The Texas Rangers will return home to a re-energized fan base this week after a highly successful nine-game road trip.
But it’s not certain how much of the homecoming excitement reflects recent on-field success and how much is generated by the return of former fan favorite, former scapegoat and current question mark Josh Hamilton. Thursday night’s game in Arlington against Boston will feature Hamilton’s latest home debut with the Rangers, the team where he became a star.
Chuck Morgan, Rangers executive vice president of ballpark entertainment, said he expects a generous welcome from fans at Globe Life Park in Arlington. The former MVP was booed loudly in his final game in a Rangers uniform, a 2012 loss that capped a late-season fade for both the player and the team.
“Our fans have already been pretty good about players coming back here, especially if they’re coming back here in a Rangers uniform,” Morgan said. “Our fans have always been that way and treated players with respect.”
Still, the booing of Hamilton in that final game — famous locally for Hamilton’s flubbing a fly ball — was a bit of a shock. Morgan said he couldn’t remember fans reacting that way to other struggling Rangers players. Fans here have an overall reputation as friendly and forgiving.
“They expected Josh to be Josh all the time, and for whatever reason, he couldn’t,” Morgan said.
After a $114 million contract and two years of injuries and underperformance, Hamilton returns to the home dugout in Arlington. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim traded the outfielder to the Rangers for virtually nothing and are paying almost all his salary. The final straw for the Angels seemed to be another relapse by the recovering drug and alcohol addict.
Even before Thursday’s game, it’s obvious that fans are eager to see the tarnished, talented and enigmatic outfielder.
For Hamilton’s Monday debut in Cleveland, the Rangers scored their highest local TV ratings in more than 13 months. The average audience of 112,000 homes was 72 percent higher than the season average. The game was also the team’s sixth consecutive victory and brought them within a game of .500.
The cheapest tickets on StubHub for Thursday’s game were selling for slightly more than seats the following night. Under normal circumstances, a Friday game featuring fireworks would be a much hotter ticket.
Krysta Hertzog, sales specialist at Metro Tickets in Dallas, said ticket prices for upcoming Rangers games have increased. She said staff wasn’t sure whether that was a reaction to Hamilton’s debut or response to the team’s better performance. The Rangers won seven of the nine games on their recent road trip.
John Blake, a Rangers spokesman, said sales have been strong for the entire Boston series, especially Saturday. The expectation is for a crowd in the mid-30,000 range Thursday, although weather could have an impact. That estimate is better — but not dramatically better — than earlier games.
Adam J. Morris, a Rangers fan who blogs at Lone Star Ball, also expects a warm welcome for Hamilton but was pessimistic about how long it would last. He said Globe Life Park should have a large number of fans Thursday who are there specifically to see Hamilton’s comeback.
“There’s going to be excitement about his return, but I don’t think he’s going to get a really long leash from the fans,” Morris said. “If he’s struggling and flailing at balls outside the strike zone and not hitting, you’re going to start hearing some boos.”
Hamilton had just one hit in his first three games back with the Rangers. An injury and hostility from the Angels front office put him behind in his preparation for the season.
Morris said fans could react badly when they see he’s no longer “MVP Josh.” Hamilton has been a focal point for the team’s victories and disappointments in past seasons.
“The problem is that he’s a 34-year-old player whose skill set is based around being able to hit anything that’s thrown anywhere near the plate,” Morris said. “When those reflexes start to go a little bit, it’s a lot harder.”
Morris said fans should value Hamilton as a useful complementary player, such as one-time fourth outfielder David Murphy, rather than as a perennial All-Star.
Morgan is confident that Rangers fans are savvy enough to temper their expectations. What they want most is 100 percent effort.
“As long as Josh and the other players do that, I don’t think our fans will have any problems,” Morgan said. “They are aware that Josh is not going to be the MVP-caliber player he was when he was here the first time.”