Rivalries in sports are usually cut and dry. They consist of two franchises, from their fan bases all the way to the front offices, that flat out don’t like each other. When the two teams get together, it’s always a different feel from a game versus any other opponent, even if both teams are having down years.
The recipe for a good rivalry should include most of the following:
- Consistently on the schedule, particularly in the final 1/4 of a season. Obviously helps if teams are in the same division
- Geographic proximity
- Star players on both sides, presently and historically. Bonus points for a star player who defects from one side to the other
- Off the field drama between the players or front office
- History of meeting in the playoffs
- Some sort of David vs Goliath or Good vs Evil type angle
- Famous moments in the history of the sport involving the two teams
- Large, enthusiastic fan bases
Which brings us to the complicated case of the Nationals/Orioles rivalry, or at least an attempt at a rivalry. As the Nats and O’s wrap up a three game series at Camden Yards today, an up to the second appraisal of the relationship between the two teams seems in order.
As is often mentioned when discussing the two franchises that are separated by the longest 38 mile drive in the country, DC didn’t have baseball for 33 years. From 1972 to 2005, DC baseball fans had one choice if they wanted to support a team that was somewhat local; the Baltimore Orioles.
Because of that three decade plus period without baseball in The District, you now have a couple generations of DC area baseball fans who grew up watching the Orioles win a World Series in 1983, an AL Pennant in 1979 as well as playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997. On September 6, 1995, Cal Ripken broke Lou Gerhig’s consecutive games played streak when he played in his 2131st straight game in front of a packed house at Camden Yards.
Speaking of Camden Yards, it was built in 1992 and revolutionized the way ballparks were built. I haven’t been to enough Major League ballparks to be an authority on the subject, but Camden Yards for me is one of the best stadiums I’ve been to period. Even with many great stadiums opening after Rick Sutcliffe threw the first pitch at Camden Yards, and old cathedrals like Wrigley and Fenway still standing, Camden Yards is constantly voted as one of the top 5 parks in baseball.
I mention this brief Orioles history lesson, because all of this happened when DC didn’t have baseball, so you ended up with lots of folks in The District, Northern Virginia, Southern Montgomery County and Prince George’s County who have 30+ years of Orioles big moments and Hall of Fame heroes saved up in their bank of baseball fandom.
This history created a dilemma for DC baseball fans when the Montreal Expos moved to DC and became the Washington Nationals. That dilemma was also the reason the “Battle of the Beltways” was a watered down matchup until recently. From a fan perspective, there were just way too many people who didn’t take sides. Instead, it was totally common to attend a game at Nats Park when the Orioles were in town and see people wearing BOTH teams gear. Neither team was good and so their games became harmless exhibitions where lots of fans left a winner, no matter what team prevailed. That’s no way to build a rivalry.
But then in 2012, something happened that any good rivalry needs to get going. Both teams started winning and fans had to take sides. If you’re still trying to cling to the “Nats are my NL team and Orioles are my AL team”, it’s time to cut the cord on one of them. Sorry, but these are the rules. The diehard Orioles fans living in DC and Virginia who jumped to the Nats when they arrived into town are a tricky case. Yes, your real home town got a team, but was it that easy to turn your back on the team you rooted for the majority of your life? I personally couldn’t do it, but I’m willing to be open minded about that scenario.
Crowds have grown at both stadiums when the teams meet, and the Nationals continue to deal with the issue of an Orange and Black invasion in the stands when the Orioles come to town. The Nats have a lockdown on new baseball fans in Northern Virginia, but it will take a couple generations to completely flush out the remnants of the Natty Boh drinking Birds fans from Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria and beyond.
Off the field, the rivalry is rich. From the turf wars by both teams marketing departments for fan loyalty (I saw billboards advertising Orioles ticket plans en route to the Delaware beaches this summer), to Orioles owner Peter Angelos doing everything he could to keep baseball out of DC and claiming The District didn’t have enough baseball fans to support a team, to Buck Showalter just last season saying Angelos was “kind enough to let them have a team here.”
If claims like Showalter’s don’t get your blood boiling as a Nats fan, you may need to start watching your baseball games on Eutaw Street.
The big MASN dispute has been a cloud hanging over the relationship between the two teams for years now, starting during the Bud Selig era and now being inherited by new Commissioner Rob Manfred. With the litigious Angelos going toe to toe with the deep pockets of Nationals owner Ted Lerner, that’s another battle that doesn’t seem will end soon and only adds fire to the rivalry.
Even the cities themselves couldn’t be any more different. Baltimore’s beer and a shot crowd thinks that the DC brunch crowd wouldn’t know a four seam fastball if it hit them in the head. Meanwhile, DC has a chip on it’s shoulder that they aren’t considered a baseball town and the fan base has grown consistently. Washingtonians also are never shy about turning up their noses at their blue collar neighbors to the north.
Marketing battles for fan allegiance? Off the field legal battles? Fans defecting from one side to the other? All good aspects of a great sports rivalry. But above all else, a good rivalry needs star players delivering unforgettable moments under the lights of pivotal late season games. The problem with the Nats/Orioles attempt at a rivalry is they just don’t get enough chances to deliver those moments.
With the MLB current scheduling format, the most the Nationals and Orioles can play each other during the regular season is six times. That’s roughly 4% of either teams schedule and not nearly enough reps to deliver lasting, classic moments between the two teams. It’s a problem every interleague matchup has, including the Yankees and Mets. Contrary to what ESPN might make you believe when they inevitably air the Subway Series on Sunday Night Baseball, it’s just not a huge rivalry for those fan bases compared to their divisional foes.
Also, until this year when the Orioles will travel to Nats Park at the end of September, the season series between the two teams has usually been completed before the All Star Break arrived. Not much has ever been at stake when the Nats and O’s get together.
The star power is there on both sides, led by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but until the teams get scheduled to play more often or meet in a World Series, the rivalry will probably continue to stall out compared to their rivalries within their respective leagues.