Baseball in Beltway gaining steam

BALTIMORE -- Players in the Baltimore Orioles organization enjoy a rare opportunity to mingle with franchise royalty. When they pass manager Buck Showalter's office and turn right into the Camden Yards home clubhouse, they pass a big framed photo of Jim Palmer in action on the cinder block wall. Then they'll turn the corner and see the real Jim Palmer -- still dashing at age 68 -- expounding on the beauty of a well-located fastball with Chris Tillman or Zach Britton before he heads upstairs to call another game as the team's main TV color commentator.

In the Garden of the Greats picnic area beyond the center-field fence, bronze sculptures of Frank and Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., Earl Weaver, Palmer and Eddie Murray evoke memories of the franchise's intermittently glorious past. That wasn't the prime motivation for outfielder Adam Jones to sign an $85.5 million contract extension in 2012, but the view is a constant reminder for him to keep his priorities in order.

"Adam and I were kidding about that the other day," Showalter said. "I told him, 'If we win a couple of times, you'll have one of those statues out there.' That's how you get one. It's not because you're a good guy. It's because you played on championship teams."

Thirty-seven miles from Camden Yards, the Washington Nationals acknowledge their chaotic history with a Ring of Honor at Nationals Park. The 18 names cited are a hodgepodge of Hall of Famers from the Washington Senators (Harmon Killebrew and Walter Johnson), Montreal Expos (Andre Dawson and Gary Carter) and Negro League Homestead Grays (Josh Gibson and James "Cool Papa" Bell). There's not a Washington National in the bunch.

"That's the beauty of being a National," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Twenty years down the line, they might be bringing back Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman to watch the young guys. We were part of the first Nationals team to win a division. We can tell that story. That was us. Every milestone we get to, we're kind of living it, which is cool. And the fans who hung on during the trying times are starting to reap the rewards."

Five years removed from back-to-back 100-loss seasons, the Nationals are intent on building a tradition. Just up the road in Baltimore, the Orioles are looking to revive one.

Those lofty and ambitious goals intersected the night of Sept. 16 with 18 innings of Beltway baseball magic. Before 35,297 jubilant fans at Camden Yards, the Orioles beat Toronto 8-2 to win their first American League East title since 1997. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the Nationals beat the Braves 3-0 to clinch their second division title in three years.

As the regular season winds to a conclusion, the area serviced by Interstates 495 and 695 is rife with anticipation. The O's and Nats each must navigate two rounds of playoffs to reach the World Series, but a distinct opportunity awaits them. They have a chance to make the Baltimore-Washington market the center of the American sports landscape in late October and provide a temporary reprieve from Ray Rice elevator revelations and debate over the future of the nickname "Redskins."

"We have so many good fans, and they have some unbelievable fans," Washington first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I think there would probably be a few brawls during that series."

Collision course?

Beyond the Orioles' lobbying for an All-Star Game in 2016 and the Nationals' pushing to host one in 2017, the baseball teams in Baltimore and Washington aren't really rivals, per se. The Orioles live to beat the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East, and Nationals fans are more concerned with vanquishing the Braves and Phillies than they are with making statements in midsummer interleague cameos. But as both teams experience the joy of winning, the concept of bragging rights is gaining traction. The Orioles won three of four games in the teams' interleague matchup this season, and the crowds averaged 32,996 in Baltimore and 38,653 in Washington. That's significantly higher than the average gate for either club.

"We had an extra-inning game [in July], and it felt like a playoff game," Orioles reliever Darren O'Day said. "It did to me, at least, because I was pitching."

Baseball has five two-team markets, each with a distinct fan dynamic. In Chicago, the disdain among South Siders for the Cubs and North Siders for the White Sox is long-standing and palpable. In New York, Mets fans envy the Yankees' gargantuan payroll, while Yankees fans view the Mets with a sort of benign indifference beyond the rare occasions when the team in Flushing puts out a superior product.

The Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area has a lot more room for gray area, even though each side has its loyalists. Olympian Michael Phelps, rocker Joan Jett, game-show host Pat Sajak and actors Ed Norton, Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Wuhl and Josh Charles have proudly sported Orioles caps through the years. Julia Louis-Dreyfus' baseball allegiances are unconfirmed, but Elaine Benes' insistence on wearing an O's hat was enough to get her booted from the box seats at Yankee Stadium in a classic "Seinfeld" episode.

The public face of the Nationals' fan base skews older, more establishment and decidedly less hip. NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant, a D.C. native, posted a celebratory tweet after the Nationals clinched the NL East, but the team's core of die-hards is better represented by Charles Krauthammer, Wolf Blitzer, David Gregory, Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, who is quick to point out that Nationals manager Matt Williams and left fielder Bryce Harper both hail from his home state of Nevada.

Among the die-hards on both sides, it's not uncommon for fans in the market to have a soft spot for both clubs. That's a function of history. The St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954, and the Orioles spent the next 18 years amassing a .640 winning percentage (224-126) against their sad-sack neighbors, the Washington Senators. The principal diversion for Senators fans was watching Frank Howard, the "Capital Punisher," drive baseballs into sections of RFK Stadium in which they had no earthly right to land. Howard would have been one scary dude if he weren't so darned congenial.

"I remember I lost a game on a Frank Howard two-run homer in the seventh," Palmer said. "In the paper the next morning, he told everyone he hit a slider. I told him, 'Not only did you beat me with a home run -- you called my seventh-inning fastball a slider.' And he started apologizing to me."

The Orioles finished in first place seven times and won two World Series in a 14-year span under Weaver in the 1960s and '70s, but they played to meager crowds at Memorial Stadium until Washington-based lawyer Edward Bennett Williams bought the team and began to work his promotional magic. They set a franchise attendance record of 1.6 million in 1979 before losing to Pittsburgh in the World Series. By then, fans in Washington had grown accustomed to seemingly endless stretches of bad baseball or no baseball. The old Walter Johnson Senators left for Minnesota in 1961 and were replaced by a Senators club that rivaled the Mets as baseball's biggest punch line. Mark Lerner, the Nationals' principal owner, grew up in the District and watched Dick Bosman beat the Oakland Athletics 8-0 before 45,000 fans in the 1971 season opener. But for the most part, RFK Stadium was a great place to go for some solitude and a guaranteed foul ball.

Even the arrival of Ted Williams as Washington manager provided just a brief respite from the sense of defeatism and doom. The Senators left for Texas in 1972, and the Orioles helped fill a void that lingered until the return of baseball to D.C. in 2005.

"What we've had to do is create a fan base from nothing," Lerner said. "That's why we've focused on families since day one. Kids who were 8 years old and came to our first game in '05 are now driving their buddies to games. That's how you build a real fan base. You can tell every year that there are more Nats fans and fewer away teams coming to visit. It's been very interesting to notice the progression."

The MASN dispute

Since Cal Ripken Jr. retired in 2001, he has occasionally popped up as an ancillary figure in the tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of Beltway ball fans. Speculation that Ripken might buy the Orioles from Peter Angelos never came to fruition, and reports he might be a candidate to manage the Nationals quickly fell by the wayside in 2013. The Nationals hired Matt Williams, and Ripken continued to devote his energies to broadcasting, youth baseball and overseeing a reported $30 million baseball brand.

In 2012, the Orioles drafted Cal's son, Ryan, but he chose to attend Indian River Community College in Florida rather than turn pro. Two years later, the Nationals signed Ryan Ripken as a 15th-round pick and sent him off to the short-season Gulf Coast League, where he hit .157 in 16 games.

Any hostilities between the Orioles and Nationals are rooted in money rather than winning and losing. When baseball was seeking a haven for the troubled Expos a decade ago, Angelos resisted the idea of Washington as a landing spot because it would be an intrusion on his territory. He finally relented when MLB made it too financially advantageous for him to say no. Angelos received a $75 million payout and a 90 percent stake in the newly formed Mid-Atlantic Regional Sports Network. The Nationals, in turn, got a 10 percent stake that will increase by 1 percent a year and eventually be capped at 33 percent.

The deal also includes a provision to re-evaluate the rights fees every five years, and it's produced some major differences of opinion. In late June, an MLB panel awarded the Nationals a $60 million annual TV rights payment -- well short of the $118 million the team had been seeking. The dispute is now in court and appears destined to go on for a while.

"MASN has handled a lot of assignments very well," said Lee Berke, CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media Inc. "It solidified the financial base for what became the Nationals. It handled the losses that baseball suffered for taking on the Expos, and it served to compensate the Orioles for the territorial issues they had with a new baseball team coming to Washington. So it's done a lot.

"The problem isn't necessarily the Nationals versus the Orioles from a competitive standpoint. It's the business model. Baseball rights have become tremendously valuable, and live sports rights in general have become very valuable. If you took each team and put them up for bid on the open market, they would each generate substantial amounts of revenue and equity and network development on their own. Under that circumstance, it's difficult to fit them into one regional sports network."

While the Baltimore and Washington players are generally oblivious to the business machinations, they know a revved-up fan base when they see it. LaRoche, who lives in the Virginia suburbs, sees more fans wearing Nationals garb with each passing year. When the Nationals first took the field at RFK Stadium in 2005, it was routine to hear Orioles fans shout out their trademark "O!" during the national anthem. Now those outliers have dwindled to a handful, except at interleague games between the teams.

"The majority of our fans understand the game and are passionate about the Nationals," Desmond said. "We also have a new wave coming through. There are young kids who've spent the last six or seven years learning the game and putting their roots down with the curly 'W.' It's a mixed bag of players, too. We've got 21-year-old kids and 35- to 37-year-old guys, so there's a player on this team who can relate to every fan. We're all going through uncharted territory together."

Choosing sides

Phil Wood, a prominent face on the Baltimore-Washington sports broadcasting scene since the early 1970s, can relate to the emotional evolution of Beltway baseball aficionados. He was born in the District of Columbia, moved to northern Virginia with his family as a boy and now lives in suburban Baltimore County. Wood jokes that some Baltimoreans drove to Washington years ago, couldn't find a parking spot, went home and never returned. He also recalls a former program director at WTEM radio in Washington who predicted the Nationals would never capture the imagination of the D.C. sports market.

"He told me that a Redskins preseason game would be a bigger deal than a World Series game involving a Washington baseball team," Wood said. "I should point out that he's no longer the program director there."

"We have so many good fans, and they have some unbelievable fans. I think there would probably be a few brawls during that series."
Adam LaRoche on a
Nationals-Orioles World Series.

In a supercharged baseball environment, lazy proclamations and ambivalence are inevitable casualties. The magnanimous, community-spirited fan who shows up at Nationals Park or Camden Yards in a Nick Markakis jersey and a hat with a curly "W" is harder to find each year. Even in Columbia, Maryland -- a town almost directly between Baltimore and D.C. and the closest thing to Switzerland in the market -- neutrality is about to become an endangered species.

"People ask me all the time, 'What will happen if it's the Orioles and the Nationals in the World Series?'" Wood said. "I suspect there will be some degree of bloodshed. At that point in time, the gloves come off, and people will basically pick sides. It will be a great test of market versus market."

Next month, the Orioles and Nationals, Dodgers and Angels, and Giants and Athletics (if they can rouse themselves from Billy Beane's worst nightmare and clinch a playoff spot) will try to script the first commuter Fall Classic confrontation since New York's 2000 Subway Series. Beyond that one, you have to go back to the Athletics versus the Giants in 1989.

"I worked that Bay Area series [for ABC]," Palmer said. "Hopefully we won't have an earthquake this time."

The ground beneath the Beltways isn't shaking with baseball fervor just yet, but the landscape is shifting. And it's time for fans in Baltimore and Washington to stake out their turf.