The player who I've selected as the 50th greatest Ranger of all time is someone who probably isn't a household name to Rangers fans under the age of 30. Hell, he isn't a household name to most baseball fans, period. He's a pitcher who spent three years with the Rangers...one of those years was a major disappointment, and one of those years he was limited to 30 innings due to injuries and the baseball strike.
But in his first year as a Ranger, this pitcher, #50 on the greatest Rangers ever list, had a truly amazing season, one of the greatest seasons by a relief pitcher over the last 30 years. He posted a 1.57 ERA (good for a 264 ERA+) in 143 innings over 71 games, while recording 13 victories and 29 saves. He finished 11th in the 1979 MVP balloting, 4th in the Cy Young balloting, and won the A.L. Rolands Relief Award. He struck out over one batter per inning, allowed just 5.7 hits per 9 innings, and gave up only 5 homers all year.
The combination of his excellent ERA and heavy workload resulted in him posting a WARP3 on the season of 9.4 - a level that bests the highest WARP3 recorded in a season by, among others, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Robb Nen, and Dennis Eckersley.
I'm speaking, of course, of the Great Emu, Jim Kern.
Kern came to Texas in October, 1978, along with Larvell Blanks from the Cleveland Indians, in exchange for Bobby Bonds and an exciting young pitching prospect named Len Barker. The 1978 Rangers had won 87 games and finished tied for second in the A.L. West, just five games back of the division winning Kansas City Royals. The team had a solid lineup and a strong rotation, but its Achilles heel was the bullpen...other than journeyman Reggie Cleveland, the pen was largely barren, and G.M. Eddie Robinson moved to fix the problem by acquiring the 30 year old Kern and Yankee veteran Sparky Lyle in separate deals that offseason.
Kern had pitched fairly well as the Indians' closer the previous three seasons. He was Cleveland's all-star representative in both 1977 and 1978, although given how bad the Indians were then, that was something of a dubious honor...after all, someone had to be named from each team. He was a guy who threw hard, but didn't always know where it was going, with control problems keeping him from dominant, as his ERA consistently sat in the mid-3s during his tenure with Cleveland.
Kern was a big, skinny guy, and I remember as an 8 year old thinking he looked a little crazy on his baseball card. Kern, by all accounts, was just as crazy as he looked, and as he and penmates Lyle and Dave Rajsich (both obtained as part of a ten player trade that offseason with the Yankees, in a deal that cost the Rangers 1977 first round draft choice Dave Righetti) solidified a bullpen that helped propel the Rangers to a 52-39 record at the All-Star break, the media - both local and national - was abuzz about these wacky guys in Texas. Relievers had a reputation for being flakes anyway, and Kern and Lyle were featured all over baseball as the kooks who were leading the Rangers to their first division title.
Unfortunately, of course, it was not meant to be...the Rangers had the opportunity to go into the All-Star Break in 1979 with a tie for first place, with a win against Kansas City and a California Angel loss. But the Rangers lost, the Angels won, and California went into the break with a 2 game lead.
The All-Star Game served as a sort of foreshadowing for the Rangers' second-half...the game was held at the Kingdome, and Kern was brought in in the 7th inning to hold a 6-5 lead. Kern went 2 2/3 innings, giving up 3 walks, 2 hits, and a balk, blowing the save and picking up the loss.
The lead the Angels took into the break just grew as the summer went on, with the Rangers going into a tailspin, getting swept in a 3 game set at home by the ChiSox immediately after the break, losing seven of their first eight and going 10-30 over the 40 games following the All-Star Break, putting an end to the feel-good story of the first three months and prompting one of the first "summer swoon" stories of the Rangers fading in the Texas heat. It took a strong September just to get the Rangers to 83-79 to end the season, in third place in the West, five games back of California.
While Kern was as dominant as a reliever could be in 1979, the heavy workload - he pitched 25 innings and 11 games more than he'd ever pitched in the majors, and was third in the A.L. in appearances - seems to have crippled him for the rest of his career. In 1980, with high expectations for both him and the team, Kern struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness, walking more batters than he struck out and posting a 4.83 ERA (81 ERA+) in just 63 1/3 innings. Without its anchor, the bullpen fell apart, the Rangers couldn't find a reliable 5th starter (Steve Comer saw his ERA balloon from 3.68 to 7.99, and fill-ins like Ed Figueroa and Ken Clay were uniformly awful), and the team finished in 4th place in 1980, at 76-85, costing manager Pat Corrales his job.
Kern bounced back somewhat in the strike-shortened 1981 season, but he continue to have issues with his health, and was dealt after the '81 season to the New York Mets, in exchange for Doug Flynn and Dan Boitano. Before ever pitching for the Mets, he was sent on to the Reds as part of the trade that brought George Foster to New York, and seemed to be back to his old self for much of the season, posting a 2.84 ERA for the Reds. However, after going to the White Sox in a late-season deal meant to bolster the Chicago pen, Kern struggled again. He only pitched in one game for Chicago in 1983, was released after the season, and bounced around with the Phillies, Brewers and Indians, pitching his last major league game in 1986.
I grew up watching the Rangers, and Jim Kern is one of the players who really left an impression on me at an early age. I remember being amazed at how much publicity Kern was getting, both for his heroics and his antics, early in the 1979 season, and thinking that with someone this good, getting this much press, things surely were going to be different in 1979...this had the be the year the Rangers finally won.
And in a lot of ways, Kern sort of symbolizes what the Rangers have been over the years...spurts of brilliance, followed by disappointment, injuries and heartache, and a feeling of untapped potential, of what might have been. And yet, like Kern, the Rangers frequently seem to have wacky things happen to them, or around them, or by them...they are the franchise whose second baseman punched his manager, that had one pitcher throw a chair into the stands and had another pitcher get charged with assaulting a cameraman, that had Billy Martin and Ted Williams and Whitey Herzog all manage the team at different times, that had Eddie Stanky manage for one day and then decide he was done, that had Jose Canseco tear a ligament trying to pitch and allow a homer to bounce off his head, that had an owner nicknamed "Chuckles the Clown" and another owner become President. Like Kern, the Rangers seem more memorable for the ancillary stuff that occurs than for their performance on the field.
Kern himself seems to have seized on that, as well...I've discovered that Kern has a book coming out in March, called Jim Kern's Tales from the Texas Rangers. The publisher's site's description of the book starts out thusly:
It´s the bottom of the ninth inning - the Texas Rangers are ahead by one run and future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins is starting to tire after pitching eight superb innings of one-run baseball. Rangers manager Pat Corrales strolls to the mound to bring in 1979 American League Rolaids Relief Award-winner Jim Kern (AKA "The Amazing Emu") to close it out. As Emu reaches the mound after sprinting from the bullpen, Fergie shakes his head, and says, "Emu, could you at least wipe the nacho cheddar cheese out of the corner of your mouth before coming into this do-or-die situation?!"
Yep, those are the Rangers I've known and loved for over 30 years...and it seems particularly fitting that my countdown of the 50 greatest Rangers ever kicks off with someone who so epitomizes the club.