IF YOU’RE THE TYPE to take the long view on things, what could be the biggest series in Texas baseball history starts today at Globe Life Field, and the moment is more than a century in the making. The buildup began before the American League — in which the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros now play — even existed. After all, they’ve been playing baseball in The Lone Star State for a long time. A very long time.
The three-game series between the Rangers and Astros has 135 years of baggage behind it, dating back to the first incarnation of the Texas League, which began play in 1888.
Now, in September 2023, all eyes in baseball will be on Arlington. And why wouldn’t they be? The breakout Rangers led the division for most of the season behind a potent offense and an experienced rotation of veterans brought in via trades and free agency. Then the Astros, who overcame a so-so, injury-laden start, emerged into a three-way turnstile atop the West with the Rangers and upstart Seattle Mariners. This week, the last regular-season meeting between the two Texas teams this season, will be the last time we can be sure to see the in-state rivals go toe-to-toe with the stakes sky high.
• Winning the division is going to be huge for the postseason chances of the team that accomplishes it. The division flag in this year’s AL West means a first-round bye, as the AL Central champion is going to be the No. 3 seed. Thus, first in the West is the difference between a bye and division series home advantage, or ending up in a wild-card encounter as the road team.
• The matchup features some of baseball’s most exciting hitters. You have core hitters like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez for the Astros; Marcus Semien, Corey Seager and Adolis Garcia for the Rangers.
• In the dugouts, you have two future Hall of Fame skippers: Texas’ Bruce Bochy, looking for his fourth title, and Houston’s Dusty Baker, coming off his first. And the pair have plenty of personal history to boot. They first squared off as managers in 1995. As players, they faced each other on Sept. 7, 1978, when Baker homered for the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 3-2 win over Bochy and Astros.
• If the pitching probable schedules hold, we’re headed for an epic matchup in the series finale, featuring two Cooperstown-bound aces. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander began this season as teammates with the New York Mets but joined this rivalry, on opposite sides, at the trade deadline. This is a best-case scenario, though, and one that may be in jeopardy after Scherzer had to leave his last start early with forearm tightness.
• There is bad blood brewing. The last time the teams met, benches cleared. There weren’t any punches thrown, but Semien and Martin Maldonado were ejected after their back-and-forth preceded the near melee.
There’s no shortage of storylines. And so despite 135 years of history, it’s easy to make the case that, until these two teams meet someday in October, this series is the crescendo for the sport in Texas.
IN THE TEXAS LEAGUE starting in the 19th century, Dallas and Houston battled in different versions of the circuit over the decades. As the cities grew in size and national influence, and Major League Baseball turned its gaze westward in the late 1950s, it was inevitable that Texas would be on the docket. And so, the Houston Colt 45s joined the National League in 1962. Three years later, they were redubbed the Astros when baseball’s first indoor venue, the Astrodome, opened to much fanfare.
Up north, baseball fans in the Dallas-Fort Worth region had to wait until 1972, when the second incarnation of the Washington Senators moved into Arlington Stadium for big league ball.
At last, Texas had two major league clubs. But for the first two decades of their mutual existence, the Rangers and Astros existed more on parallel tracks than intersecting ones.
The origins of the Lone Star Series, or the Silver Boot Series as many still like to call it, traces back to a series of popular end-of-spring-training exhibitions that began in 1992. The highlight of the exhibitions was 1993, when more than 53,000 fans turned out at the Astrodome for the return of Nolan Ryan, once an Astro and then a Ranger, and forever the connective tissue between the two franchises.
The Silver Boot Series moved to regular-season play when the Astros and Rangers began meeting in interleague games beginning in 2001. That’s when the winner of the series began receiving — you guessed it — a Silver Boot Trophy. The bragging rights contests continued in that vein for more than a decade.
During the 42 seasons the Astros and Rangers played in different leagues, they made the playoffs in the same season just twice — 1998 and 1999 — but neither team won a playoff series in those Octobers. That’s the closest we ever came to an All-Texas World Series, a possibility that ended when Houston was moved to the AL West in 2013.
Instead of that ultimate Lone Star October moment, we got a brand-new intrastate division rivalry. With the Astros and Rangers now in the same division, competing for the same championships, the pieces were in place for the Lone Star Series to become one of baseball’s marquee matchups.
And sure enough, in 2015, the Astros and Rangers both made the playoffs in their third season as division rivals. That campaign featured a pair of key September series, including a four-game sweep by the Rangers in the middle of the month in Arlington that turned a 1½-game Texas deficit to a 2½-game lead. Texas never relinquished the lead. Yet, as with the clubs’ other concurrent postseason appearance, their seasons ended in the division series round and neither team reached the 90-win plateau during that campaign.
Since then, the rivalry has been more of a slow burn, mostly because the teams haven’t been in prime contention at the same time since that 2015 prequel.
Both teams were over .500 in 2016, when the Rangers won the division with a 95-67 record. But the Astros took a step back that season and weren’t really in the division race after early August.
After that, Houston went into dynasty mode. They’ve played in every ALCS since then, winning four pennants and two World Series. The Rangers, though, entered a prolonged rebuild, landing well under .500 six seasons in a row and finishing an average of 29 games out of first place, all while their cross-state rival was running roughshod over the American League.
Alas, as we know, you can’t force these things. The best rivalries happen organically, through a sequence of contentious encounters that, preferably, feature a little rancor, memorable personalities, and — most importantly — real stakes. For the Lone Star Series, the convergence of all those factors is this week.
Texas’ two teams, as mutually strong as they’ve been at any time since they became division foes, are meeting for the last time this season. They are in a neck-and-neck battle for the division race and crucial playoff position. The Rangers have been struggling of late, but they enter the matchup on the momentum of Garcia’s game-winning homer against Minnesota on Sunday.
You have two teams that don’t like each other, representing the two biggest metroplexes in the biggest state of the continental U.S. You have forecasts for scorching, 100-degree weather. And we get to finish it off hopefully with a showdown between two generational aces with a combined 467 career wins between them.
Given the status of the playoff races and the strength of these teams, it’s possible even bigger clashes lay in the offing — maybe even the first-ever Silver Boot playoff showdown. They might have to get a second boot for that.
For now, this is what we’re guaranteed. Astros and Rangers, for the last time this season. If all the pieces fall into place, it just might turn out to be the biggest series in Texas baseball history, 135 years in the making.