washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Columnists > Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell

Given the History, Rivalry Should Come Naturally

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H02

Much has been made of the baseball rivalry that is about to be born, or rather reborn, between Washington and Baltimore. Nationals Manager Frank Robinson has been asked about it constantly in spring training. His answers often seem a bit peculiar. The Orioles legend can't seem to get the word "rivalry" out of his mouth. Not with a straight face anyway. No matter how he tries, his answers always return to the same theme.

"You can't really have a rivalry unless the teams are competitive," says Robinson. "If one team is bad and the other is playing very well, you don't pay much attention to the team that's losing."

Frank Robinson's days as an Oriole still runs deep. "One night this summer when the Nationals dont play, Ill go over and watch ..... and have dinner," says the Nats manager. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)

Since the Nats and Orioles don't play in the same league and will not face each other in interleague play in '05, this seems like an odd point to emphasize. Especially since the Expos lost 95 games last year -- a total that is entirely too reminiscent of a typical Senators season. Can't the Nats be competitive with the Orioles -- act as a rival -- based on entertainment value, novelty or promise for the future? Do they have to match the rich Orioles in wins immediately?

"Oh, there'll be a rivalry, no doubt about it," Robinson amends. But then he backslides, saying that "the Clippers never approached the level of the Lakers" in the NBA so, "there has never been a rivalry."

You just can't get over it, can you, Frank? After 33 seasons, you keep sticking the dagger in one more time. You've got to keep dragging back our bitter Orioles memories, reopening the Senators wounds, don't you? You smug, supercilious Oriole.

Okay, just kidding. Robinson hasn't played in Memorial Stadium as a member of the Orioles since 1971 or managed the team since 1991. He's changed his orange-and-black colors -- well, to some degree -- and gotten with the Nationals' red-white-and-blue program.

"In the future, the Orioles could take the place of the Blue Jays as the regional team we play at least six games every year" in interleague play, Robinson said this month. "The Yankees and the Mets compete for the [tabloid] back page in New York. It could be a battle for the sports pages here, too."

Still, the Nats manager can't completely help himself. The old days are deep in him. One night this summer when the Nationals don't play, Robinson says, "I'll go over and watch an Orioles game and have dinner."

In Baltimore? The Nationals manager? Careful, Frank. Some of us haven't completely forgiven and forgotten.

What the Nats and Orioles will resume this season is not really a rivalry, so much as it is a history of oppression and subjugation bordering on a baseball mugging. What the Orioles did to the old Senators from '54 to '71, when both were in the American League and played as many as 22 times a season, was cruel and unusual punishment. And few Orioles did more damage than Robinson. So, any revenge that Washington extracts now, at the gate or in the standings, is decades overdue.

Any rivalry worth the name, whether it is the Red Sox and Yankees, the Giants and Dodgers or the Redskins and Cowboys, must be rooted in a genuine dislike, a grudge, a grievance or a culture clash. On all of that, the Nationals and the Orioles have a first-class head start. That's why Robinson -- caught in the middle -- always chooses his words gingerly. He knows the history, both far in the past and as fresh as this spring's TV-rights extortion attempts by Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

For the Orioles' part, all of their animosity toward the Nationals is rooted in the present. The ex-Expos franchise is taking back a hugely profitable territory that Baltimore ownership thought it had surreptitiously annexed through 34 years of attrition. However, Washington has plenty of reasons to be hot under the collar, too, and not just because of the fierce self-interestedness of Angelos as he has tried to block any franchise from relocating to the District in recent years.

If Washington wants to enjoy the pleasures of a cultivated hostility, all the city has to do is revisit its painful Orioles past. And what a rotten past it was. When the Orioles first moved to Baltimore from St. Louis in '54, they were so atrocious that they lost 100 games and finished a dozen games behind the Senators. For Washington fans like me, that was the first and only time the Senators ever finished ahead of the Orioles in the modern history of the franchises. (No, the 1902 season doesn't count.) Between '54 and '71, the Senators periodically escaped from last place. Sometimes, they briefly nosed ahead of famous franchises, including the Red Sox and (one season) even the Yankees. But never Baltimore. After that brief Washington superiority in '54, the Orioles finished 366 games ahead of the Senators over their remaining 17 years together in the AL. That era of abject humiliation began when I was 7, continued until I was 23 and, no doubt, explains many ugly character flaws.

Such dominance, combined with such proximity, can have lethal effects. To a degree, those elite Orioles may have killed interest in the sad-sack expansion Senators who endured on shoestring budgets, inept ownership (Bob Short) and highlights like Pantyhose Night. Ironically, the Orioles' great era began in 1961 with 95 wins, exactly the same season the expansion Senators (100 losses) replaced the original Senators, who'd absconded to Minnesota just as they were about to blossom into a contender.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company