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The Mariners have a new rivalry

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spoiler alert: the real rivalry was within us all along

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of Bud Selig’s ham-handed attempt to force an interleague rivalry between the Mariners and Padres, two teams separated by a distance longer than the Great Barrier Reef, the Mariners have been lacking in good old-fashioned rivalry for the past decade or so. Most of this can be ascribed to the team’s breathtaking incompetence during the majority of this stretch; it’s hard to be rivals with a team that willfully rosters not one but three sub-replacement-level catchers in a single season (the 2010 Cerberus of Adam Moore-Rob Johnson-Josh Bard), DH’s a 32-year-old Jack Cust (THREE home runs in 2011), or counts Stephen Pryor, who pitched 7.1 innings for the 2012 Mariners, as one of their top-ten WAR leaders for the season on Baseball Reference. Outside of a brief flare in 2016 (actually, apologies, Rangers fans, winning one-run games is Good), Mariners fans have mostly sat back and watched as fans of the other four teams in the division have each had their turn in the sun and their chance to hate on whichever team is hottest on their heels.

Currently, though, it’s the Mariners who are being hated on (some more tongue-in-cheekily than others). At Twinkie Town, a game story led off with a picture of Mike Zunino with the caption “I hate this man.” (Z’s only two career walkoff homers are both against the Twins, so it’s a fair complaint.) Cleveland’s official account reassured a fan they were done with the Mariners for the regular season. And over at Halos Heaven, a Fanpost recently appeared that was literally “the Mariners should have to forfeit all the games they won with Robinson Canó: MY COLUMN.” It’s a weird place to be in; the 2016 team got off to a similarly hot start, but fell off sharply over June, and never regained first place, ceding the division to the Rangers and getting beaten out for the Wild Card by the Blue Jays.

Speaking of the Blue Jays, it could be argued the Seattle-Toronto rivalry is the team’s built-in rivalry, with things always becoming contentious during the yearly invasion of Safeco by swarms of chattering Blue Jays fans. But it’s much more satisfying to be inter-division rivals— there’s a reason the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is one of the strongest in baseball—with two teams that match up by design and not scheduling quirk. (Also, the Blue Jays are currently pretty bad, which diminishes the rivalry, at least until we have to see Vlad Jr. breaking windows on the Smith Tower with baseballs.) Geographic proximity is also a key part of creating a solid rivalry—again, see Red Sox-Yankees—and even the phrase “Seattle-Toronto rivalry” isn’t one that inflames the passions. So until MLB puts a team in Portland and we get a taste of what MLS fans have experienced for years, we’ll have to settle for the next best thing: intense hatred of the Los Angeles Angels.

The Angels tick off all the boxes for a solid rivalry. With the Astros having built a pitching staff that should be accessed only by the turning of ten keys simultaneously in ten different underground bunkers, alongside a young, controllable core offense, second place in the AL West is the new first, and the Mariners and the two California teams seem to be the ones that will contend for it in the near future while the Rangers bulldoze their team along with their park and start fresh. The A’s are always threats with their young and powerful lineup, and even this year it seems [is reminded that pitching is part of baseball]—as I was saying, the Angels are the clearest threat to the Mariners’ path to a possible Wild Card berth and maybe even contending for the division if things go sideways in Houston for some bizarre, yet totally makes-sense-because-baseball, reason. That alone would be enough to stoke the flames of a solid rivalry, but wait, there’s more.

Much has been written about the fraught nature of Dipoto’s tenure in Los Angeles Anaheim Los Angeles the part of Southern California with cars but not beaches. Dipoto left LA on his terms, and while not exactly covered in glory, the general sense of the fanbase—judging from comments on our network blog Halos Heaven, among others—was that this was simply an untenable situation coming to a head. An analytics-minded GM who wanted his assistant GM to be hands-on proved to be a poor match for a traditionally-minded manager who wanted to do things his way. But in the subsequent years of Billy Eppler’s tenure, the general fan feelings towards Dipoto seemed to have shifted. The current popular narrative appears to be “Dipoto burned the farm and left a mess for Eppler to clean up.” This was most heavily driven home when the Ohtani signing was announced, leading to a flood of notifications on the Lookout Landing twitter account—some of which involved some very crude photoshops—about how much better Eppler is than Dipoto. (I went looking for some of them to support the point, but it turns out I muted most of Twitter that day.)

Regardless of your feelings about Dipoto vs. Eppler—and there’s reason to believe the two are more similar than some may think—the fact is that Angels fans, who heretofore I did not know existed outside of an abstract, generally red presence, have gotten cocky lately. They have the two best players in baseball, and they want to make sure everyone knows it. The team even scheduled an Ohtani bobblehead giveaway for while the Mariners are in town. While Dipoto and Eppler are friends, their fanbases certainly are not. Every Mariners victory is a little extra thumb in the eye of Mike Scioscia, who found Scott Servais irritating, and every Angels victory is more fuel for the “Dipoto is dead, long live King Eppler” crowd.

And then there’s the fact that when the Mariners have failed in epic fashion, in recent years it’s often been at the hands of the angry tomato god. There was the complete bullpen collapse of early April last year that resulted in an Angels sweep. Lollablueza that became LOL-ablueza. And, the most cardinal of sins, besmirching Edgar’s retirement weekend with yet another sweep. (What’s known around here as “Deadgar Weekend.”)

When you play a division rival and screw up as much as the Mariners have over their short, painful existence, a rivalry will develop naturally just because that’s the team you’re most often falling on your face against. Really, a traditional rivalry takes two, but the Mariners have gotten in their own way so much of the time, it’s fair to say they’re their own rivals. So that’s why this series is so important—not because it’s about beating the Angels (although it is most definitely about needing to beat the Angels to maintain a hold on the division), but because it’s about being able, as a team, to get out of their own way. It’s about shaking off all the noise and disappointment and distractions of this season and just playing good baseball against a team that, on paper, should be a fairly even match-up despite rostering the best player on the planet. It’s about putting the history of this team behind them and taking a big step forward. It’s about proving that, even if they have a new rival, Mariners aren’t their own worst enemies. And it’s one of the last checkpoints beyond which arguments that this team “just isn’t that good” won’t hold up.

It’s something we haven’t seen before. But then again, this season has already been full of things we haven’t seen before.

Except in rare cases, due to team fortunes that fluctuate year-to-year, rivalries don’t hold up for very long (See: the Seahawks-49ers rivalry, 2011-2014). With the Angels possessing two of the best players in baseball and the Mariners finally gaining some stability and momentum, the dawn of a refreshed rivalry is upon us. Let’s make the most out of it, by beating both the Angels and the ghosts of the past.