T.R.'s Memoirs: A ballpark never given a fair chance: Part I

The Ballpark in Arlington was built in 1994 thanks to a new ownership group and the sharp mind of Tom Schieffer.

Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan retired after covering the Rangers for 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com, longer than any other beat writers. He is sharing his memoirs exclusive at this site, and this week: a two-part story on the Ballpark in Arlington.

George W. Bush was standing there watching the Rangers take batting practice in the Astrodome, and I needed a lead note.

Every beat writer for every newspaper covering baseball needs a lead note every day. It’s almost always the first thing a baseball writer thinks upon arriving to work that day.

What is going to be the lead note? What’s going to be the headline on the “notes and quotes” package that’s a required part of any newspaper’s daily baseball coverage.

I needed a headline as the Rangers beat writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and I had a question for the Rangers’ managing partner who was running for governor of Texas. His opponent during that election year of 1994 was Democratic incumbent Ann Richards. The election was still over seven months away, but already the race was starting to turn vicious.

Dan Rather, my all-time journalism idol, said a good reporter always has a question ready. I was ready as Bush stood there chatting with club president Tom Schieffer before a meaningless March 20, 1994, exhibition game against the Astros toward the end of spring training.

“Mr. Bush,” I said. “You are about to open up a new baseball palace that was paid for by the tax payers. Are you going to invite the governor of Texas to Opening Day?”

Bush said that Richards would indeed be invited to Opening Day three weeks hence when the Rangers opened the Ballpark in Arlington.

"She's the governor and she should be invited," Bush said. "I hope she comes.”

What happens if she accepts the invitation?

“If she does, she'll be placed in a position of prominence where the governor of Texas belongs,” Bush said. “She'll be treated with the utmost respect. This is a ballpark that all Texans will want to enjoy. It isn't a political deal."

I had my headline.

Although this wasn’t a lead to the notebook.

The Star-Telegram liked the story so much that it went on the front page with reaction from Richards’ spokesman.

"That would be great if she is able to do it and she would do it," Bill Cryer said. "It was a gracious thing and we appreciate it. There's nothing like a day at the ballpark."

Nothing indeed, but Richards turned down the invitation.

By doing so, she missed experiencing the single most disappointing day in my 32 years of covering the Rangers. Many Rangers fans will say that Game 6 of the 2011 World Series was their most disappointing day ever.

Not me.

Nothing can compare to Opening Day of 1994 when the Rangers opened up the Ballpark in Arlington, an incredibly beautiful, first-class facility and a fitting monument to the national pastime. A baseball team that had long been looked down upon with disdain by fans from near and far had hit an absolute grand slam with their new ballpark.

The Rangers had built a ballpark that should have been the talk and admiration of fans from all across the country.

So why was 1994 so disappointing? Looking back on it 27 years later, the answer is obvious.

The Ballpark in Arlington was jinxed from the beginning. There may be no other way to describe it, although I have my theory. Call it the Curse of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Maybe the Star-Telegram put a curse on the place. Whatever the reason, it is very simple.

The Ballpark in Arlington never had a chance.

The Ballpark was never given a fair chance at achieving the recognition it deserved as one of the greatest ballparks in the history of the game.

That bothers me to this day, and it goes back to Opening Day of 1994.

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Birth of a ballpark

Arlington Stadium was a minor-league stadium. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.

Mayor Tom Vandergriff and the city of Arlington deserve tremendous credit for getting the place ready when the Washington Senators moved to Texas for the 1972 season. There is also no doubt that many longtime Rangers fans have great memories of Arlington Stadium.

Nolan Ryan threw a no-hitter there. Jim Sundberg, Buddy Bell, Al Oliver, Ruben Sierra, Jeff Burroughs, they all played there, although never in postseason. Improvements had been made, including luxury boxes and a video scoreboard.

The Dot Race and nachos made their major-league debuts at Arlington Stadium. There were plenty of reasons to have warm, fuzzy feelings about the place.

But it was still a minor-league stadium. Let’s put it this way, if the Rangers had reached postseason in 1986 – they finished second to the Angels – the plan was to erect giant tents beyond right field to handle the overflow media and other dignitaries.

You know what Arlington Stadium was famous for back then? Strip joints. Topless clubs. Gentleman’s clubs. They were all around the neighborhood. Yankees manager Billy Martin got beat up at Lace one night in one famous incident.

To the Rangers’ chagrin, these joints would fly advertising banners over the stadium during games. One joint went even farther by parading two of their best employees through the main aisle of the stadium in the middle of a game. One was some hulking bouncer-type, holding up an advertising sign. The other was a well-endowed buxom lady wearing a tight blouse and shorts.

It caused quite a commotion for a few weeks before the Rangers stopped it. Zoning laws eventually did away with Lace and the other adult establishments.

On March 17, 1989, the Rangers announced owner Eddie Chiles had sold the team to a group led by Bush and Edward “Rusty” Rose. At the time, Bush was a Dallas businessman and son of the President. Rose was also a Dallas businessman, but far less known.

Bush loved baseball. Rose didn’t share the same sentimental feelings, at least at the beginning. Rose became a prominent part of the ownership group at the behest of Richard Rainwater, a Fort Worth businessman and a major investor in the group. Rainwater wanted a trusted associate watching over his investment.

A few weeks after being approved as owners, Bush and Rose came to Fort Worth to meet face-to-face with Star Telegram bosses, editors and reporters. It was a more of a casual get acquainted meeting and allowed Bush the opportunity to wax nostalgic about Willie Mays and Houston Colt 45s pitcher Turk Farrell.

When Bush stopped to catch his breath, I asked Rose what he thought of Arlington Stadium.

“It needs work,” Rose said. He didn’t smile when he said it.

Bush was more circumspect at the time, but eventually made his feelings known as well.

My “favorite” part of Arlington Stadium was the long narrow tunnel from the first base dugout to the home clubhouse. It might have been a 50-yard walk winding beneath the stands, but it could feel like a mile on a hot day.

The walls were concrete and dripped with dew and humidity. The floor was covered by green artificial turf and was always damp from the moisture. The smell was something else, a combination of tobacco smoke and athletic sweat.

To me, the tunnel always reminded me of the crypt setting from the Edgar Allan Poe short story, The Cask of Amontillado. One day Bush and I were walking together up through the tunnels, and he pointed to the ever-present moisture oozing down the walls.

“T.R.,” Bush said. “You really think we need a new ballpark?”

Bush and Rose, who shared the title of Managing General Partners, then made the biggest decision of their ownership. It may have been the single best decision made by any Rangers owner in the franchise’s 50-year history.

On July 26, 1990, they named Tom Schieffer as Partner in Charge of Ballpark Development. The news was greeted with a relative yawn at the time. The media paid much more attention to Schieffer later in the season when Mike Stone – originally hired by Eddie Chiles – was dismissed by Bush-Rose and replaced by Schieffer.

A club president commands much more attention than Partner in Charge of Ballpark Development. Either way, Schieffer was the right man for the job.

Bush and Rose hardly knew Schieffer when they bought the team in 1989. Schieffer, a Fort Worth lawyer, was added to the ownership group among others when Commissioner Peter Ueberroth told Bush he needed more local investors. Bush and Schieffer hit it off immediately because both had a deep love for the game. Rose and Schieffer would become close friends as well.

Read more of T.R.'s Memoirs

The man who built the Ballpark

Schieffer threw himself into the project. He toured other ballparks, talked to executives, architects and construction people, and studied every possible aspect of the project. No detail missed his attention.

The Rangers also commissioned a marketing survey to decide where would be the best spot to build the ballpark. It was the most eagerly awaited marketing survey in history.

The city of Dallas made it abundantly clear of wanting the ballpark built near the farmer’s market south of downtown. Arlington mayor Richard Greene wasn’t going to let that happen, not on his watch. Under Greene’s relentless leadership, the Rangers and the city reached an agreement to fund the stadium with $135 million to be raised through a sales tax. The deal awaited approval through a city-wide vote.

I remember the day of Oct. 24, 1990, when Schieffer stood up in front of a press conference and announced, “The Rangers and the city of Arlington have reached an agreement that will keep the Rangers in Arlington for the next 30 years.”

I also remember Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News asking the first question.

“What if it doesn’t pass?” Fraley said.

Schieffer hesitated for a few seconds and then said, “Then we’ll have to figure out something else.”

Arlington voters approved it by a 2-1 margin. Construction began in April 1992 in an undeveloped area beyond center field at Arlington Stadium. The stadium was built on time and on budget with the debt eventually paid off ahead of schedule.

Not everybody was happy. That can’t be ignored.

For one, the benefits of using public money to build sports facilities for rich owners will forever be debated among experts in municipal government policy. There will always be people who strongly oppose the perceived idea of public money being used as blackmail payments to owners threatening to move the franchise out of town.

The Rangers made no threats. Absolutely not. They didn’t have to. The city of Dallas were ready and eager to woo the Rangers to the farmer’s market location. Everybody knew that. A Dallas city official laid out the entire plan for me in an interview for a story that ran on the front page of the Star-Telegram.

Greene was more than determined not to let that happen.

There is also little doubt the Rangers benefited from the ever-controversial “eminent domain” clause to get the land needed. Eminent domain is the power of a local government to seize private land for public use. Not every land owner in and around Arlington Stadium was eager to sell, and several eminent domain lawsuits were not completely settled until years later after the Bush-Rose group sold out to Tom Hicks.

A case can be made – actually, it has been argued by a number of people – that building a ballpark with public money allowed Bush to turn a small investment into a huge return once his group sold to Hicks. Simple math would confirm that was the case. Much of that was the result was Bush receiving a bigger share of ownership without putting in additional money.

But the Rangers definitely needed a new ballpark, and the city of Arlington wanted it…and deserved it given all the work done by mayors Vandergriff and Greene.

One other point of contention.

The new ballpark did not have a domed roof with air conditioning.

A word about that, please …

Schieffer and Bush did not want a domed stadium. Two guys who grew up idolizing Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays wanted their baseball played outdoors on green grass. Most baseball fans preferred it that way, including those in Texas.

The idea of a domed stadium was going out of style. The Astrodome was no longer considered the Eighth Wonder of the World. The Kingdome in Seattle and the Metrodome in Minneapolis were hardly facilities worthy of emulation. Seattle especially couldn’t wait to blow up the Kingdome.

The stadium everybody was raving about was Orioles Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore’s new ballpark opened in 1992 and was an architectural marvel that literally changed the game for everybody.

Camden Yards was the first baseball-only “retro” ballpark, recalling the images of old, steel-and-brick stadiums built into city neighborhoods. The signature piece for Camden Yards was the towering B&O warehouse that stretches the length of the ballpark beyond right field, adding an air of old-time authenticity.

Schieffer vowed to match and exceed what the Orioles accomplished with Camden Yards.

That was certainly preferable than trying to match the SkyDome in Toronto. The SkyDome opened in 1989 and was a huge deal at the time. It will go down in history as the first ballpark with a retractable roof and, no question about it, was an engineering marvel.

It was also a huge financial mess for the province of Ontario. The SkyDome cost more than three times the final price tag as the Ballpark in Arlington and also saddled Ontario with serious debt issues that plagued the province for years. Few had any interest in that for Arlington, although the Dallas Morning News would increasingly take issue about the lack of a retractable roof as the years passed.

There were a few other issues that came up during construction. The Morning News wrote a story saying the Rangers did not follow through with their promise to include more local minority-owned businesses in the construction. That caused a minor stir.

Another hot-button issue was the naming of the parking lots. Schieffer and Co. came up with the idea of naming them after heroes of the Texas Revolution. Instead of Lot A, B or C, they would be named after Davy Crockett, James Bowie, William B. Travis, Sam Houston and others.

If I remember correctly, the media got Mirabeau Lamar. Me? I am a huge Travis guy.

The Star-Telegram took issue with the lots being named after men only. No women were included. The Star-Telegram suggested Emily Morgan, known as the original Yellow Rose of Texas and namesake of a beautiful hotel in downtown San Antonio.

I gave my strong opinion on the subject to Schieffer.

“Just build the damn place,” I said.

The Rangers did. They built a palace.

They just made one huge mistake.

They allowed the Dallas Morning News to purchase exclusive sponsorship rights inside the ballpark. The Star Telegram was shut out completely. That did not sit well with the Star Telegram bosses.

After all, the Star-Telegram had been the biggest advocate of the new ballpark from the beginning with countless articles and editorials supporting the project. That included supporting passage of the sales tax needed to pay for the place. The Star-Telegram had every right to be livid.

In the end, the Star -Telegram did get sponsorship rights to the large message board outside the stadium that could be seen as cars passed by on I-30. But once fans entered the ballpark, all they saw was Dallas Morning News, and it was hard to miss.

That’s why the Ballpark in Arlington was inflicted with the Curse of the Star Telegram.

Actually, I just made that up but ….

Coming Wednesday: The Ballpark that was never given a fair chance: Part II.

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