By Thomas Boswell
Friday, March 31, 2006
Symbolic days can surprise you. You don't know how you'll feel until they arrive. Tonight, the Baltimore Orioles come to RFK Stadium to play the Washington Nationals in a game that, for more than 30 years, many doubted would ever come to pass.
Now that it's here, Washington fans who enjoyed an Orioles feast for decades, then fumed for years as Baltimore's owner blocked a team for the District, have a chance to voice their feelings.
If they can figure out what those feelings are.
Many in baseball assume this exhibition game is the beginning of an intense rivalry. They imagine the Nats and Orioles, who will meet six times every season as "natural rivals," will breed the same kind of profitable animosity that makes Yankees and Mets fans taunt each other. Or brings out big crowds for the Dodgers and Angels or White Sox and Cubs.
For Washington and Baltimore, however, baseball feelings are not nearly so simple. When the Nats travel to Baltimore tomorrow for the last exhibition game of spring, a similar ambiguous uneasiness will be in play at Camden Yards. The existence of the Nationals cuts the potential income of the Orioles, though no one knows how much. Yet who in Baltimore can begrudge a big-league team to a town that had one for 71 years then lost it? Crab City mourned its Colts for decades until it got its Ravens, just as Washington longed for its Senators until it got its Nats. You can't be that similar and ignore the parallels for convenience.
No, this complex relationship between towns and teams, which will be on display for the next two days, runs deeper and is more tangled than the usual dumbed-down rivalry. Why, who knows, the Orioles may be cheered in Washington and the Nationals be received courteously in Baltimore. And perhaps they should be.
After all the pleasure that the Orioles gave to Washington baseball fans for one-third of a century, isn't dignity and appreciation at RFK the least that is owed? And after all the years that the Orioles' mere existence prevented Washington, a town twice Baltimore's size, from getting a team, shouldn't Baltimore have the good grace to say: "You waited long enough. Welcome back."
Besides, how deeply can Washington and Baltimore hate each other when they are both busy being mad at the same man? The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
No, you don't even have to mention the fellow's name, do you? Everybody in both cities -- and not just the fans -- knows who you mean. When you oversee the ruination of a legendary franchise in the state where you are among the richest citizens while simultaneously using threats within baseball to keep a team out of the nation's capital, you achieve a certain perverse singularity.
If you try to find a Nats fan with a genuine visceral dislike for the Orioles, you may have an all-day job. Every rendition of the national anthem at a major Washington sports event still gets a burst from the crowd at, "Ohhhhhh, say does that star-spangled banner . . ." That happens nowhere else in America. And the "O" is for "Orioles." Do Mets fans interrupt the anthem to salute the Yankees?
So, as the Orioles are announced on Friday, many will face a dilemma.
Do we graciously applaud the franchise that brought the World Series to our doorsteps in '79 and '83? Do we remember all the barren years for baseball in Washington when Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and Mike Mussina were so vastly superior to the alternative? Which was nothing. Do we remember the electric seasons when a trip to Camden Yards meant the best new ballpark in America, a packed house of 45,000 a night and a contending team? Do we remember the Streak in '95, the Farewell in '01, Earl Weaver's tantrums, the Roar From 34, the near-miss seasons of '80, '82 and '89 that were almost as good as pennants and Miggy Tejada's 150-RBI season at shortstop just two years ago?
If you remember Dave Johnson the pitcher almost as clearly as Davey Johnson the manager, how can you ever hate a Bird?
My son is in this camp. He watched his first games in the upper deck of Memorial Stadium, became a teenager in the mythological Ripken era and, at spring training, discovered that many Orioles will shake a kid's hand. To him, they are baseball. Camden Yards holds his memories. Someday, he may set foot in RFK. Or Nats Park. But not yet. He's loyal.
Then there are the rest of us, the conflicted, the baseball bruised, who can't forget the last eight years when Baltimore fielded eight straight losing teams and fired or drove away announcer Jon Miller, general manager Pat Gillick, manager-of-the-year Johnson and many other fan favorites. Not to mention all the free agents who wouldn't come to Baltimore. Who wants to become a footnote to a soap opera? The worst that can be said of the Orioles is that last season was fairly typical: Sidney Ponson punched a judge on Christmas, Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for steroids, Sammy Sosa feuded openly with Tejada and manager Lee Mazzilli was mercifully fired along with Jim Beattie, one of the team's two semi-general managers.
The Orioles only triumph of '05: grabbing the Nats' TV rights.
As the Orioles arrive in town, trying to rebuild (again) under chipper manager Sam Perlozzo, we are left with mixed feelings. Are the Orioles our convenient window into the American League as well as a bonus team to root for if we choose? Or are they merely an emblem of a black (and orange) hearted team whose battle with Comcast over cable TV dollars has resulted in fewer Nats games appearing on TV in Washington?
Each fan will have a personal response to this dilemma. So far, no one has any hint how either team will be received in the other's park. Soon, we'll know. Perhaps we'll see schizophrenic signs like: "Free the Nats. Go O's."
Who knows, bound by a common nemesis, we may be on the verge of the most mutually sympathetic rivalry in sports.