The westward Astros are moving west, and have plenty of work ahead

May 22 2012 - 4:41pm

HOUSTON -- The games count and technically have an effect on a team's postseason aspirations, but the Lone Star Series since its inception in 2001 has had a novelty feel to it.

The winner after six games between the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros does get the silver boot, after all.

And the notion that there currently is a Rangers-Astros rivalry is wishful thinking.

Just ask the players, who say the right things when asked about playing each other but don't get any extra motivation from the two series each year. And just look at the results, which show that the Rangers have dominated the Astros in recent seasons.

But starting next season, thanks to Jim Crane's desire to own a big-league ballclub and Major League Baseball's desire for three five-team divisions in each league, the Rangers and Astros will be playing in the same division.

Houston is leaving the National League after 50 years and joining the American League West, which the Rangers have won the past two seasons.

For the Rangers, the change comes without any disadvantages. The Astros, though, have plenty of work ahead to make the league swap as painless as possible.

"The benefits that motivated the other owners to make the change are the extra wild card and balancing the divisions," said George Postolos, the Astros' president and CEO. "The benefit for the Astros is that we were able to complete the purchase. The challenge for us is to make the change work for our fans, and that really begins when this season ends."

The games are already gate attractions, so there won't be a sudden financial windfall for either club moving forward.

The biggest advantage for the Rangers is the effect the Astros will have on travel. It's not so much that the Rangers will have two or three 45-minutes flights a season to reach an opponent's city, but that they will lose trips each year to Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim.

The shortest of those flights is three hours, and two time zones are crossed in each direction.

"It's the coming back that gets you," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

The only benefit of the change, say the Astros, is that it allowed the sale of the club from Drayton McLane to Crane to go through at the owners meetings in November.

While the fan base has been largely against the move, it has accepted it as the price of doing business when MLB has set its mind on change. Baseball wanted two 15-team leagues and another wild-card team in each league, and the Astros drew the short straw.

Or, rather, had it drawn for them.

"Our fans understand it was a mandatory move," Postolos said. "Some of them are still getting used to the idea."

Gone are the rivalries that fans have come to know since 1962, when the franchise joined the NL as the Colt .45s. But they adjusted when the Astros moved from the NL West to the Central in 1994 as part of realignment, and there's the hope and expectation that future Rangers-Astros series will develop into a rivalry that spans only 250 miles instead of the 1,200 miles to Anaheim or 850 miles to St. Louis.

The Astros, though, need be more competitive. The Rangers, who took two of three in the teams' first series this season, have won 11 of the past 15 games against the Astros and eight of the past nine series.

"Those things tend to play out on the field," veteran Michael Young said. "Hopefully, the Astros are a good team. I played the Astros when they went to the World Series and had a great thing going, and those games were a lot of fun. Hopefully, that'll be the case again."

Houston is trying to follow the Rangers' plan of building from within. They have dealt away star players the past two seasons to acquire young talent, and have two more piece of trade bait this year in Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers.

The designated hitter rule won't change the Astros' plan of acquiring top young talent -- they have the first overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft next month -- and they could clear nearly $40 million next year from their $60.65 million 2012 payroll if Rodriguez, Myers and Carlos Lee don't return.

But the on-field changes associated with the move aren't the Astros' biggest concern. They have work to do once this season comes to a close to sell AL baseball to their fans.

The Rangers can help with that.

"Astros vs. Rangers is a big draw, and we expect that to continue and grow," Postolos said. "Next year we will have the novelty of a new division and new rivals..... It helps that our fans have a year to prepare for the change."

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