Joe Macko has been employed in professional baseball for 62 years. Mack Skeels has been alive for five. Age is no factor when it comes to excitement, though, and both were thrilled beyond belief at receiving an American League championship ring with a large T embedded on top.
Macko and Mack are the latest proof that in addition to bringing joy to a region, a sports franchise on top of its game can unify generations.
Macko, 82 years old and a Texas Rangers employee since the birth of the franchise in 1972, is an avowed optimist certain he’ll be alive to see the team win a World Series title. For now, the AL ring he was handed at a lunch ceremony at the stadium Monday made him feel like a kid again. He reflected on the lean years, the close calls and his many friendships, from legendary Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Nolan Ryan to the anonymous clubhouse attendants he worked alongside for three decades.
Skeels felt like a kid because he is a kid. He was given a pewter replica championship ring as a gift on opening day at Rangers Ballpark -- same as the ones fans received at Monday’s game -- and he showed it off to lunch patrons at Uncle Julio’s restaurant and spent the afternoon hitting Wiffle balls in his backyard and dreaming of diamond glory. The son of attorney and former minor league player David Skeels and former Fort Worth Trinity Valley High and NCAA All-American distance runner Megan (Flowers) Skeels, Mack has been to six Rangers opening day games before his sixth birthday.
Macko and Mack, like countless others among the largest opening weekend crowd since the The Ballpark at Arlington opened in 1994, represent the past and future of Rangers' baseball while basking in its present.
A franchise struggling to develop an identity and the type of fan loyalty found in places like Boston and Chicago, New York and Los Angeles took a huge step by reaching the World Series in 2010. To follow that with a season-opening sweep of the Red Sox while mixing in the championship ring ceremony is the kind of experience that will linger for young and old alike.
Said Macko: "We’ve been at it a long time and came close many times. So this is something quite meaningful to me. This is something to be cherished."
Said Mack: "I had fun and I got to see Josh Hamilton. He’s my favorite player."
Hamilton, the reigning AL MVP, and his teammates received their rings before Saturday night’s game. They had conflicting emotions because the rings also reminded them they’d lost the World Series to the San Francisco Giants.
"It’s bittersweet," said infielder Michael Young, the player who has been with the Rangers the longest. "Winning the AL was a great accomplishment, something this club had never done, but we still fell short of our ultimate goal."
Macko, whose playing career ended in 1964, will leave the what-could-of-beens to the current players. The ring is something of a lifetime achievement award in his mind and he plans to wear it every day along with the three others he almost never removes from his huge fingers.
"My ring finger is a size 17," he said. "I ordered this one in a 15 because I’m going to wear it on my index finger."
One ring is from the Major League Baseball Equipment Managers Assn., commemorating his three decades of service, and two are from the independent minor league Fort Worth Cats.
Macko has seemingly had some involvement with every minor league team in the state since he was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1947.
"Each ring is a talking piece," he said. "I like to wear them because I like to brag about the game of baseball."
As a goodwill ambassador for the Rangers (that’s his actual job title), Macko visits elementary schools and retirement homes, high schools and corporate functions, relating tales from his 18 years as a power-hitting minor league player and his nearly 40 years with the Rangers.
A few quick ones ...
• Nolan Ryan had his uniform jersey stolen from his luggage during his first road trip as a Ranger in 1989, apparently by somebody wanting valuable memorabilia. From then on, Macko put his clothes in Ryan’s bag and Ryan’s clothes in his.
"I never had mine stolen because I found a bottle of skunk spray at a novelty shop, and I’d spray some on a handkerchief and put it in the luggage," Macko said. "When they opened it, that’s all they smelled."
• Ted Williams, the Rangers’ first manager, and Macko were golfing in Irving, Texas, when Williams sliced his first drive into some trees and threw his club. On the second hole he sliced his drive again and became so enraged he broke his driver in half.
"He swung the broken piece of club at the golf cart, missed and hit his leg," Macko said. "Blood started running down his leg but we kept playing. When we walked you could hear the squish of blood in his shoes. He left a bloody imprint on every green."
The next day Williams had to explain to the team and to reporters why he was limping. He told Macko to back his story that he’d caught a hook in his leg while fishing. "He asked me to promise that as long as he was alive, I wouldn’t tell the true story," Macko said.
Macko kept the promise, although since Williams passed away in 2002, he’s probably recounted the incident a thousand times.
• For a few games in 2009, Josh Hamilton used a bat of Macko’s dubbed the "Smacko Macko," a Louisville Slugger Vern Stephens model that was at least 45 years old. At 36 ounces, it is much heavier than today's bats.
The first time he used the Smacko Macko, Hamilton singled and hit two sacrifice flies.
"They don’t make bats that well any more," Hamilton said. "The weight helped me keep my weight back. Joe's a strong man."
The 6-foot-2 Macko hit 306 home runs in the minors, one of the top all-time totals. Few ex-players become a clubhouse attendant, a thankless job that involves cleaning piles of laundry, scraping dirt off spiked shoes and catering to the whims of pampered big leaguers. Macko was grateful for the opportunity and took advantage of the access: He still has more than 700 autographs from stars that include Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Much of his memorabilia is displayed at South Trust Bank in Arlington.
"Since the Rangers started playing, I’ve only missed 14 ballgames," he said.
One happened to be the Game 6 victory over the New York Yankees on Oct. 22 that gave the Rangers the AL pennant and sent them to the World Series. Macko was in Tiffin, Iowa, at a ceremony inducting him in the hall of fame of the local university. He watched the game from the Port Clinton, Iowa, home in which he was raised.
"After all the time I’d been here, we clinched it and I wasn’t here," he said.
Macko smiled and shook his head. "I don’t tell that to the kids at my speaking engagements," he said.
Not that a kid like Mack Skeels would be disappointed. Not when he’s wearing his own ring and cheering his team. The Dallas NBC affiliate interviewed Mack and his father as they walked into the Ballpark on opening day. He professed his allegiance to the Rangers and proclaimed Hamilton as his favorite player. Maybe someday he’ll swing his own Smacko Macko.