How Astros-Rangers rivalry defines the state of Texas


RYAN PRESSLY REMEMBERS how it felt to sit in the stands and watch the Texas Rangers play during the 2010 ALCS. He’s sitting inside Minute Maid Park’s news conference room, the shadow from the bill of his Houston Astros hat covers his eyes.

Pressly grew up in the Dallas area, a fan of the Rangers and especially Michael Young, and now he’s a relief pitcher for the Astros.

“I never thought I would be in this situation,” Pressly says. “I’m just thankful to be here.”

Even though he’s a popular player this series, he’s a man of few words. He doesn’t even have a social media account, saying he believes “in staying quiet and doing his job.”

“He likes to keep to himself,” Kat Pressly says of her husband. “He likes to be out on the ranch, be out in nature, go hunting. He doesn’t like a lot of attention or media around him.”

Since Ryan is focused on helping the Astros right the series, Kat’s the one in charge of getting tickets for his family when the games move to Arlington. She guesses they’ve gotten about 20 tickets, but since her phone keeps ringing — some of them calls from Ryan’s best friends — it’ll probably be much more than that by Wednesday night’s Game 3. Ryan’s told them all that since they’ll be sitting in the Astros’ family section, they can’t wear anything with the Rangers on it.

Asked if he’s excited about playing his childhood team, Ryan says he doesn’t see this series as anything different.

“It’s the same game. It just happens to be in my hometown,” he says.

JOSE RUIZ IS down on one knee looking up at the mural on the third base line outside of Minute Maid Park and taking pictures with his phone.

“You from Houston?” I ask.

“Hell yeah,” he says as he rises to his feet and straightens his orange-colored dress shirt with the Astros’ logo all over it. It’s hours before the start of the all-Texas ALCS.

“I got here in 1980,” Ruiz, 59, says. He’s originally from San Benito, about a five-hour drive from Houston. “Coming from a little town that didn’t have any pro teams, when I moved here, I said, ‘Well, at least I’m going to have some teams now.'”

When he moved here — and among the things he inherited was a dislike of Dallas — the Astros were bad. They did win the AL West in 1980, but never registered as annual contenders. He and his wife would pay $5 to watch them play inside the Astrodome and sit anywhere because there was hardly anyone there.

“I thought they were going to suck for the rest of my life, and I was OK with that,” Ruiz says. He made peace with it because that’s part of fandom. “There’s baseball fans who live and die and their team never wins a championship.”

Ruiz saw decades of bad baseball and figured that would be his experience too.

“Then they started getting good, and it was awesome,” Ruiz says.

He says that gave him bragging rights among his friends from Dallas. “They call me a cheater,” Ruiz says of his friends. “They won’t let it go.”

More than just his friends, it’s seemingly the entire league who believe the Astros are cheaters. Away from home, anywhere the Astros play, they get booed.

“It’s us against the world,” Ruiz says.

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN less susceptible to mythology than most people,” Dr. Walter L. Buenger says. Before he became a history professor at the University of Texas, he grew up in Fort Stockton. If you consider it a big city, Odessa, of the famed “Friday Night Lights,” would be the closest one to Fort Stockton, about 90 minutes away.

“I have a different slant than many Texans,” Buenger says in a deep West Texas accent. His grandparents were German and his father grew up speaking German in Texas until he went to school. “I heard all these stories from my grandparents growing up about how the Germans were mistreated. How the Ku Klux Klan came after them in the 1920s.”

From a personal and intellectual perspective, he knows Texas is a complicated place. And perhaps no two cities are as complicated than where the Astros and Rangers play better encapsulate that tension.

“Going back to the 1890s, Houston and Dallas competed with each other,” Buenger says. The competition was in everything from the location of the National Reserve Bank, business deals and connections, and even who’d host the Texas Centennial.

Dallas beat Houston for a lot of those, including hosting the Texas Centennial. That event, he says, was a point of identity separation between Dallas and Houston. Before then, the non-Mexican parts of Texas viewed itself as more southern.

With the centennial came the State Fair of Texas. With that came Big Tex, the big cowboy at the center of the fair. Buenger calls Big Tex a proper symbol for Dallas in the 1930s. “Dallas is more diverse now,” he says. “But Houston has always been much more diverse in its demography.”

Dallas embraced the cowboy as its symbol of identity. For Houston it was oil. That difference, plus the historic competition, and two of the country’s largest cities being a four-hour drive apart, helped create the rivalry.

“It’s a myth,” Buenger says of Texas identity.

Because they’re malleable, those myths help erase the harsh past. That cotton and slavery helped create Houston, Dallas and the rest of the state. That the Rangers are named after a law enforcement agency that lynched Mexicans. That the first official baseball team is from Houston and the first official game got played in April 1868 on the same San Jacinto battleground where Texas won its independence from Mexico. That day, the Houston Stonewalls beat the Galveston Robert E. Lees 35-2.

“What happens in Texas is memory replaces reality,” Buenger says. “And memory is both remembering some things and forgetting others.”

“VERLANDER ISN’T DOING too good,” Jason Flores says of Houston pitcher Justin Verlander. It’s the sixth inning, the one after Leody Taveras hit a solo home run to give the Rangers an early series lead.

“But they’re getting it together,” Joel Flores says of the Astros. “They’re warming up.”

Jason and Joel are twin brothers. They’re watching the game on Joel’s cellphone as they stand near the front entrance of the Magnolia Hotel, a few blocks from Minute Maid Park, where they work as valets.

On October nights like these, when the Astros are at home, they get busy, mostly before and after the game when fans are coming and going.

“The garage gets packed,” Jason says. “We get guests who specifically come and check into the hotel for the game. They stay here a couple of days, as a long as the Astros as here.”

Jason and Joel are lifelong Astro fans, who love all things Houston and dislike Dallas, especially the Cowboys.

Because of that, they could care less if the Astros get booed away from home. As Jason explains, “I’m from Houston. That’s who I am, in and out, that’s my team.”

As we stand there, watching a few pitches on Joel’s phone of Game 1, I ask them to imagine the unthinkable.

“Let’s say the Rangers advance, do you cheer for them in the World Series since they’re a Texas team?”

“Nah,” Jason and Joel say, almost in unison.

“F— the Rangers,” Joel says. “If they win, I’m done. It’s on to the Texans.”

“I mean, of course I want Texas up there,” Jason adds. “But here, it’s Houston only.”

FOR ALMOST AS long as he can remember, Mark Espinoza’s been a fan of the Rangers. One of his first heartbreaking sports moments happened when he was 11 years old, watching the 2011 Rangers get within a strike of winning the World Series. Young Mark then watched that slip away over the outstretched glove of Nelson Cruz in right field.

“You just got to soak it in and accept it,” Espinoza says of that night.

There’s a contrast in him retelling that painful memory as he smiles because, a dozen years later, this is the closest the Rangers have gotten to winning it all since then. As he talks, he stands in front of a mural celebrating the Astros’ World Series titles. Across the street, on Texas Avenue, there are police on horseback next to a church with a sign on its fence that says, “Make it a spiritual double header! Catch mass and a game!”

Houston fans walk quietly past that sign, past the police and past Espinoza. As quiet now as they were loud in the 8th inning when Yordan Alvarez hit his second home run of the game and brought the Astros to within a run of the Rangers.

“I’ve never heard it that loud,” Espinoza says of the Houston crowd. “It’s different being in this stadium.”

He says he was cautiously optimistic before the series began because the Astros often beat the Rangers. But after the Game 2 win by the Rangers, that’s changed.

“We’re going for the sweep,” Espinoza says loud enough an Astros fan walking by slows as if he wants to say something but doesn’t.

“This is the Texas Rangers’ year.”

He hasn’t stopped smiling since the final out. He says it with the confidence of a fan who cheers for a team some didn’t expect to get this far. Now, the Rangers return home with a chance to clinch the series.

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