Forget Yankees-Red Sox. How Astros-Rangers became a Texas-sized rivalry

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The Astros and Rangers own baseball’s most intense under-the-radar rivalry.

You’re not at fault if you weren’t thinking about the American League Championship Series in those terms. If you live outside Texas, it hasn’t been the most visible drama, because meaningful games between these teams are truly a recent invention. The intrigue also hasn’t been reinforced ad nauseam by national telecasts, a la Red Sox–Yankees. But particularly in this Texas rivalry, it’s not just the franchises that fuel the conversation — it’s the cities they represent, and how, um, kindly they regard each other.

This season is only the 11th the Astros and Rangers have shared a division, the AL West, and the ALCS marks the first time they’ve met in the playoffs. For the first 40 years that Texas carried two major-league teams in the state, dating to the arrival of the Rangers in 1972, former Astros president Tal Smith “didn’t sense there was any rivalry, other than the competitive rivalry you have with everybody from the standpoint of signings or so on.”

Smith began working for the Astros in 1960 when they were known as the Colt .45s. The team’s first season wasn’t until 1962, and the franchise stayed in the National League until 2013, before joining the Rangers in the AL.

“On the field, really it was nonexistent until they moved to the American League,” Smith said.

But even in the time since, one of the two clubs has been a dominant force across the sport, while the other has … not.

“I grew up a New York Knicks fan in the 90s, and I remember people would talk about the Knicks-Bulls rivalry,” said former Rangers president of baseball operations, Jon Daniels. “It was pretty intense between the two teams. But if you weren’t actively part of it, you were like, ‘What rivalry?’ And I think there’s a little bit of that right now: To be fair, the Astros have seven straight years (in the ALCS). It has been pretty one-sided.

“But I think for people that have lived it, or live in the area and understand a little bit of dynamics between the fanbases and all that, it’s more than kind of the recent track record would suggest.”

That’s for two reasons. One, the Astros and Rangers have already had some gripping moments, even in this brief shared time as head-to-head opponents.

“In ’15, we were winning the division a lot of the year,” said former Astros manager A.J. Hinch, now running the Tigers. “They (the Rangers) came back and won the division in September. There were a few dustups, which I think a lot of people associate with rivalry intensity. … The mid-teens, 2015, 2016, into ’17 and beyond, you could sense the fans were really getting into it, the players were really aware.

“There was a growing sense of competitive angst.”

Two, and most importantly, Astros vs. Rangers is an extension of a much larger dynamic, one that actually has been around for decades: Houston vs. Dallas.

“The Dallas-Houston rivalry over the years in business and life and everything else has always been one,” said former Astros president Reid Ryan, the son of Nolan Ryan, a legend of both franchises. “And now it’s kind of manifested itself into baseball. This week, I’ve been in San Antonio, Austin and Houston, and everywhere I’m going, that’s all people are talking about right now.”

Social media lights up with trash talk when these teams square off, and it’s a fan energy that hasn’t had a chance to shine nationally, at least not in a baseball context. This ALCS is the first showcase.

Astros fans love to suggest that the Rangers more accurately would be called the Arlington Rangers, rather than the Texas Rangers, a reference to the municipality that hosts the Rangers’ stadium.

“I think the fans make it about Texas more than the players do,” Rangers designated hitter Mitch Garver said.

“Dallas and Houston are warring fraternal twins. Houston has always resented Dallas for being better at football, hates how global pop culture sees Dallas as the world’s oil capital when it is not, and thinks he is a little materialistic for Houston’s taste,” once wrote the late John Nova Lomax for Texas Monthly. “(Dallas) gaslights every other Texas locale. But especially Houston. ‘Rivalry?’ Dallas asks. ‘What rivalry? We don’t have a rivalry with Houston. Nobody up here ever even thinks of Houston.’”

Ryan said that back in the ’80s, folks in South Texas didn’t get to see Rangers games typically, and those in the north rarely caught Astros games. The Astros played in The Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome. (The Astros’ original owner also briefly prevented a second major-league team from arriving in the state at all.)

Meanwhile, “the Rangers played in a revamped minor-league ballpark,” Ryan said. “There was always sort of a ‘That’s my cousin to the north, that’s my cousin to the south,’ family feel.”

Reid’s father, Nolan, pitched for the Astros from 1980-88 and then in 1989, joined the Rangers.

“It was really the first time that the Rangers had really ever had a shot,” the younger Ryan continued. “They played an exhibition game from time to time. My dad came back one year and pitched a game in the ‘Dome with the Rangers and it was a great crowd and an awesome environment. It wasn’t really until interleague play hit (in 1997) that… you had sort of a rival.

“But in a lot of ways, whoever won, whoever lost, at the end of the games, there were hugs and like, ‘Go get ‘em, hope to see you in the World Series.’”

Houston’s move out of the NL after the 2012 season, which commissioner Bud Selig and the owners wanted, was a controversial process, in no small part because Houston fans were attached to the senior circuit. But putting these two teams in head-to-head competition was one of the intended benefits.

“I wasn’t crazy about the Astros coming over to the American League in the same division initially,” said Rob Matwick, a Rangers executive since 2008 who spent 21 years with the Astros previously. “But I will say, it’s turned into a great rivalry now.”

In a way, 2015 was a starting point unto itself. It was the first season in which the Astros asserted themselves after a painful rebuild. The Rangers, who had been to two straight World Series just a few years earlier, “were holding on to being the bigger brand, so to speak,” Hinch said. It was the era of Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder for the Rangers, and for the Astros, the arrival of Carlos Correa, flanking Jose Altuve and George Springer.

In the middle of that summer, the managers, Hinch and Rangers counterpart Jeff Banister, got into it themselves in the middle of a benches-clearing shoving match, right alongside the players. The Rangers later swept a four-game series from the Astros in September, and Hinch in frustration broke a towel dispenser in the visiting manager’s office after one of the games. The Rangers took the division and the Astros settled for a wild card, but both teams were knocked out in the ALDS. The Rangers won the AL West the next year, too.

Then came a prominent off-the-field conflict in 2017. At the end of August, the teams were scheduled for a series in Houston, right when Hurricane Harvey devastated the city. Where the games would be relocated to —  the Rangers’ stadium or a neutral site — became a major controversy.

The teams wound up in Florida, at the Rays’ stadium. But the Astros had wanted to play at the Rangers’ park instead, on the condition that a different Astros-Rangers series later in the year would be moved to Houston. The Rangers didn’t want that. Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. and Reid Ryan, who then worked for the Astros, both went after the Rangers publicly.

“A lesson across the board in just bad PR,” Daniels said. “We were at the time taking our lead from the league, following kind of precedent in what we were doing, and at the same time trying to be cognizant of much bigger issues that were going on in Houston. There was actually conversations behind the scenes between clubs — most of which I was not part of at the time, it was more on the business side — (that) were pretty amicable. … At some point that kind of broke down, and neither side budged.

“Publicly it looked like an absolute s— show. … My sense is that the business sides had agreed. The baseball sides had agreed. And then it was a little bit of a pissing match with ownership, is kind of my recollection.

“I ended up being a little bit of a lightning rod for it, because I was someone out front, and it was not pleasant. But I remember talking to A.J., and he was like, ‘Dude’ — he’s like, ‘We’re literally up here. Everybody drove up to get out of Houston and to play up here, and now we’re having to board a plane to Tampa. Nobody wants to fly.’”

Hinch recalled the Astros “took it as just another stressor at a time where there was a ton of stress.”

“A lot of players had their families in the middle of the hurricane,” Hinch said. “We had already flown to Dallas and moved into a hotel. I had players that wanted to drive big trucks into the hurricane to go get their families. And here we are, we couldn’t swap out the games. That was above my pay grade. But the players were frustrated.”

The Rangers took a downturn as the Astros began their run of seven straight ALCS appearances, cooling direct competition for a few years. But they gave the Astros a run for the division this year, and both teams finished with 90-72 records.

It’s not a perfect analogy to the Astros, who have won two titles in the last six years. But in 2000, the Yankees had won championships in 1996, 1998 and 1999 when they faced their crosstown rivals, the Mets, in yet another World Series.

The Yanks dispatched the Mets as they had everyone else. But a certain pressure was attached to that series: What if the Yankees couldn’t beat the crosstown rivals?

“You could have taken our three rings and thrown them out the window, as far as Yankees fans were concerned,” Derek Jeter told Sports Illustrated.

And if the Rangers win this series? Rightly or not, some text chains are going to light up: “Two rings, but you couldn’t beat us when it counted most,” Rangers fans will tell their Astros counterparts.

An East Coaster, Daniels said the Houston-Dallas love affair wasn’t something he grasped until he actually moved to Texas, in 2002.

“I did not understand it,” he said, “I kind of quickly figured it out.”

Now the question is whether some other folks from other parts of the country can get lassoed in too.

“I’m curious to see how the ratings are going to be,” Ryan said. “Baseball historically has had great regional ratings for the regular season, but historically has had really kind of poor postseason ratings, unless it’s been teams on the coast going at each other. … It’s going to be fun to see how the nation embraces this series.”

The Athletic’s Chandler Rome, Cody Stavenhagen and Levi Weaver contributed to this story.

(Top photo of benches clearing between the Astros and Rangers at Minute Maid Park earlier this season: Logan Riely / Getty Images)

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