Texas Rangers' Adrian Beltre in action during a spring training baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Sunday, March 20, 2016, in Surprise, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Photo: Darron Cummings
Photo: Darron Cummings

Why Rangers, Astros are poised to rule the wild AL West

The Houston Astros or the Texas Rangers led the American League West for 139 days last season.

The temperature of their race rose throughout the season. The contest went to the final day of the regular season, with the Rangers taking the division and pushing the second-place Astros into the playoffs as a wild-card entrant.

Get used to it.

Baseball's next noteworthy rivalry is under way. This should be the best-ever baseball season in the state of Texas, as the competition between cities plays out on the diamond.

All the elements are there _ two good teams, operating about 250 miles apart and chasing the same goal with the same fervor.

Like Red Sox-Yankees, Cardinals-Cubs and Giants-Dodgers, the 19 Astros-Rangers games will be no place for the faint of heart.

"There is something special about regional rivalries," said former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who helped bring the clubs together. "We don't do enough to take advantage of them. If we take advantage of this one, it could be a great rivalry."

Which leads to one question: What took so long?

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The origins of a rivalry

Judge Roy Hofheinz would be appalled.

Hofheinz, a politician and businessman, led the efforts that brought a National League expansion franchise to Houston for the 1962 season and the creation of the Astrodome. Texas, along with all the media revenue, belonged to Hofheinz' team, or so he believed.

Hofheinz used all of his influence to stand in the way of any attempt to put a club in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Tarrant County Judge Tom Vandergriff liked to tell the story of President Lyndon Johnson being unable to soften the stance of his former campaign manager.

"I will never forget the president hanging up the phone, looking at me and saying 'I don't believe God himself could change Roy's mind,' " Vandergriff told The Dallas Morning News in 1997.

The NL wanted to expand to the area for the 1969 season but could not get the required unanimous vote of owners because of Hofheinz. The league settled for Montreal and San Diego.

Hofheinz did not have as much sway with the American League. It approved Bob Short's request to move his bedraggled Washington club, an expansion team born in 1961, to Arlington for the 1972 season.

A generation later, the push to put the teams together began. As baseball considered realignment for the 1998 season, then-Rangers president Tom Schieffer offered a workable and appealing solution.

Pull the Rangers from the out-of-the-way AL West and put them into them into the NL with the Astros. It would be an instant rivalry with the addition of more reasonable travel and start times.

"I always thought what the Rangers really needed was a rival that you could drive to," Schieffer said. "What you have now really benefits both clubs in Texas. It's a great water-cooler rivalry.

"You have the ability to know the other team's fans, like when we had Texas-Texas A&M. That adds a lot."

Schieffer's idea had merit, but Milwaukee got the spot in the NL. The city had an NL franchise, the Braves, from 1953-65.

The Rangers received the bone of annual home-and-home series with the Astros, beginning in 2001. The Rangers were 42-30 against Houston as an NL club.

Selig pursued another realignment, for the 2013 season. He wanted three five-team divisions in each league, with an extra wild-card team and interleague play almost every day during the regular season.

At the same time, Drayton McLane was trying to sell the Astros to local businessman Jim Crane. Selig made a deal. If Crane would agree to move the Astros into the AL West with the Rangers, he would receive a $70-million reduction to a sale price of $610 million.

Crane accepted, triggering local outcry at leaving the NL after 51 seasons.

"It was controversial in Houston," Selig said. "But as I said at the time, 'You've got to be kidding.' The rivalry was a bonus that we were not taking advantage of.

"They said we were going to ruin baseball in Houston, that it was a National League town. One of the things I've always said is that baseball is a social institution that is always resistant to change. How is this working out? I'd say well."

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Grizzled veterans vs. youthful exuberance

The Rangers this season have an advantage in established quality veterans such as third baseman Adrian Beltre and a payroll that can accommodate two top-end starting pitchers in left-hander Cole Hamels and right-hander Yu Darvish.

"We've always considered the Rangers a threat and have always paid special attention to our state rivals," Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow said.

The Astros counter with magnificent youthful talent, led by 21-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, the AL rookie of the year last season; and 27-year-old left-hander Dallas Keuchel, the reigning Cy Young winner.

"People should be high on the Astros," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "They're a very talented group."

Each club has put together rich player-development systems that should produce years of high-level competition.

There was no rivalry in 2013, when the Rangers welcomed the Astros to the West by going 17-2 against them. A rivalry requires two good teams. That happened last year, with the Rangers and the Astros competing for the West title.

Now, each club will push the other to be better, like two thoroughbreds in a match race. There is no room for easing up in a rivalry.

"Two teams that should be very good," Daniels said. "Built a little differently, but both clubs believe they're good now and will be good for a period of time. That's the fun part."

Said Luhnow: "Rivalries are important for fans and for the industry. ... Given last year's close race, this year will be even more special for both teams."

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The spark that ignited the fire

Every rivalry requires a flash point moment. For Rangers-Astros, it happened at Houston's Minute Maid Park on July 18 of last season.

Pesky Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor plays with an edge that irritates opponents and endears him to the Rangers. On this night, Houston catcher Hank Conger barked at Odor to get into the box to start the ninth inning.

Within moments, the benches had emptied. In the middle of the pushing and shoving, Rangers manager Jeff Banister confronted Astros manager A.J. Hinch, telling him to get his hands off his player.

The Rangers lost the next day and left Houston in third place, 7 { games behind the Astros. At the same time, something unusual happened.

Banister and Hinch began exchanging text messages. They were not calling each other out or offering to step outside. They encouraged each other, with each hoping for an all-Texas AL Championship Series.

"He and I both wanted so badly for our fan bases to be able to stand up loud and proud," Banister said. "We were representing the entire state. ... We tried to motivate each other to get our players to the point so that we would have that opportunity to be the last two teams standing in the American League."

Beltre is the Rangers' ranking expert on rivalries. He has been in the middle of two long-standing feuds: Giants-Dodgers and Red Sox-Yankees. Astros-Rangers began to grow into something similar last season.

"We know how good they are," Beltre said. "You don't hate anyone on that team. It's not like that. You respect them and know they're a team we have to beat.

"You feel that every time you play them. It adds to the games, certainly."

The division turned in the second half when the Rangers won seven consecutive home games against the Astros. The Rangers won the season series at 13-6 and took the West by two games. What started out slowly ended at a fever pitch.

"Having lived in Texas for a year now, there's something different about Astros-Rangers than some of the other teams you play," Hinch said at the winter meetings. "Banny and I have a great relationship. He won '15 in a lot of different ways. We hope to correct that."

Rangers-Astros is on.

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