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For O's, a Swing Set

Nonetheless, these four Red Sox games have restored much of the Orioles' recently tattered confidence, especially since the hero of the past two days -- Palmeiro -- has been such a calming force all season. After his eighth RBI in two days and his flag-porch home run for the 2,998th hit of his career on Sunday, Palmeiro was asked whether he would trade his 3,000th hit, when it comes, for a World Series ring.

"I don't have either of them," he said. "Maybe I'll have both after this year."

That's certainly optimistic. But in this area, in this summer, such thoughts seem to blossom. Long after this Orioles victory a different game continued on the field at Oriole Park. As two high school all-star games played, the scoreboard in right field, over which Palmeiro's home run had flown, continued to blink as new scores arrived from all around the major leagues.

As the shadows lengthened, almost every score had some pertinence for the postseason chances of either the Orioles or the Washington Nationals, who lead the National League East by 2 1/2 games and have a seven-game edge over Florida, which is currently second in the wild-card race. The Yankees, Twins and Rangers won, but the Indians lost. The Braves and Marlins lost, but the Cubs won. The permutations seemed endless, but the conclusion was clear.

As the all-star break arrives, the center of baseball gravity has swung toward Baltimore and Washington. Not one city or the other, but both of them. On Sunday, the Orioles, a team that claimed it might be irreparably injured at the gate by the arrival of the Nats, drew the largest crowd in the history of Camden Yards (49,828) as well as the largest four-game series ever in this park (195,722).

Those big crowds pulled the two franchises so close in attendance -- the Nats average 33,328 to the Orioles' 33,198 -- that the remarkable feature was not their similarity but the raw total of both cities combined: 66,526 fans. The Orioles are now 3,000 a game above their '03 pace and only 1,000 a game below '04. In fact, we've reached the point where the only two cities in all of baseball that draw more fans than the combination of Baltimore and Washington are Los Angeles and New York.

When baseball's owners and executives meet in Detroit to chat about their sport, one question that's perplexed the sport for decades seems to have been answered in barely half a season. The Washington-Baltimore debate was always framed wrong. Long ago, the sport should've sought to include both towns, not select one over the other.

Washington and Baltimore are drawing more fans than both teams in Chicago (65,155) or in the San Francisco Bay Area (63,399). Other regions have not kept up either. Baseball has two teams each in Texas (65,701), Missouri (60,990), Pennsylvania (56,775), Ohio (47,102) and pathetic Florida (35,645). By season's end, the Nats or Orioles, or both, may draw more fans than the Marlins and Devil Rays put together.

If the Orioles and Nationals play roughly as well after the break, the crowds at Camden Yards and RFK may grow even more as the team's postseason chances -- seen as remote and nonexistent, respectively, before the season -- become more tangible.

Can such a thing come to be? As the Oriole Park scoreboard flashed its scores into the evening, the numbers glittered and blinked as the sun began to set. Or, perhaps, they winked.

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