ARLINGTON (CBSDFW.COM) – 41 Opening Days in Arlington are now in the books, and as the team celebrates their 40th Anniversary between Copeland Road and Randol Mill, fans and former players are all in agreement these aren’t your Grandma’s Rangers.
Opening Day in Arlington started off in 1972 with a presentation of custom boots and cowboy hats in front of 20,000 baseball fans crammed into a semi-expanded Triple A stadium off the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike.
Fast forward 40 years to 2012. Nearly 50,000 Rangers faithful are in a triple-decker legitimate Major League stadium, they form a sea of red and blue as they cheer on their stars. This team is introduced in front of their second consecutive American League trophy.
Former Ranger Rich Hand, a member of the 1972 team, summed up the day in one word. “Electric,” the sandal-clad pitcher beamed after he and former teammates threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Dick Billings was also on the 1972 squad, and remembers the day he heard his Washington Senators, a team he had been with since 1968, were moving to Arlington. “My only knowledge of Texas was what I had seen in movies and TV. I was thinking we were going into the wild west,” he laughed. “Denny McLain and I arrived at Love Field in the fall of 1971 and I saw the city for the first time. I called my wife and told her it was like any other city in America, it had a downtown and everything.”
This was, of course, before DFW Airport was built, just a few months after the Cowboys opened up their new palace with the infamous hole in the roof for God to watch his team, and before Interstate 30 was even a free road. “We had to pay a toll just to get to the stadium,” said Billings. “We were out in a pasture,” recalls Hand. “I stayed in a hotel off Highway 80 and saw the Arlington city limits sign. It said ’80,000′ and I thought I had been sent down to the minors.”
Playing in the recently-upgraded Arlington Stadium didn’t help the players feel like they were in the majors either. “We had come from RFK Stadium in Washington,” said Billings. “The Redskins were also playing there, it was one of the state-of-the-art stadiums, so to come here felt a little like a step backward.”
But that feeling didn’t last long. Despite a smaller stadium and a rough first year, fans took to the team quickly. “I remember our clubhouse was out in Center Field,” Toby Harrah said during the game, “The fans would stand there cheering us as we went in, even if we’d had a bad game.”
The fans grew up around the Rangers just like Arlington did. Now over 365,000 people call the city home. The region has grown into one of the major metropolitan areas in the country. And just like the Rangers, it shows no signs of stopping.
Opening days in Arlington have played host to 3 presidents. Gerald Ford in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1991, and former Rangers owner George W. Bush.
The first day has also seen many a Cowboys star. Tom Landry had the honor in 1989, the ‘Triplets’ all got their turn, and Roger Staubach showed he can still throw in 2010.
Opening Day 1994 was one of the bigger banner days in Rangers history. The opening of the Ballpark in Arlington featured Fort Worth classical music star Van Cliburn on piano with the National Anthem. The new stadium was unlike anything North Texans had seen. The modern facility was such a contrast from Arlington Stadium that it finally gave the Rangers some needed legitimacy, something the franchise has continued to build on.
Many people have Opening Day memories, and the scene of a little boy sitting in his father’s lap was played out in Rangers Ballpark many times over Friday, just as it had 41 times before, and just as it hopefully will be for many years to come.
Play Ball! Here’s to 2012!