New hot rivalry: Rangers vs. Angels

BY foxsports • March 2, 2012

Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, new to his job but a voluble veteran, tried to roil the rival Yankees this week with provocations relating to events of 2004 and 2001.

It was sad, really. In years gone by, Trot Nixon and Kevin Millar would arrive at spring training and serve up juicy quotes about how Alex Rodriguez wasn’t a true Yankee. Now the best the Red Sox can offer is a deconstruction of the Derek Jeter flip play.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on Bobby V. He hasn’t managed in the majors since 2002, back when the Red Sox-Yankees saga was nearing its zenith. Boston ruined the narrative by winning the World Series (twice). Since then, the rivalry has gone from passionate to passé.

No matter how many tickets they sell, no matter how many headlines they generate, the Red Sox and Yankees just aren’t as interesting as they used to be. But baseball is lucky. Two fresh franchises have come to the fore.

Meet the Rangers and Angels — the most interesting rivalry in the game this year.

“It’s starting to turn into that,” Angels outfielder Vernon Wells said this week. “Being in the West, things are a little different. Playing in the East, knowing what that (Red Sox-Yankees) rivalry is all about, this could be close to it, for sure.

“This has the potential of becoming a lot bigger than any rivalry in the West. When you put Albert Pujols into the mix, it changes things. From an international standpoint, you bring Yu Darvish into the mix, it changes things. Demographically, the game has changed.”

Angels-Rangers (combined titles: 1) will never match the history of Red Sox-Yankees (combined titles: 34). The Boston and New York franchises had been bitter foes in the American League for 69 years before the Rangers came into existence.

But this isn’t about The Bambino. This is about today. And today, there’s intrigue in Arlington and Anaheim.

Torii Hunter, who lives outside Dallas and has played for the Angels since 2008, has noticed a recent change in Rangers fans. Their team has won consecutive American League pennants after the Angels’ run of five division titles in six years.

“Before, they were always cool, humble,” Hunter said of Texas fans. “Right now, they are not humble. And they have a right. They’ve got something to talk about. For a long time, they didn’t make it to the playoffs. They didn’t win. Now they’re winning. It’s exciting for them.

“I’d be at the mall and out of nowhere hear, ‘Angels suck!’ from the second level.”

Pujols’ arrival will ignite the rivalry as never before. The Angels view him as the centerpiece of their franchise on and off the field, the key to winning the World Series and converting fans who might otherwise spend their money on the Dodgers.

The false start with the “El Hombre” marketing campaign — which will be halted at Pujols’ request — shouldn’t diminish the team’s baseball or business outlook.

Lest we forget, Pujols’ final flourish before leaving St. Louis came in Game 3 of the World Series, when he went Reggie with three home runs against … the Texas Rangers.

The Angels will be ecstatic if Pujols hits .320 with a .631 slugging percentage this year. That, incidentally, was what Mike Napoli did as a Ranger in 2011.

The Angels traded Napoli before last season — to the Blue Jays, who flipped him to Texas — and his postseason star turn made them look foolish. It only cost them $240 million to hire a replacement. (At least, that’s how they tell the story in Texas.)

With Napoli, the Angels were victimized by the phenomenon of a key player switching teams in the rivalry, creating twice the effect. They must have been pretty outraged, because they mimicked the strategy by signing C.J. Wilson, the Rangers’ Opening Day starter last year.

Wilson’s departure won’t be viewed as an especially heinous act of treachery — in the same way that Johnny Damon’s defection to The Bronx was for Red Sox fans.

But Wilson’s first start back in Texas will be fascinating. He had been a great triumph for the Rangers, the raw left-hander who underwent elbow surgery, came back as a reliever, and evolved into their No. 1 starter — not to mention the richest domestic pitcher in last winter’s free-agent market.

Now, he’s with the enemy.

“You look at the way both teams spent this offseason,” Wilson said, “it’s like Boston and New York 10 years ago.”

Wilson’s replacement in Texas will be Darvish, who traversed the Pacific amid expectations he will be the greatest Japanese pitcher in big-league history. Darvish’s early bullpen sessions in Surprise, Ariz., drew larger media crowds than some of the Rangers’ first-round playoff games last fall. In terms of worldwide star power, the Rangers countered the Angels nicely.

But Wilson wasn’t the only man the Rangers lost to the Angels during the offseason: New general manager Jerry Dipoto hired Scott Servais away from Texas and gave him a promotion — assistant general manager for the Angels, up from farm director with the Rangers. The move offered validation that the Rangers have one of the top front offices in baseball, but it was a major subtraction nonetheless.

Asked if he still plans to send Servais a Christmas card, Rangers GM Jon Daniels smiled and said, “Yeah, with a microscopic voice recorder in there to find out what they’re up to.”

There are geographic limitations to the Angels-Rangers rivalry. The cities are more than 1,300 miles apart, so the fans don’t grow up with an innate distaste for one another. But distance never has softened the Cowboys’ rivalries with the Eagles or Giants in the NFL. Meaningful games involving star players are the most important ingredients. The Angels and Rangers have them.

Another element that can’t be overlooked: The Rangers are coming off the most crushing end to a baseball season in 25 years.

The best baseball stories are causes. The Red Sox were a cause until they won. The White Sox and Giants — with their decades-long championship droughts — were causes, too. There are individual causes, like challenging Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak or trying to bat .400.

By coming within one strike of a title — twice — the Rangers have become a cause.

We don’t know yet the full ramifications of what happened when David Freese’s liner carried away from a drifting Nelson Cruz in the ninth inning of Game 6. If the Rangers win the World Series this season, last year’s heartbreak will make for a better story. If they don’t, then Josh Hamilton may leave as a free agent and we will wonder if Oct. 27, 2011, was the last, best chance for the current cast of Rangers to win a championship.

That’s why these two teams are so captivating. We don’t know if Pujols will haunt the Rangers for a second straight year. We don’t know if Napoli can keep this up. We don’t know if Darvish is a true ace. We don’t know if Wilson, pitching in a bigger ballpark, will be even better for the Angels than he was in Texas. We don’t know if the Angels’ freshness or the Rangers’ resolve will triumph in the end.

Shortly before spring training began, Pujols and Darvish met unexpectedly while working out in Los Angeles. Darvish told Pujols that he’s “looking forward to the battle.”

We are, too.