THE NEWBERG REPORT — AUGUST 13, 2006

I was at Ameriquest Field on Thursday night, with the Rangers back in town after a grueling (at least from a fan’s standpoint) road trip that featured a four-game win streak and a four-game skid but finished with a pasting of Barry Zito. My 2006 hopes for this team, going into that final game in Oakland, were circling the drain, but the Rangers, sitting a season-worst 6.5 games out of first, bounced back against the lefty, who came into the game with a 16-3, 3.44 career mark against them.

My hope was that Wednesday’s 14-0 explosion could serve to jumpstart this team, to inject it with a surge of confidence going into a huge six-game homestand.

It **** sure did that for me.

So I was there Thursday night, frustrated that the bats seemed to have none of the bite that they all had the day before, especially while Adam Eaton was giving us the sort of bounceback effort that he was. And then, in the sixth, Mark Teixeira did what Mark Teixeira does, and in the seventh, Michael Young was Michael Young. More to the point, Michael Young was Michael Young with the bases loaded (thanks to Mike Hargrove). And just like that, 2-0 Seattle was 8-2 Texas, as the left field scoreboard whispered that the Angels were getting pasted by the Indians, while the A’s were off.

C.J. Wilson and Rick Bauer sealed that Thursday win and looked really good doing it.

On Friday I went to the Alumni Legacy Luncheon, honoring the 1996 playoff team, and I wish the room held 50,000 rather than 500. Table number 33 was near the back of the room, but I’m certain we had the best seat in the house, because eight of us had a full hour and half with Dave Valle. I asked him if the story Rusty Greer told on the Ticket a couple weeks ago was true — the story about Valle calling a team meeting on August 9, 1996, telling Johnny Oates that he and his staff were not excused from the meeting, and neither were the trainers or equipment guys or the bullpen catcher.

Coming off two losses in Detroit, which cut the Rangers’ division lead over Seattle to two games, Valle told teammate Dennis Cook on the plane to Toronto that he felt like he needed to say something to the team but wasn’t sure it was his place. “Cookie” told Valle, at the time a 12-year big league veteran with all of 62 at-bats in four months as Pudge’s backup, that he’d earned the right to speak up.

Valle got into the face of every man in that clubhouse, the players and the trainers and the equipment guys and the bullpen catcher — and the manager — and challenged each of them: “Are you willing to do what it takes to win?”

Picture a second lieutenant lining up the troops, side by side, barking the same question, the same command, at each of them. Starting with the Senior General. “Are you willing to do what it takes to win?”

Johnny Oates, who had just granted Dave Valle permission to hold the meeting and asked when the coaches should vacate the room, only to be told by Valle that nobody was excused from the room, told his backup catcher: “Yes, sir.”

The Rangers reeled off seven straight wins. The division lead was extended to seven games, a season high (and without checking, probably a franchise high for the 25-year-old club).

Valle talked about the lead that almost disappeared, a nine-game cushion on September 11 that shrunk to one game on September 20 when Garret Anderson hit that two-run double that I’ll never forget, that shot to left-center that turned a win into a loss in five seconds. Mark McLemore had given Texas a 5-4 lead in the top of the 10th. Mike Stanton got Jim Edmonds and Tim Salmon out to start the bottom of the inning, but then gave up singles to George Arias and Rex Hudler. And then Anderson almost cost me my life.

Valle said he was the most shocked person in the clubhouse when he saw his name in the starting nine the next day. Oates was notorious for his etched-in-granite lineups. Valle, as he put it himself, was like a backup quarterback, “getting to play every third Sunday.” But with eight games to go and the team reeling, seemingly about to squander its chance at a first-ever playoff berth in cataclysmic fashion, Oates sat Pudge and put Valle in the lineup to catch John Burkett.

Valle homered to left off Jim Abbott in the seventh, highlighting a 2 for 4 night and a 7-1 Rangers win. It was the last of Valle’s 77 lifetime home runs. And, in his words, maybe the biggest.

Texas would finish the year with six wins in those final eight games, and an invitation to the American League playoffs. The clincher came on September 27, a surreal 15-inning loss to the Angels that was dissected by a simple flip of the out-of-town scoreboard, late in the game, from “9” to “F,” next to “SEA 1″ that stood above “OAK 8.” The Mariners were done, and the Rangers played on, losing the game that wouldn’t end and then hugging each other on the field as fireworks went off forever and we all heard Holtzie’s voice over the P.A. system, narrating the moment and failing to disguise that he was as overcome as any of us. I was in the stands until 2 a.m. that night.

Dave Valle said the best moment of his baseball career was when his boys were doused in champagne on September 27, 1996 (well, September 28), during a clubhouse celebration that didn’t end until 5 a.m.

Having been at the ballpark Thursday night and the luncheon on Friday afternoon, and watching (from my couch) the Rangers pounce on Seattle for another 14 runs Friday night, I knew where I wanted to be last night. We called some friends and took the kids to the game, getting there early enough to see the 1996 team honored on the field. There were Valle and Rusty and Nuschler and Mickey and Mac and Burkett, Hamilton and Ken Hill and Pavlik and Henneman and Brandy, wearing Ranger blue and hugging each other, and then looking up at the Jumbotron as the ceremony ended, seeing themselves wearing Ranger red and hugging each other, as fireworks exploded and Holtzie narrated the moment, failing to disguise that he was as overcome as any of us.

And then Edinson Volquez got out of trouble early, got stronger as the night wore on, and ended up with the most impressive performance of his eight big league appearances, throwing seven scoreless frames, finishing with a strikeout of Ichiro Suzuki, the ninth-toughest hitter to fan in the league. Gerald Laird and Gary Matthews Jr. elicited “hit-the-firewooks-the-sky!!” shouts from Max. Joaquin Benoit melted down but Bauer and Akinori Otsuka held on, and Texas survived, 5-4, its fourth straight win. Erica, it should come as no surprise, chanted, “Go, Michael, go!” as Otsuka got set to face Richie Sexson in the game’s final confrontation. (She did, however, issue a “Yosshaa!!” as Matthews squeezed the final out.)

It’s been a very cool Rangers weekend. I want to go out there again tonight and Tuesday and Wednesday. The fact that Texas is off tomorrow will undoubtedly be the only disappointment of Max’s second birthday.

Our baseball history isn’t Yankees history or Cardinals history or Cowboys history, but its best moments still mean everything to a lot of us. The Rangers are four games back but a lot can change in a week, as we learned 10 Septembers ago, and they can certainly change over 44 games.

Michael Young was a junior at Cal Santa Barbara that long-ago September. Wouldn’t surprise me if he was jumping off his couch, waving Arias and Hudler home as Anderson hit that 10th-inning double on the 20th. A guy who counts Don Mattingly as his favorite baseball player, Young probably loved it two weeks after that when the Yankees, in their first season in 15 without Donnie Baseball, came back from having lost Game One to the Rangers and falling behind, 4-1, in Game Two, to win the series and move on.

But you didn’t need to see the look on Young’s face Thursday night as he trotted home on the error that turned his three-run double into a four-run play to know that his belief in the Texas Rangers is as strong as anyone’s, and that he believes this team isn’t done.

But if you did see the look on his face, you just might join him, if you had given up on this season before that moment.

You might be back on board after seeing what Volquez, who was 13 years old 10 Septembers ago, did last night.

Maybe you haven’t given up because of Mark Teixeira, who leads the American League in OPS (1.146) since the All-Star Break, is hitting .343/.489/.657 in that span, and has reached base in 36 straight games.

Maybe Carlos Lee (.333/.373/.507 as a Ranger) has you pumped.

Or Mark DeRosa and Matthews rebounding from brief slumps to revive their breakthrough seasons.

Or Eaton or Wes Littleton or Kip Wells, who weren’t around a couple months ago.

Maybe the signing of Eric Young to a minor league deal on Friday afternoon reminded a few of you of the Mavs’ signing of Avery Johnson on September 30, 2004, a month before he retired. And if so, you’re pretty happy about the move, which may not translate into much on the field but could be a very good move off of it. You probably understand why moves like that can matter.

Or maybe the reason you haven’t given up is that baseball fans never have to. Even if the local columnists have.

If you aren’t one to buy into the potential impact of the E.Y. signing (and I’ve had to respond by email to several of you), then you probably don’t believe the 35,000-plus at last night’s game could possibly have factored in. But I think baseball is a game of feel, not as much as it is a game of execution but a lot more than in most sports. I think when Young joins the clubhouse by September 1, it’s going to have an impact. And I think the crowd the first three nights of this homestand was part of the dynamic, and that it has helped.

I don’t know what’s going to happen the next seven weeks, and neither do you and neither does Michael or Mark or Aki, or Buck or JD.

I can see Valle’s finger in my face, asking if I’m willing to do what it takes to win.

I am. See you at the yard.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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