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A’s-Angels rivalry is mutual, but with room to grow

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Both fan bases consider each other their top rivals, even without much high-stakes history yet

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics
The managers then had a pregame thumb wrestle, with the loser receiving a wet willy.
Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have enjoyed rivalries with many AL teams over the years. They’ve battled for their division or a wild card with various foes, and seen eight different AL opponents in the playoffs. There’s no shortage of history all around the league.

But one American League team stands above the rest, and that’s the Los Angeles Angels. In our poll last week, Athletics Nation chose the Halos as Oakland’s top nemesis, earning 43% of the vote to edge out the runner-up Astros and their current budding rivalry.

It turns out the feeling is mutual. Last week, Halos Heaven ran their own poll on Twitter asking the same question, and their fans chose the A’s. Only the AL West teams were included on their ballot, but Oakland earned 42% of the vote.

It’s no surprise to see these two teams at odds. There’s a natural geographic connection, with one representing the northern part of California and the Bay Area specifically, and the other down in Southern California. These two regions already have a rivalry in life in general, and that tends to extend into all corners of the sporting world. A’s-Angels doesn’t have the dramatic history of Giants-Dodgers, but logistically speaking it’s the AL version.

That intrastate proximity also means the two clubs have always shared a division, which tends to stoke the competitive fires. The Angels got their start in 1961, and the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968, so when the AL West division was formed in ‘69 they were both founding members. Half a century later, they’re still vying for the same annual crown — and due to unbalanced scheduling they play each other a whopping 19 times every season, nearly 12% of their total games in a normal summer.

On that final point, in their franchise history the Angels have played more games against the A’s than any other opponent, and since moving to Oakland the A’s can say the same about the Halos. In their 832 matchups since 1968, the green-and-gold is ahead 450-382, for a .541 win percentage, and if you extend it back to the Angels’ origins in ‘61 then the A’s are still on top by a .521 clip in 958 games.

Between the intrastate geography, the divisional implications, and the sheer quantity with which they’ve faced each other, these two make perfect sense as rivals. And yet, while both sides recognize that relationship, it’s still not as strong as it could be — after all, each earned only a tepid plurality in our websites’ respective polls, not the overwhelming majority you would expect from true archenemies.

History and heyday

Despite being in the same division for so long, it took a few decades for this pair to meaningfully clash in the standings.

The Angels were an also-ran in the 70s when the A’s were winning rings, and then the Halos peppered in a few playoff appearances in ‘79, ‘82, and ‘86, before Oakland launched their next dynasty. During the 20th century neither ever finished runner-up behind the other or had any kind of exciting race together, with the closest coming in ‘89 when the 91-win Halos finished third place and eight games back of the eventual champion A’s. They were almost never good at the same time, partly because the Angels just weren’t good very often at all.

They had their moments back then. Clyde Wright threw a no-hitter against Oakland in 1970, and in ‘75 the A’s returned the favor with a combined effort led by Vida Blue. In 1971 they played a 20-inning marathon, ending in a 1-0 Oakland victory. But those incidental occurrences didn’t lead to anything bigger, and they hadn’t ever shared the thrilling stage of a pennant drive.

It took until the 2000s for this rivalry to really hit its stride. Oakland went to the playoffs in 2000 and ‘01, and then the Angels joined the party in ‘02. They combined to win 202 games that year, with the A’s taking the division and the Angels settling for the Wild Card, and then the Angels went all the way through October to earn their first-ever World Series title.

From there, it was on. When the Moneyball A’s ran out of steam after ‘03, it was the Halos that picked up the mantle, winning the West five of the next six years — except for ‘06, when Oakland temporarily grabbed it back from them. In 2004 they had their tightest race yet, with their division battle coming down to a head-to-head matchup in the final weekend and the Angels clinching at the Coliseum in the second-to-last game of the season.

After a rebuild, the upstart A’s returned to contention in 2012, and the pair found themselves locking horns once again. Both were chasing the incumbent two-time AL champion Rangers, and they had some epic games together down the stretch. The highlight came in mid-September, when reliever Jerry Blevins was called to squash a 9th-inning Angels rally that had already cut Oakland’s lead to just one run — with runners on the corners and nobody out, the lefty threw eight brilliant pitches to record a strikeout and a double play, sealing the crucial victory.

The A’s went on to win the West that year, fending off the Angels and then passing the Rangers on the final day of the season, and they repeated in 2013. But in ‘14, the Angels got their revenge, taking advantage of a historic second-half collapse by Oakland to run away with the division title.

What this rivalry needs to really push it over the top is more of that. Both teams contending simultaneously, playing high-stakes games, snatching playoff spots away from each other, and authoring historically significant moments that build the emotional connection. In 2012, Grant Brisbee wrote about the A’s-Angels rivalry for SB Nation, pointing out this exact requirement for the relationship to take its next step. They’ve laid a good foundation so far in the 21st century, and now they need to add to it with another memorable fray.

Perhaps the next such era is dawning. The Angels have been oddly uncompetitive the last several years, despite employing the best player in the sport and multiple other stars, while the A’s have risen back toward the top of the pack. But there’s enough talent in Anaheim for them to make a run, and one of these years they’re going to get it together and do just that. When they do, an Oakland powerhouse will hopefully be right there to greet them.

Villains and feuds

While A’s-Angels doesn’t have the nationally iconic moments or century-long background of some more famous rivalries, it’s not devoid of drama.

One example that immediately jumps to mind is the 2006 brawl between fiery longtime Angels ace John Lackey and hard-nosed A’s catcher Jason Kendall. During an at-bat between the two, they got into a shouting match about Kendall’s reputation for sticking his elbow out to get hit by pitches, and Kendall charged the mound. Susan Slusser described the action in the S.F. Chronicle:

Even though Lackey has 6 inches and more than 30 pounds on Kendall and even though Angels catcher Jeff Mathis grabbed the A’s catcher from behind, Kendall managed to take down Lackey, and as soon as he did, they were swarmed by players from both teams.

The benches and bullpens emptied, and for several minutes, there was a mass of flailing bodies on the center of the diamond. It was the A’s first full-scale brawl since August 1993 at Milwaukee. Most of the players had no idea what was happening, but jumped in there, anyway.

In this case, a picture says a thousand words.

Angels pitcher John Lackey throws a punch on Oakland A’s batter Jason Kendall as Angel catcher Jeff Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Lackey had already been easy to dislike as an opposing fan, between his star talent and intense nature, but this fight immortalized his legacy in the teams’ rivalry.

Kendall had also previously established himself as a thorn in the Angels’ side by that point, as he tended to do with most opponents. In 2005, he forced a popular villain into the all-time blooper reel, pulling off a whopper at the expense of Francisco Rodriguez.

With the score tied in the 9th inning of an August game and the A’s rallying, K-Rod became frustrated by a call on a close pitch. When his catcher threw the ball back, a distracted K-Rod clanked it, allowing it to roll away toward second base. An alert Kendall, standing on third base, recognized the opportunity and darted home to score the walk-off run, embarrassing the All-Star closer.

Fast forward a few years, and we get to C.J. Wilson. In 2011, the outspoken pitcher coined the term “lawyer ball,” which A’s fans appropriated as a term of pride.

“It’s like obviously no one sets out there to go walk guys, and I haven’t been doing that lately,’’ Wilson said [after walking five batters in a loss]. “It’s just only against their team that I do that. They take everything close. If it’s not called a strike, then they walk. It’s lawyer ball. That’s how they roll.

“That’s how they’re going to beat me. That’s how they have to beat me. I have to make a bunch of mistakes and walk a bunch of guys because they’re not that good of a hitting team. The whole game was frustrating.’’

Later that year, he vented on Oakland once again.

“I hate pitching there. The mound sucks, the fans suck. There’s no fans there,” Wilson said, free-flowing off a question about the ample foul territory at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. “It’s too bad because the fans that are there are really adamant and they’re really stoked on the team and they play drums and they wave flags and that’s cool. But, you know, some games you go there and there’s like 6,000 people there.”

Those quotes, combined with Wilson’s star status during the competitive 2012-13 years, made him perhaps the biggest villain in the history of this rivalry from Oakland’s perspective, and certainly the most recent one.

You could even add Mike Scioscia to the list, if only because he managed the club for 19 seasons during the entirety of this 21st-century renaissance. He didn’t do anything specifically wrong, but he was in charge of a major opposing team long enough to draw the ire of Oakland fans on many occasions, and his old-school style provided a perfect foil for the perpetually innovative A’s and their disregard for conventional wisdom.

The Angels have plenty of big names now, like Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Anthony Rendon, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, an aging Albert Pujols, and an up-and-coming Jo Adell, but none of them have stepped up as being bad guys — in fact, they’re all universally respected. They might beat the A’s on the field sometimes, but there hasn’t been real animosity in years. Maybe that will change once they’re both relevant and play meaningful games together.

In the meantime, there are lots of other details to be annoyed about. The Rally Monkey was a mascot only a home fan could love, and their switch from the Anaheim name to Los Angeles (without actually changing locations) was a tacky attention-grab in the most shallowly L.A. way possible. They light off fireworks after every home run they hit, which gets to be overkill after a while.

Their biggest turnoff might be the way they throw around money. After winning the ‘02 World Series as scrappy mid-budget underdogs, new owner Arte Moreno turned them into nouveau riche big spenders, making his first splash by signing superstar Vladimir Guerrero. Since then they’ve tried to act as financial heavyweights, like a western branch of the Yankees, going after all the big fish and sometimes reeling them in.

In a fun twist for A’s fans, though, those attempts to buy superstars have backfired more often than not. The Angels paid top dollar for the decline decade of Pujols’ career in one of the biggest albatross contracts in history, and they poached Josh Hamilton away from a division rival only to have him implode midway through his nine-figure deal, leading them to eat over $60 million just to trade him away. The last couple seasons they’ve paid Upton handsomely to supplement Trout in the lineup but finished below .500 due partly to a lack of pitching, and they responded last winter by dropping a quarter-billion dollars on another hitter in Rendon.

For a low-budget team like the A’s, an opponent with a high payroll becomes an even easier target, presenting the extra challenge of a Goliath to overcome. Every time the Angels spend lavishly on a glamorous free agent, the Oakland faithful gets even more motivated to take them down.

Of course, Angels fans could surely construct a similar list of gripes and grievances about the A’s, complete with players who have irritated them, and lord knows there are plenty of fair mocks and criticisms about our team. But there’s no need to get into those self-deprecating topics — that’s the job of the other side to point out.

The rivalry both teams need

While the A’s-Angels rivalry is strong enough to register, both teams do have their other demons.

The A’s have the Giants just a few miles down the highway, close enough to split households. But that feud is more cultural, with Giants fandom spilling deep into supposedly green-and-gold territory and San Francisco’s recent championships emboldening their base. Also driving a wedge is their ownership’s refusal to cooperate with the A’s recent attempts to build a new ballpark and ensure their future in the Bay Area. Even Oakland’s elephant mascot dates back to an old spat between them from their distant past out east.

On the field, though, there’s not much there with San Francisco because they’re in opposite leagues. Their interleague games are fun but more as a midsummer spectacle than a meaningful battle, and their last showdown in the World Series was over 30 years ago. It’s fun to hate the Giants, but it doesn’t carry the same weight and relevance as divisional classics like Yankees-Red Sox, Cardinals-Cubs, or Giants-Dodgers.

The Angels also share a market, with the Dodgers, but the same limitations apply — and without the bonus of postseason experience together. Among the AL they have some painful playoff history with Boston, just as the A’s do with the Yankees, but they’ll never be the primary rivals of those opponents and any true connection between them is mostly episodic within those fleeting eras.

The same principle applies to the Astros, who are probably the top current antagonist for each California club. The present-day bitterness toward them is largely based on their finite status as the disgraced heavyweight trying to maintain a firm grasp on the division and league, and it could fade over the years as they cycle back to the bottom for their next turn in the cellar. And anyway, they have the Rangers right next door to focus on long-term as true rivals.

But A’s-Angels is just the right niche for both clubs. They share a state, a league, and a division, and they play each other as often as anyone. They both deal with being the second fiddle in a two-team market, as well as overlooked West Coasters in an East Coast world. Neither has a more obvious partner, making them each other’s best bets, even if it has the contrived feeling of being the last two left on the dance floor after everyone else is paired up. It’s a sensible match.

That’s enough of a foundation to build on, even in years when they aren’t both contenders in the standings, and clearly the mutual interest is already there. It’s a good rivalry right now, and with some more high-stakes divisional battles together, it could be great.