First of all, dispense with the cute nicknames, like "Battle of the Beltway." A great rivalry doesn't require a nickname. Only the names of the teams involved are needed to describe it: Yankees-Red Sox . . . Cubs-Cardinals . . . Dodgers-Giants. Cute nicknames are what happen when you try to concoct something fake: "Subway Series." "I-70 Series." "Battle of the Bay."
There is a long, long, long way to go before the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles can develop anything that remotely resembles a great rivalry. In fact, there are many things working against it. The lack of shared history. The separate leagues. The lack of head-to-head matchups until 2006. The non-competitiveness of recent seasons. You can't be great rivals if you never play each other and never win.
The Dodgers and Giants have met 2,054 times, but it's Bobby Thomson's homer that's remembered most.
(1951 Associated Press Photo)
But this spring, as the nation's capital welcomes baseball -- in the form of the Nationals, transplanted this winter from Montreal -- back to town after a 34-year absence, there is a distinct sense of shared desire throughout the region to make something special from our fortuitous geography:
Two teams less than 40 miles apart. Two distinct cities with distinct mistrust of the other. One more reason to uncover the passion that makes us love our team and hate our rival.
Before this can be a great rivalry, however, it must be a rivalry in the first place. Is it possible, and if so, what is it going to take?
"Number one, it will depend on [quality of] the product you have on the field," says Nationals Manager Frank Robinson -- who, for now anyway, is the resident expert on this topic, having spent 19 years in the Orioles organization as a player, coach, manager and executive. "Also, you have to play each other for it to become a rivalry. And you have to be competitive. Until those things happen, it's not going to be a rivalry."
Robinson has almost nailed it. Rivalology is an art, not a science. (Okay, we made that up.) But rivalologists have determined there are five necessary components that make up a great rivalry:
The teams must be close enough, geographically, to allow one team's fans to regularly encounter the other's. You can't hate something you never see.
Boston and New York share the East Coast megalopolis (and the belief that the world revolves them). St. Louis and Chicago are separated by a couple hundred miles of Illinois farmland. Put it this way: It's not a rivalry unless you can get in your car, drive to your rival's stadium, buy some scalped tickets outside the park, then go in and experience three hours of taunting from the home fans.
"The funny thing about our rivalry," said former Chicago Cubs great Andre Dawson, "was that there always seemed to be more Cardinals fans at [Chicago's] Wrigley Field, and more Cubs fans in St. Louis. Those series were a big deal. People mixed it up pretty good. The crowds were always huge, and they were always into it."
2. Head-to-head matchups*
(*Note: spring training games don't count.)
Because MLB's 2005 composite schedule was completed well in advance of the Montreal Expos' relocation to Washington -- and because reconfiguring the schedule would have required an act of algorithmic computation that surely would have fried the world's most powerful computer -- the Orioles and Nationals will not play each other in 2005. Or perhaps it was because MLB has a woeful lack of marketing foresight.
In any case, the first Orioles-Nationals games -- most likely six of them, split equally between Washington's RFK Stadium and Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- will take place in 2006. Since the Orioles are in the American League and the Nationals (duh!) are in the National League, the only way they could play each other sooner is for both to make the World Series this season.
There is no way to get around this requirement. There is no substitute for frequent head-to-head matchups. One reason the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has surpassed all others in recent years is the frequency of the meetings: Over the past two years, the teams have played each other a total of 52 times, including 14 times in the postseason.