Can new Rangers owner fill ballpark?

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In early September, I thought the Texas Rangers could overcome injuries to Michael Young and Josh Hamilton and win the American League wild card.

Nelson Cruz, Marlon Byrd and Scott Feldman were having career years. Exciting young players had arrived. Ian Kinsler was hitting, because Ian Kinsler hits.

So, I drove to Cleveland and watched them play a doubleheader against the Indians. They swept -- by a combined 21-14 count. When you see football scores during baseball season, there's a good chance that the Texas Rangers are involved.

Naturally, I bought the idea that the Rangers could overtake the Red Sox. (Please note: Sportswriters are always swayed by 21-run days.) At that point, the wild-card deficit was down to two games. I remember thinking this could be a huge story: Upstart Rangers, too young to realize magnitude of what they're doing, clip Red Sox at the wire.

With that in mind, I walked up to Kinsler's locker and asked him when he sensed the Texas crowds starting to believe that 2009 was a special season.

"They still haven't," he replied.


He went on to say the team's attendance figures had been "disappointing," given the Rangers' performance. And he was right. Despite the excitement generated by Elvis Andrus and friends, despite the meaningful September games, Texas ranked 18th among the 30 major league teams in attendance.

More people watched the Houston Astros, and the Houston Astros weren't very good.

When I heard recently that Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg had reached a formal agreement to purchase the Rangers from Tom Hicks, I thought back to what Kinsler said.

To me, it's pretty clear: In order to build a perennial contender, Greenberg must preside over a boom in attendance and fan interest.

The good news for Greenberg is that he has a product worth marketing -- a young, increasingly homegrown team that wins and entertains. With a healthy Young and more experienced Andrus, they should be even better in 2010. And don't forget Rich Harden and Vladimir Guerrero play for Texas now, too.

The Rangers are coming off an 87-win season, and their farm system is among the very best in the game. That suggests the people you know (Nolan Ryan, Jon Daniels, Ron Washington) and the people you don't (pro scouts, international scouts, amateur scouts) are doing a good job.

But the franchise is still looking for its first year of 3 million fans and its first postseason series victory. Astute baseball followers will note the link between those important milestones. Even in these revenue-sharing times, baseball's 2009 Final Four included the two biggest draws in each league.

Attracting 3 million fans is the industry gold standard for gate success. Nine teams hit that mark last year. At 2.1 million, the Rangers didn't come close.

The team will need better revenues to become a consistent winner. At the moment, the Angels and Mariners are spending considerably more on their respective rosters. The Rangers' total payroll was about $74 million in 2009 and will probably be a little under $68 million this year.

Yet, Texas fans should be optimistic: Their new owner gets it.

"The sense I have is that there's a tremendous amount of pent-up enthusiasm and desire among the fan base," Greenberg told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in December. "Everybody feels like they really want to invest themselves emotionally. The important thing now is to focus on what we can do to help create the kind of environment that everyone wants to buy into."

Tony LaCava, a Toronto Blue Jays executive and Pittsburgh native, said Greenberg "runs as good of an operation as I've ever seen, minor or major league. Very fan-driven, and his employees really buy in. He treats everyone with respect. He will be a great owner."

Greenberg was chosen as the new owner -- at a purchase price of more than $500 million -- in part because the legendary Ryan will be part of his group. But his experience as the owner of successful, well-marketed minor league franchises could be useful in Arlington.

Greenberg plans to maintain ownership of his teams in State College, Pa., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., which may be a good thing for the Rangers. He will stay in touch with the fun and sometimes-corny world of minor league baseball. That could generate new ways of drawing people to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

"Our goal from Day 1, in all markets, is that we want to entertain people from the moment they pull into the parking lot," said Rick Janac, executive vice president of Greenberg's team in State College. "When they get back into their car, we want them to have been entertained from all angles. We've always tried to be out of the box -- not afraid to do theme nights, not afraid to poke fun at ourselves, not afraid to have some fun."

Can the same approach work in the more traditional major leagues? We might be on the verge of finding out, depending on how many changes Greenberg wants to make.

In any case, it's clear people are drawn to Greenberg's enthusiasm. Former NFL great Jerome Bettis has been a minority investor with Greenberg's minor league teams and told on Friday that he would like to get involved with the Rangers, too.

"I really believe he's going to be first class in how he handles the business," Bettis said. "He really gets it. He understands that fans and sponsors make the team go."

Greenberg will find that life is different in the majors -- and that slow-paced summer days in a college town have more appeal than sweltering August nights in Texas. But if he is as good as his reputation, Greenberg might learn what it's like to watch the October games when the tickets sell themselves.