We waited until it was a million degrees outside and the Rangers were four thousand games out of first place, but Whitney and I finally made our annual road trip to Arlington to take in a game together this past Friday night. As always, we hit the Golden Chick in Childress, grabbed some chocolate covered pecans in Chilicothe, and enjoyed a huge dinner at Pappasito’s before the game. Cole Hamels went six strong innings, hit the showers with a 6-0 lead, and then Texas held on in a nail-biter 6-4. Thanks to the Rangers’ train wreck of a bullpen, the Astros brought the tying run to the plate in each of the last two innings. And, due to the above-and-beyond efforts of the staff at the pro-shop with their walkie-talkies, we tracked down the very last Joey Gallo t-shirt/jersey in Whitney’s size in the whole stadium!
We were treated to a wonderful bonus when Chuck Morgan announced that the actual Pudge Rodriguez Hall of Fame plaque from Cooperstown was available for viewing and pictures in the first base concourse. Apparently they very rarely ever take a plaque from the Hall of Fame. But with Pudge’s number being retired by the Rangers in an on-field ceremony Saturday, they allowed it to be brought down for the celebration and put on display the night before. We waited in line for a half-inning to see it up close. Very cool.
And this surprising revelation: I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK for the Astros to be in the same division with the Rangers.
When Bud Selig ramrodded this thing five years ago — MLB paid the Astros’ new owner $70-million to switch leagues so every division would have the same number of teams — I was more than a little upset. As a baseball fan growing up in Texas, you dream of a Rangers-Astros World Series. The Rangers are your favorite team, but the Astros are your second favorite team. You root for Houston. You want to see them do well. You keep up with their players. Bagwell, Biggio, and Berkman. Larry Dierker. The rainbow unis. The dreadful dome. Enron and Minute Maid Park. It was always good to cheer for the Lastros because, being in the other league, they posed no threat to the Rangers. And they were a Texas team. You always root for Texas teams.
That all changed in 2013. You can’t root for a team in your own division — you need them to lose every night. What do I do with these old Astros’ shirts and bobbleheads and ashtrays and commemorative cups? Major League Baseball claimed it would ignite a fierce inter-state rivalry. I didn’t see how.
Now, I do. The past four seasons, as the Rangers owned the ‘Stros and won division titles and dominated the Silver Boot, it felt kind of flat, kind of one-sided. This season, though, as Houston has run away with the West and put up football scores on all their opponents, it feels different.
It’s no secret that the cities of Dallas and Houston have a long and storied rivalry. People from both cities insult the people, the culture, the food, the music, and the sports teams from the other city. Coupled with the Rangers’ early dominance, this surge by the Astros has fueled some sincere animosity. Have you noticed? Rangers-Astros games get chippy early. It was so one-sided on the diamond for those first four years and the Houston frustration was so built up that now it’s exploding into something noticeable. The frustration is being expelled and expressed with an exuberance that causes players and managers from both teams to want to pitch inside and slide into second spikes-up. You can feel it.
There are enough people from North Texas who have transplanted down to Houston and enough folks from the Bayou who’ve made their way to Dallas-Fort Worth that, when the Rangers and Astros play each other, the stadiums are almost equally split between the two teams. Rangers and Astros fans work together, live in the same neighborhoods together, go to church together — they see each other all the time. So the rivalry is fierce, yes. But we all live in Texas. We all have our history and culture and love of the Lone Star State in common. So we can get really worked up during the game, and laugh about it, take pictures together, and wish everybody well when it’s over. I love that.
My Astros shirts have remained in the back of my closet for the past five years. I haven’t worn them at all. Not once. Not since 2012. But with the Rangers 16-games back and out of it and with Houston making a run for their first ever World Series title, it’s going to happen. I’ll be rooting for the ‘Stros all the way. And, yeah, their success makes the rivalry even a little better.