How the 1996 Rangers won the hearts of fans

They captivated Texas on their way to their first AL West title

May 13th, 2020

ARLINGTON -- During Nolan Ryan’s five years with the Rangers, he pitched two no-hitters, struck out his 5,000th batter and won his 300th game.

Ryan was not alone during a 10-year stretch for the Rangers from 1986-95. During that time, Juan Gonzalez twice led the league in home runs and Julio Franco won an American League batting title and an All-Star Game MVP trophy.

Kenny Rogers pitched a perfect game, Kevin Brown won 20 games in 1992 and Jeff Russell pitched in two All-Star Games. Ruben Sierra, Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez also emerged as All-Stars.

Yet for all those individual accomplishments, the postseason still eluded the Rangers. A 74-70 record in 1995 had left the Rangers in third place in the American League West, 4 1/2 games behind the Mariners.

It was the closest finish in 35 years for a franchise that came into existence in 1961 as the Washington Senators.

That changed in 1996, a season that would go down as one of the most memorable in franchise history. It’s not just that the Rangers won the first division title in club history. It was the way they did it, with a ballclub possessing a special character that still resonates with Rangers fans to this day.

“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. To this day, you can ask guys what was the best team you have ever been on and they’ll say 1996.”

Leading it all was manager Johnny Oates, who had spent 3 1/2 years in charge of the Orioles before being dismissed after the 1994 season. He didn’t have to wait long for a new job. Doug Melvin was hired as the Rangers general manager on Oct. 10 after serving as an assistant in the Orioles front office. He immediately brought Oates with him.

“Johnny did a real good job of understanding the players,” Greer said. “He said in Spring Training, ‘I’m not going to treat you all equally, but I will treat you all fairly.’ He took all the individual stuff and merged it into a team.”

The Rangers had a powerful lineup that year. Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Greer and Dean Palmer had grown up through the system and were ready to win. Veteran second baseman Mark McLemore, center fielder Daryl Hamilton and designated hitter Mickey Tettleton fit in nicely and Kevin Elster shocked everybody with 24 home runs and 99 RBIs from the No. 9 spot.

“It was a great lineup from 1 to 9,” Rodriguez said. “Great names, great numbers. Up and down, everyone could hit, we scored a lot of runs, and it was a great year.”

The guy who brought it all together was first baseman Will Clark, who had signed with the Rangers as a free agent in 1993. He carried a fierce intensity and toughness to the Rangers and helped mold them into a team instead of a collection of splendid individualists.

“I remember one time sitting down next to Will in the clubhouse,” Greer said. “I was hurting, and I said, ‘I don’t think I can go today.’ He said, ‘Look, we need you hitting third. We’re trying to win.’ I said, ‘No problem.’”

Veteran right-handers Ken Hill and Witt were at the front of the rotation while right-hander Roger Pavlik and left-hander Darren Oliver, both products of the farm system, emerged as front-line starters. An August trade that brought right-hander John Burkett from the Marlins fortified the rotation.

The Rangers came out on fire by winning their first seven games. By May 14, they were 26-13 and had a 5 1/2-game lead in the division.

“Every team starts out the year feeling they have a chance and if this goes right, that goes right,” McLemore said. “When we started out playing well, it showed what we could do.”

It wasn’t a smooth ride. On Aug. 8, the Rangers lost a tough one when the Tigers rallied for a 3-2 victory in Detroit. The Rangers had lost six of eight and their lead was down to two games. Oates let loose in the clubhouse, concerned his team was letting it slip away. Tables went flying as the manager vented his anger.

“Johnny knew when to drop the hammer and he did it a couple of times that year,” McLemore said. “That night was one of them.”

The next night in Toronto, veteran backup catcher Dave Valle decided he needed to say something. Valle asked Oates permission to call a team meeting and the manager assented. It was not the classic players only meeting. Valle wanted Oates, the coaches, trainers and everybody else in the clubhouse.

“I didn’t say anything that hadn’t been said before,” Valle said. “I talked about being accountable to each other. 'We have seven weeks left. I want to know from each and every one of you, are you going to do everything in your power to help this club win the World Series? We’re too good to allow this to pull us apart.'”

Valle then went around the room beginning with Oates, looked each man in the eye and asked if he was willing to give everything he had to the end. The unanimous answer was yes.

“That’s all I needed to hear,” Valle said.

“You could tell Dave believed what he was saying, and we all took it to heart,” Greer said. “Of course, you would say yes but at the same time, at that point, I would have run through a brick wall for the Rangers.”

The Rangers won that night to begin a seven-game winning streak. A shutout by Burkett on Sunday in his first game with the Rangers provided another boost. The Rangers were on a roll, and by Sept. 10, they had a nine-game lead with 18 games to go.

Then came the near collapse, when the season almost got away from them. The Rangers lost nine out of 10 including four straight to the second-place Mariners in Seattle. A 6-5 loss in Anaheim on Friday against the Angels cut the Rangers lead to one.

“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.

“Nobody panicked. It was down to one game, but nobody was worried. We kept on doing the same things we had been doing.”

Burkett and Hill brought the slide to a stop. Burkett pitched the Rangers to a 7-1 victory on Saturday, and Hill followed with a complete-game 4-1 win on Sunday.

“You look at that and it was the veteran pitchers that got it done,” McLemore said. “I’m not saying a young pitcher couldn’t have done it, but if you add the experience of a pitcher who has done it before and pitched in big games before, that goes a long way.”

The Rangers went on to face the Yankees in the American League Division Series. The Rangers had home-field advantage, and in 1996, that meant the first two games were in New York and the remainder in Texas.

That seemed to work out for the Rangers when Burkett’s complete game and home runs from Gonzalez and Palmer gave them a 6-2 win. They lost a 12-inning heartbreaker in Game 2 after holding a 5-1 lead but still felt good about going to Texas with a split. The Rangers had won five of six from the Yankees in Arlington that year.

They didn’t get it done. The Rangers led 2-1 going into the ninth in Game 3, but the Yankees rallied for a 3-2 victory. The Rangers also had a 4-0 lead in Game 4 before the Yankees came back for a 6-4 win.

“We should have beaten the Yankees, absolutely,” McLemore said. “We had the team to beat them.”

“I honestly thought we could have easily won the whole thing,” Witt said. “You ask any of those guys, we really believed it.”

The Rangers didn’t win, but there is little doubt that ballclub forever won the hearts and minds of their fans.