We hate them, but we also might need them
Gavin Kilduff, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, argues that a true rivalry has three main components: it comes from competitors who are similar, evenly matched, and face off repeatedly. According to Kilduff, where those elements of a true rivalry are present, a sporting event rises above the level of wins or losses or standings into a psychological event, the weight of which goes beyond the stakes of the game at hand.
For years, the Mariners have lacked any true rival, largely through their own ineptitude. I’m assuming Kilduff is using “similar” to mean “teams chasing a pennant”; the Mariners have been similar to other bottom-dwellers in their division, but not in a way that spurs any true rivalry. For the past half-decade-plus, the AL West has been the Astros and the AL West Singers, with the plucky A’s occasionally trying to steal the spotlight or the Rangers riding a run-differential aided run to the top or the Angels…well, pretty much always falling short despite having at least one generational talent on their roster, but really, it’s Houston’s world and we’ve all been living in it, for better or for worse (for worse, always for worse).
After going a despicable 1-18 against the Astros in 2019, the Mariners went 3-7 against Houston in 2020, losing 3 of 4 at Houston over one series and getting swept the next series at Minute Maid. But in 2021 the Mariners improved that to 8-11 against Houston, although only going 3-7 at MMP, retaining that building’s reputation as a “house of horrors” for the Mariners. However, the Mariners enter tomorrow against the Astros having gone 6-6 against Houston in 2022; after getting swept at Houston earlier this season, they rebounded to win a series in Houston in early June, while playing the Astros tough at home.
Make no mistake: the AL West goes through Houston, currently. But with the expanded playoff format and other teams [stares in Chicago White Sox] underachieving, it seems the AL West might be able to send two post-season teams despite the continual slugfest of the AL East. For a while, it looked like the Angels, the team of the two generational talents, would be making a run at the division in 2022; then the wild card, then nothing. The Rangers, who dropped the GDP of a small country on a pair of high-profile acquisitions in Semien and the lesser Seager, also seemed like they might be in the mix, but have fallen flat. The Mariners, meanwhile, have rebounded from a moribund May/June to become the hottest team in baseball over the past couple of weeks. And suddenly, their record against the Astros looks a lot more like two teams who are similar, evenly matched, and face off against each other often. A rivalry, some might say.
But don’t take our word for it; take the fact that Astros fans seem to be [Mean Girls voice] why-are-you-so-obsessed-with-the-Mariners, while at the same time decrying loudly how much they really don’t care, to the point where a player who is currently on the IL felt the need to weigh in:
Siri how to make Melania’s “I really don’t care” jacket a tweet? This is in addition, of course, to this Astros fan mad the Mariners were [checks notes] dancing and having fun while celebrating a win not against their team (they got ratio’d into space, don’t worry about it), or this one convinced Scott Servais is a quote-unquote assclown, as well as the continual unhinged buffoonery from Astros Rants, an account which argues more effectively than any other for Twitter to be unplugged from the internet entirely and thrown in the nearest ocean. The Astros are hearing hoofbeats, it would appear?
The Mariners lag behind the Astros, of course, because most of baseball does, but there are a few key components that cement the rivalry, such as it is. The primary one, obviously, is in their star rookies: Astros fans are understandably proud of Jeremy Peña, who came from relative obscurity to be one of the best young players in baseball, but has recently been outplayed by burgeoning superstar and AL ROY leader Julio Rodríguez. We’re fresh off an All-Star week where the injured Peña sat at home but Julio took the baseball world by storm, inviting all Astros fans to cry about it. The Astros have the lead in every other area, from lineup to bullpen to starting pitching, trailing just the worldbeating Yankees in most categories, but the Mariners of late have been there with them, dogging their steps as the gaps begin to widen between the haves and have-not teams even in this expanded playoff format. This makes Astros fans very mad! But it’s very good for baseball.
If the Mariners are able to play to the level of the Astros long enough to become rivals, in the words of Billy Shakes, play on. Nothing could be better for baseball. I love a rivalry. I want players from opposing fanbases to hate each other so much they engage in spontaneous rap battles on sight, Teen Witch-style. I want a 14-year-old to teach themself Adobe After Effects just to take an enemy player’s head and blow it up like the Death Star after a key strikeout. Let’s get some new blood up in here. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has emphysema it’s been exposed to smoke for so long, but there’s not a good west coast equivalent, Dodgers-Giants notwithstanding. Rob Manfred should, in the bowels of the New Jersey megamansion he shares with Dr. Oz, be continually coming up with burner accounts with handles like “AstrosBlastoff109876” and “RefuseToLooooz1995” and sending them into the arena of Twitter dot com like Battlebots to fight. Because in a true rivalry, as Professor Kilduff argues, the contest at hand takes on a psychological weight. The games might count the same in the standings, but against a hated rival, there’s something bigger at play. The Mariners might finally be ready to stand on that stage, worthy of the rivals they face. Key words, “might be”—the Mariners still have something to prove before they can be considered as similar to the Astros, and this weekend is their chance to do so. Please please please don’t screw it up, fellas. I’m already halfway through this “Adobe for Dummies” book.