maid like a supersized 8-year-old.
Even the supporting players get in on the surreal fun. David Murphy — the Houston native who provides a left-handed bat for the Rangers— finds himself greeted by determined fans in batting practice, shouting from the stands. Including one guy with a very specific story to tell.
"You signed my sleeve last year the day I had surgery on my hand!" one guy calls out, more than once. Or thrice.
"OK," Murphy finally shouts back. "Good to know."
The supporting bat shakes his head, more than a little bemused. It's good to have a place in Josh Hamilton's world.