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One legend rises above blood feud of Rangers-Angels rivalry

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist
Mike Scioscia says Nolan Ryan earned the right to throw out the first pitch. (Getty Images)

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Yu Darvish, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, and all we heard about all winter was how the Angels and Rangers were amping up their rivalry into Red Sox-Yankees West.

Right.

Do you think Boston would ever invite a Yankees' club president to toss a first pitch in Fenway Park?

Can you picture, in a zillion pinstriped years, the Steinbrenners EVER allowing a Red Sox executive to set foot on the Yankee Stadium mound?

And yet, before the surging Angels kicked off the season's second series against Texas with a 4-2 win Friday, a Rangers president delivered the ceremonial first pitch with the Angels' blessing.

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"I think the president of our opponent was a pretty good pitcher in his day," Angels manager Mike Scioscia was saying, and now you wonder whatever happened to his competitive fire, don't you? "He's earned the right."

OK. So it's Nolan Ryan we're talking about. Hall of Famer and author of a record seven no-hitters, including four in an Angels' uniform.

"I've gotten a jersey signed by him," Angels disabled ace Jered Weaver said, and where's the fiery Weaver who wanted to take on the entire Tigers team during that series in Detroit last July when we need him? "Sent it over to him in Texas last year."

At least maybe those on both sides of this rivalry fence -- Texas and Los Angeles -- will be happy to know that Weaver didn't have a Rangers' jersey signed.

"We got those multi-colored Houston uniforms signed," Angels starter Dan Haren said, and dadgummit, he's in on this love-fest, too? "Those fluorescent orange and yellow tops."

On the mound in his day, Nolan Ryan would give his left arm to beat you. Then, he'd spit-shine his shoes while using your downed body as a footrest.

Still has that attitude working in the Rangers' executive offices while he oversees the construction of a team he hopes can whip the Angels (and Athletics and Mariners, too).

"Them dominating the division for many years, and then us coming in the last couple of years and taking over that role and them making the commitment they did this winter to improving their ballclub, everybody felt like it would be a battle between our two organizations for the division," Ryan said. "I think it's good for baseball, and I think it's good people perceive it as a rivalry."

Ryan was in Anaheim -- and throwing out the first pitch -- because of his inclusion in the Angels' Hall of Fame. Stunningly, he had not been back at the stadium since 1993, when he pitched his final game in Anaheim for the Rangers before retirement -- a 2-1 loss on Sept. 17. He was with the Angels from 1972-1979.

Though he was inducted into the Angels' Hall of Fame back in '93, members didn't receive rings back then. Now they do. The Angels were going to give Ryan his last summer in an on-field ceremony but he was ill and couldn't make it.

So the trip down memory lane was delayed until Friday, with the Rangers coming off back-to-back World Series appearances but stumbling a bit recently. They were 14-14 in May after a torrid 17-6 April.

"I think we got off to an awfully good start, and when you get off to a start like that, the expectations are that you'll play that way throughout the year," Ryan said. "I think you have to realize that that isn't going to happen and you're going to have periods where you don't play as well as you do other times.

"I think we've just gone through that and, hopefully, in the month of June we'll play better than we did in the month of May.

"I'm very pleased with where we are as a ballclub. People are staying healthy. I feel good about where we are. Yeah, if you wanted to break down the ballclub, there's obviously things that you'd like to see better. But I think, as a whole, we're doing well."

The Rangers' .608 winning percentage was the best in the American League and second only to that of the Dodgers (.627) in the majors entering the weekend. The Rangers led the AL in runs scored, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, home runs and batting average. Their pitchers ranked third in the league in ERA and strikeouts.

"I don't know that your club's ever where you want it to be because you're constantly trying to improve your ballclub," Ryan said. "But I think this is the best-balanced ballclub that we've had since I've been here. I feel like that's one of our strengths, our balance."

Between them, the Rangers and Angels have won the past five AL West flags. Clearly, 2012 will make it six in a row. While the Rangers opened an early division lead, the Angels closed to within 4 1/2 games with Friday night's win and now have won nine of their past 10.

They couldn't help but be hospitable to Ryan Friday afternoon ... before they went out and whacked his club Friday night. Weaver even spoke of rifling through the club's media guide during spring training and marveling at all of the gaudy numbers Ryan posted. Ryan is still the club's career leader in strikeouts (2,416) and walks (1,302).

"Looking at some of those numbers in a single season, it's incredible," Weaver said. "It doesn't make sense. It really doesn't."

Ryan owns six of the Angels' top eight single-season strikeout totals, including a club-record 383 in 1973. He also owns the top seven highest single-season walk totals, including the club-record 204 in 1977.

"What's crazy is the amount of walks he had," said Haren, who was right there poring over the records in the media guide with Weaver that day this spring. "But I don't think too many people were getting hits against him. So I guess giving up three or four walks a game was OK."

That's how it worked back then.

Now?

Darvish and C.J. Wilson face off against each other Saturday night, and sometimes ain't baseball just grand? That's the second time those two line up against each other in three weeks, and that should leave some blood on the tracks. Then Haren closes the series out against tough lefty Matt Harrison on Sunday as this burgeoning rivalry continues to take root.

"I think it's growing, and I think it's been growing and developing," Ryan said of the rivalry. "Do I think that we're on the level of the Boston-New York rivalry? No, I don't. But you know, one of the things that we're seeing over last couple of years is a lot of Texas Rangers fans are popping up all over the country and taking real pride in being Rangers fans and wearing our paraphernalia.

"I think that's a step in the right direction."
 
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