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A Real Rivalry In The Making M’S-Rangers Duel Has Progressed To Classic Status

Baseball’s greatest rivalries are those steeped in tradition. The Dodgers and the Giants. The Yankees and the Red Sox. Matchups such as these evoke images of the game’s most memorable battles and dramatic pennant races.

The best rivalries require more than two competitive clubs skirmishing in the same division.

History, geography, fan interest, respect and a dash of bad blood between opponents also are required to give a rivalry life. And with two powerhouse teams arriving to prominence together the past two years, the Rangers and Seattle Mariners could be in the early stages of a special rivalry themselves.

“The last couple of years, it’s grown,” Rangers third baseman Dean Palmer said. “It seems like the last few series with those guys have meant a lot. And whenever the top two teams in the division are playing - whether it’s early in the season, in the middle or late - it’s going to mean a lot.”

Round One of this year’s bout between the American League West heavyweights will begin Wednesday in Seattle, with the start of a two-game series in the Kingdome.

The Mariners will make their first visit to Arlington for a four-game series starting June 19.

“To me, rivalries happen over a period of time,” Rangers manager Johnny Oates said. “Our two teams haven’t won enough yet. And we’re so far away from each other geographically, it’s tough. But you can get a lot of anticipation and excitement about facing a certain team, like we have right now.

“It has the possibility of becoming a real rivalry.”

“For a while, we were both the laughing stocks as far as our division looked,” Seattle outfielder Jay Buhner said. “I’ll put our division up against anybody’s now.”

The Mariners - who began play in 1977 - won their first division title in 1995, beating the California Angels in a one-game playoff and finishing 4 games ahead of the third-place Rangers. Last year, Texas turned the tables, winning its first championship by four games over the second-place Mariners. The Rangers did it despite losing 10 of 13 games to Seattle for the second year in a row.

“They pretty much spanked us last year,” Palmer said, “But we still went out and did our job and won the division.”

The Rangers would prefer setting a different tone against the Mariners early this season. Over the past three seasons, Seattle has won 29 of the last 36 meetings, including 14 of 19 at The Ballpark in Arlington. The Mariners have won 19 of the last 22 at the Kingdome.

“I haven’t heard anyone in this clubhouse talking about that,” Mariners closer Norm Charlton said of his club’s recent dominance. “If we worry about the Rangers and not us, they’re going to kick us … We know the Rangers are going to be tough competition. That’s no secret. But I think we’ve got enough to worry about with our own team right now, and I don’t think Will Clark is worried about me.”

Clark and Buhner exchanged jabs in print during the spring. Buhner said the Mariners’ 4-game deficit last year would not have existed had Seattle pitching ace Randy Johnson not been limited by back problems to eight starts. Clark pointed out the Rangers won despite playing 28 games without injured A.L. Most Valuable Player Juan Gonzalez, and added the Rangers didn’t complain about their injuries.

The Mariners were further hurt by the absence of star outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., fourth in MVP voting, for 22 games due to a collection of injuries.

“I think it’s only common sense that, had we had Randy, the scenario would have been different last year,” Buhner said.Seattle’s Jeff Fassero, whose addition last winter beefed up the Seattle rotation, said, “This team, last year, finished just short of Texas, and they had lost their top starting pitcher. I think, going head-to-head with them, I like this lineup better than theirs.”