Sunday, November 02, 2008

Houston Astros Vs. Texas Rangers

I’ve missed my imaginary deadline, but we’re getting close to the end of the post requests. So even though all-request post month has continued on beyond the end of the month, we will finish them all.

The Astros and the Rangers are one of the few examples of competitive teams that operate in the same state without having any sort of real rivalry with each other. In fact, though I am certain both Astros fans and Rangers fans would argue this point, neither team has any sort of major rivalries of any kind. Whenever a divisional rival comes to town, there’s a small uptick in fanbase excitement, but nothing out of the ordinary – a good measuring stick is if your fanbase gets more enthused about a matchup with the Yankees than it does about a matchup with your “rival,” then you don’t have a rival.

Still, a lot of that is brought about by the fact that until quite recently, the Rangers and Astros never played each other. Interleague play has allowed the teams to start facing off against each other, and so hopefully a rivalry would begin to flourish. Rivalries are good for teams. It helps foster team spirit, increases attendance, and makes even unsuccessful seasons have moments worth getting excited about. This is why college football has so many rivalries – for hundreds of teams, there’s nothing else all year to care about.

The Rangers/Astros rivalry games have been dubbed “The Lone Star Series,” since it would look good on a TBS promo, and each year the winner gets a large silver boot as a trophy to take home and unenthusiastically display. Also, it gives TBS something to run graphics on top of when it gets back from a commercial break (“Coming up on TBS… Those crazy cops are still up to their hijinks! It’s Police Academy 3! Then - the rest of that Steve Harvey episode we accidentally played during the ALCS! Right here on TBS. Very funny.”). While the winner of this series decides who gets the boot each year, it doesn’t decide which baseball team is more awesome. No, that’s for me to decide. Right now.


Let’s start with the basics. Both ballparks have their own unique charm. Ranger Stadium, built in 1994, resembles Ebbets field from the outside, with its red brick façade and sweeping arches. Inside, the ballpark feels open and faintly majestic, with a distinctly classic style to its look. Despite it’s retro styling, Ranger Stadium seats 48,000 people – over 6,000 more than Minute Maid and over 8,000 more than Fenway even after the considerable renovations Red Sox management has added in the recent years.

Word is you can see the drug busts from the 3rd base upper deck.

Minute Maid Park, however, is a bit of a bandbox, full of quirks and gimmicks. From Tal’s hill – a sharp incline at the end of centerfield leading up to a bizarrely in-play flagpole – to the cream-colored arches overlooking left field, to the replica train (part of the ballpark used to be a train station) above the wall that chugs back and forth after every home run, towing behind it what looks like a boxcar full of pumpkins (they’re actually oranges), the park gives fans plenty to marvel at. A giant roof encases the field most of the year – living in Houston necessitates it – but when open it provides a clear view out into the city, giving the nosebleed seats in particular a spectacular view. However, when closed, Minute Maid loses much of its charm, and feels closer to what it is: an almost new park (built in 2000 and unfortunately titled Enron Field) crowded with knick-knacks that haven’t been around long enough to cause anyone nostalgia. Still, with the roof open, Minute Maid is one of the premier parks in baseball, so: the Astros get points for upside while the Rangers get points for scope and consistency. Advantage: Tied.

Good thing we got here early enough to miss traffic.

Not an even remotely difficult choice here. Ranger Stadium is located outside of Arlington, a short drive from Dallas and sits alone on an otherwise bare hill. There is no reason to go out by the stadium for any reason other than a baseball game. That’s not how stadiums should be, unless I’m going to the Field of Dreams field.

It looks more welcoming from down there.

Minute Maid is located in downtown Houston, a short walk from dozens of bars and restaurants, a natural piece of Houston’s landscape and skyline. It makes parking a nightmare, but that’s part of the fun – the off chance you find a cheap spot a short walk from the ballpark makes hunting around seem an adventure. Plus, Ranger parking is viciously, unnecessarily expensive, for the simple reason that if you don’t park in their spots, where else are you going to go? Huge Adavantage: Astros.

Team History: Yet another easy one for the Astros, which is a little sad. After all, the Astros have never won a World Series and once had the ugliest uniforms in baseball history:

Yeah, that’s right.

Still, the Astros have made it to the playoffs nine times, six since ’97, including a World Series appearance in ’05. Those are good numbers. The Rangers have only appeared in the playoffs three times, have only won one game, and have never won a playoff series – the only team never to do that now that the Rays have come alive. The Rangers are a career 500 games below .500, and they are the oldest franchise in all the four major pro sports leagues to have never appeared in the league's championship. Yeesh. The Astros have retired the number of nine of their players, while the Rangers have only three numbers retired – Jackie Robinson’s (every team is mandated to retire his number), Nolan Ryan (the Astros also have his number retired) and manger Johnny Oates. As a consolation, the Rangers have sent four players to the Hall of Fame to the Astros none, but this is no real prize as it only means they had these players at the very end of their careers. All of them played primarily for other teams, including Ryan, who played approximately twice as long (and several times as effectively) for the Astros. Also, two recently retired Astros, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, will also be heading into the hall as soon as they qualify for consideration. Huge Advantage: Astros.

Team Nickname: Rangers has a slight cool factor over the Astros, since Astro sounds a little dorky – you never want your nickname to be primarily famous for being the dog’s name on a Saturday morning cartoon. Also, the Rangers were originally the Senators and wisely changed their name when they arrived in Texas, but the Astros were originally the Colt .45’s and completely illogically chose to abandon the name. I mean, look at this logo:

You would not want to play this team.

Such a shame. Advantage: Rangers

Current Team:
The Rangers this past year were an interesting team, with half a dozen strong power hitters making things awfully fun to watch. Josh Hamilton’s resurgence from drug addiction, plus Milton Bradley finally realizing his considerable potential, plus a home run-hitting pair of middle infielders, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler. All four made it to the All-Star Game this year, and the Rangers were one of the top run-scoring teams this year. However, their pitching swung from horrendous to atrocious and back again throughout the year, and they finished . The Astros season was more straightforward – they showed spark in the early part of the season, led by a career year by Lance Berkman. Still, they faded early and didn’t come around until late in the season, when it was too late to change their fates. Still, they ended up … and should be in strong contention for a wild card spot next year. They’ve got a slight leg up on the Rangers, and unless Texas drastically improves its pitching, it’s advantage: Astros

Each has its share of crazies, it's share of loyal fans who ride through good and bad seasons, and also its bandwagon fans who only jump on when the team is good, but having been to both stadiums in both situations, I’ve got to give it to the Astros. They have a larger, more passionate fanbase than Texas does, and you feel stronger that the Astros are really their team through thick and thin. I feel the Rangers are probably third in Dallas’ heart, behind the Cowboys and the Mavericks, while the Astros are only in competition with the Rockets for Houston’s affections. Advantage: Astros.

Well, I thought that would end up being much closer that it actually was, assuming at least some of those categories would swing the Rangers’ way, but it’s a pretty clear victory for the Astros. So, when ranking franchises, regardless of how this sad little Lone Star Series turns out, it’s the Astros who are clearly top dog.

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