Juan Gonzalez won the AL Most Valuable Player Award that year, while catcher Ivan Rodriguez and pitcher Roger Pavlik were named to the All-Star team. But that season, the Rangers were defined more by their character and personality than their talent on the field.
"One of the baddest teams ever assembled," pitcher Bobby Witt said. "I mean 'bad' in an awesome way. The team character was beyond phenomenal."
"Overall, the thing I remember about that season and that team was it truly was a team," outfielder Rusty Greer said. "We did everything together. We all got along. We didn't have the most talented team, but we had a tight bond and chemistry. That made up for any lack of talent we might have had. To this day, you can ask guys what was the best team you have ever been on, and they'll say, '1996.'"
With a strong rotation, deep bullpen and a lineup that included Will Clark, Mickey Tettleton, Mark McLemore, Darryl Hamilton, Dean Palmer and Kevin Elster, the 1996 team erased 25 years of baseball frustration in Arlington.
"It was a great lineup from one to nine," Rodriguez said. "Great names, great numbers. Up and down, everyone could hit, we scored a lot of runs, and it was a great year. A lot of good memories. A lot of hard work since Day One, since Spring Training, and just everybody was one. Everybody was playing as a unit."
The Rangers won their first seven games of the season and would remain in first place for almost the rest of the year. There was one ominous slump at the beginning of August when the Rangers appeared to be unraveling, but an intense clubhouse meeting led by catcher Dave Valle helped turn the Rangers around. So did a trade for pitcher John Burkett, who helped steady a rotation that included Witt, Pavlik, Ken Hill and Darren Oliver.
"Every team starts out the year feeling they have a chance, if this goes right, that goes right," McLemore said. "We felt we had a chance and when we started out playing well -- it showed what we could do. As the year went on, our confidence grew, and we expected to play well every day."
The Rangers appeared to have it locked up as the season moved into September and they had a nine-game lead to 18 to play. But then they started to slip and lost four straight to the Mariners in Seattle. When they lost to the Angels the next day in Anaheim, their lead was down to one game.
"We weren't worried about it," McLemore said. "The fans and the media were worried about it because we were trying to do something that had never been done before. They all said we were going to fade. But right from the beginning, we said, 'It doesn't matter what happened before.' We made a conscious effort that nothing like that was going to come into the clubhouse.
"Nobody panicked. It was down to one game, but nobody was worried. We kept on doing the same things we had been doing."
The next two days, Burkett and Hill turned in two of the greatest pitching performances in club history.
Greer and Gonzalez hit back-to-back home runs in the third inning on Saturday night against the Angels, and Burkett went eight innings for a 7-1 victory. On Sunday afternoon, Gonzalez and Palmer hit fourth-inning home runs, and Hill went the distance for a 4-1 win.
Oakland beat Seattle on Sunday afternoon, as well, and the Mariners' comeback lost momentum. The Rangers finally clinched the following Friday night during a 15-inning loss to the Angels. While 46,764 fans at the Ballpark were hoping for a Rangers victory to clinch, the division title was actually decided in the top of the 13th, when the scoreboard announced the A's had beaten the Mariners in Seattle.
The official celebration didn't begin until after 2 a.m. CT, but it was still quite satisfying for a franchise headed to postseason for the first time ever.