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Fresh, Eager And Outclassed

They weren't exactly household names, those 13 original Texas Rangers, but one caught my attention immediately as I perused the team's press release prior to Friday's opener against the White Sox.

Jim Panther was a high school teammate of mine. We both made it to The Show - he as a right-handed pitcher (1971-73) and me as a beer vendor (1980-86). This season is the 40th in Texas Ranger history, so Jim and a dozen of his teammates from the 1972 team, which went 54-100, were honored before the sellout crowd of more than 49,000.

"They gave all [of us] a jersey with your name on it, and we threw out the first pitch," Jim said after he returned to his home in Florida. "We threw to people who were '72 season ticket-holders. This was by far the best one [opening day] I've ever seen."

Perhaps the most familiar former Ranger in attendance was Toby Harrah, who played 17 seasons and managed the team the second half of 1992 after Bobby Valentine - yes, that Bobby Valentine - was axed. Harry Caray loved Harrah because every time he came up to bat, Harry would marvel that it didn't matter if you spelled his name forward or backward, it still was Harrah!

Meanwhile, Panther appeared in 58 games - four as a starter - that inaugural season in the Metroplex.

"[This was] before the days of the DH, and we were a last place team," he recalled. "If we were losing the game in the fifth or sixth inning, they'd pinch hit for the pitcher. [The pitcher] comes up to bat again, so you're going to pinch hit for him again. I was getting into a lot of games. I was ready to go all the time. The only thing I did really well is that I was 10th in the league in appearances."

Signaling Panther in from the bullpen was none other than the great Ted Williams, the Rangers' skipper that season.

"Ted was the manager and [Sox great] Nellie Fox was one of the coaches," mused Jim. "I got along real well with [Williams]. Ted could get a little ornery and his language could get a little shaky at times, but I liked Ted."

Seeing as Teddy Ballgame was one of the five greatest hitters ever, I asked if the Splendid Splinter, who was then in his mid-50s, ever took a few swings during batting practice.

"We hadn't seen him hit all year," Panther said. "We go to Boston, and they have that Jimmy Fund there for kids, and they have this big [fundraiser] before the game. They bring in all these old Red Sox like Pesky and a lot of old-timers. They throw batting practice so the place was packed. Ted gets up there, and every ball he hit was line drive after line drive. Guys couldn't believe it."

Panther went on to become an Illinois High School Hall of Fame baseball coach at Libertyville, where he guided the varsity for 20 years before retiring 10 years ago. Hastening his departure from organized baseball was a stabbing pain he felt in his shoulder during a game in 1973 when he was relieving for Atlanta.

"I felt something in my shoulder," said Jim, echoing what no doubt thousands of pitchers have uttered over time. "It was right before the All-Star break, so I had three days off. I kept my mouth shut, but after that I couldn't throw hard. I finished that year, but the next year I couldn't play. I've had two surgeries on that shoulder for labrum tears."

Those days were a bit different than the present era of high salaries and disabled lists seemingly as long as Adam Dunn's blast into the upper deck on Friday.

"I was one of those bottom of the line guys," Panther says. "If you had 10 pitchers, I was eight, nine, or 10. In Oakland they had 10 pitchers, and I was 11. If you got hurt, you kept your mouth shut. At least I did."

Panther and the Ranger alumni watched Friday's opener from box seats along the first base line. He admitted he "never heard of some of those guys" when talking about the Sox, so I enlightened him about the likes of Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza. He did see Chris Sale pitch at Gulf Coast University a few years ago, and "you could see that he was really tough," observed Jim. "He looks like he can get a lot stronger."

Ranger pitching struck out 13 Sox hitters in the opener. "The White Sox left a lot of guys on base the other day," Panther said. "You eliminate the strikeouts and a lot of things can happen. You can't strike out that many times and think you're going to win."

Of course, the Sox still came close in the 3-2 opening day loss before Alex Rios' ninth inning home run turned the tables on Saturday in an exciting 4-3 win. Last night looked painfully familiar as the Sox were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position in their 5-0 defeat.

Sox fans got their first glimpse of manager Robin Ventura's thinking when he had Dunn facing every lefthander Texas threw at our athletes. And the big guy, in addition to the 440-foot homer on Friday, struck out only three times in 12 plate appearances for the weekend. That's a good thing.

The first inning on Friday also found second-place hitter Brent Morel swinging away after De Aza opened the game with a base hit. After Morel struck out - he fanned four times on Friday - De Aza was nailed trying to steal second.

In the bottom of the inning, Ian Kinsler led off with a double and was sacrificed to third by No. 2 hitter Elvis Andrus - who's a much better hitter than Morel - from where Kinsler scored on Josh Hamilton's sacrifice fly. So in the season's very first inning, we had two somewhat analogous situations handled differently by each manager. At least the Sox new boss tried something to get De Aza into scoring position, even though it was unsuccessful.

After switching off the TV last night, my thoughts ran something like this: 1) the Sox look fresh, eager, and more interesting than the past couple of seasons; 2) Texas is a truly fine team - the Sox aren't in their in their class so winning on Saturday was just dandy, and; 3) aside from two or three guys, who in the White Sox lineup is capable of instilling fear - I'd settle for even a bit of tension - into the league's pitchers? If you find them, let me know.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.

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1. From Patrick Cassidy:

Thank you for the Ted Williams story.

I can now say I am only three degrees of separation away from Ted Williams (you-Panther-Williams) (and in a chain of actual meaningful acquaintances, not just introductions), which also puts me within four of the Babe.

I am not sure I believe he is one of the five greatest hitters.

I have him no worse than third, maybe first. I go back and forth about whether he or Ruth was the best. I think Hornsby is in there somewhere, but did not walk as much as either Ruth or Williams. Cobb, I don't know about his actual power. I don't see him as a consistent 30-homer-a-year guy, even if you could offset his career to the '20s and '30s.

Where I usually come down: Ruth was the best player (very good-to-excellent pitcher, good defensive player, good baserunner at peak), but Ted was the best pure hitter.

I don't think Williams would have passed Ruth in homers if he had not served in the wars, but I do think he would have been around 650 (I figure somewhere around 30 per season times five seasons missed plus his booked 521).

But if he had played in Yankee stadium 70-75 times a year as Ruth did, who knows.

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Comments welcome.

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