Battle for the Silver Boot: Texas Rangers, Houston Astros and the I-45 Rivalry
Texas is home to some of the most storied sports franchises in America. The Dallas Cowboys are one of only 3 teams to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at least 5 times. The San Antonio Spurs have established themselves as the most dominant basketball force of the 21st century with their 5 NBA titles since 1999. Both the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets have also claimed the O’Brien Trophy, and even the Dallas Stars have a Stanley Cup to their name. All of this success preempts all of the success Texas universities have had in all areas, and the religious reverence assigned to the Friday night lights.
It’s into this great atmosphere of competition and rivalries that the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros have stepped. This season has provided the spark that MLB was hoping for when they shifted the Astros into the AL West in 2010. The newly explosive Houston Astros have ridden the left arm of Cy Young Candidate Dallas Keuchel and the incredible power of their lineup into playoff contention for their first time in the American League. Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers have risen from the depths of an injury-marred 2014 campaign thanks to resurgent seasons from designated hitter Prince Fielder and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, and major trade deadline acquisition Cole Hamels.
Even a month ago, this chase for the AL West title seemed a far flung dream for my Texas Rangers. One late August afternoon while enjoying a beer with an Astros fan, we concocted the idea to go see a game in Houston. What we didn’t realize when we purchased our tickets was that it would be the final home game of the season, or a crucial game in the pennant race. All the pieces fell into place, and we headed down to the Bayou City for one of the coolest sporting events in Texas: the I-45 Rivalry—AKA the Battle for the Silver Boot.
I grew up going to Rangers games in the sweltering heat of Globe Life Park during the dog days of summer. Usually, the team was sleepwalking its way to a high draft pick by early August. When things abruptly turned around in 2010, I finally learned what playoff baseball feels like. I can confidently say that outside of my trip to the World Series in 2011, the Sunday afternoon series finale in Houston was the most electric baseball atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. As much as I love the Globe, Minute Maid Park has some great things going for it. First and foremost: the stadium is centrally located in downtown Houston. There are bars and restaurants everywhere in the area, people can walk from their office buildings, and the stadium fits neatly into the grid. These are all serious advantages over the long drive down I-30 to Arlington. This was my first indoor baseball game, which is a very strange experience. The dome was closed because of rain, casting a shadow over the whole field and giving the game an eerie twilight feel. None of that dampened the excitement of the crowd.
There was a strong Rangers contingent in the building, but the crowd was overwhelmingly clad in neon orange. It wasn’t hard to find people wearing the old red and gold jerseys and hats from the Astros’ days in the NL, either. It makes sense: success has been fleeting here for the last decade. Dallas Keuchel ensured the fans would have a memorable day, however, holding the Rangers to one hit in seven innings and striking out ten. Every time he stepped off the mound at the end of an inning, a roar erupted from the crowd. The Astros offense did what they do so well, crushing the ball out of the matchbox stadium en route to a 4-2 win. The fans were clearly in a playoff state of mind, loudly cheering on their team while giving the Rangers players the business. As one of the minority in red, I expected to get heckled the moment I stepped out of the car. This isn’t that kind of rivalry, yet. There wasn’t the vitriol of one of the state’s NBA rivalries because neither team has reached the pinnacle. Both teams have stumbled in the World Series in the past decade, and there has not been a postseason in which both teams have participated since 1999. (The two have never met in the playoffs.)
The electricity in Minute Maid Park that Sunday provided one of the best game experiences I’ve ever had. Dallas Keuchel pitched a masterful game to keep the Astros’ division title hopes alive. In the final series of the season, the Rangers had their hands full with a determined Angels squad and the Astros charged full steam towards first while steamrolling the Arizona Diamondbacks. It wasn’t until Cole Hamels took the mound on the final day of the regular season that the Rangers were able to secure their first division title since 2011. Now, here we sit: both Texas teams are in the AL playoffs for the first time. The Rangers square off against the Kansas City Royals in the ALDS, while the Astros have to travel to the Bronx for a one game wild card matchup with the Yankees. If these teams keep their late season momentum going, we could see them match up in the American League Championship. No matter what happens, this year will stand out as the season where the Battle for the Silver Boot finally mattered. Take every opportunity to savor these games—you never know when we might see this kind of combined success again.