Not Quite a Rivalry, But in the Neighborhood
Friday, May 19, 2006
Late at night on Sept. 10, 1971, the Washington Senators' bus pulled out of a parking lot at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, following a 7-1 loss to Frank Robinson and the mighty Orioles, and rumbled down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway toward RFK Stadium, where the players disembarked, climbed into their own cars and went home. There were two more games scheduled in the four-game series, but rain canceled them. And with that bit of anticlimax, a regional rivalry went dormant for 3 1/2 decades.
The Orioles, one of baseball's jewel franchises of that era, went on to win their third straight American League pennant that season -- losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series -- while the Senators, one of baseball's worst franchises, would play only 16 more games before being moved by owner Bob Short to Arlington, Tex., after the season.
This weekend at RFK Stadium, the Washington-Baltimore baseball rivalry resumes after a 35-year hiatus with the first regular season games -- beginning tonight at 7:05 p.m. -- between the visiting Orioles and the Washington Nationals.
In the coming days and weeks -- with the teams scheduled to play again at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in late June -- many will ask whether the Nationals-Orioles matchup, which to this point consists only of a handful of exhibition games during the past two springs, constitutes a true rivalry in the sense that Mets-Yankees or Cubs-White Sox are true rivalries.
The proper (and decidedly unsexy) answer, almost undoubtedly, is not yet, maybe someday, but perhaps never -- a truth that becomes clear when one considers that the Orioles and Senators played each other 350 times between 1954 and '71 and never developed what the principal participants considered to be a true rivalry.
"It wasn't a big deal" at the time, said Robinson, the former Orioles slugger who now finds himself on the other side of the rivalry as manager of the Nationals. "The only [good] thing was that we liked going over to Washington and then going home. That was it. . . . The Freeway Series, the [Interstate] 95 Series, whatever it's going to be called, doesn't matter. Not at all."
To make a true rivalry, Robinson said: "Both teams have to build up reputations as good teams -- winning championships or being in the playoffs, not just one year but over a period of time. Then when you play each other, with that on the line, that's when you can say you have a real rivalry. But just because of the location of the two teams? That doesn't make a rivalry."
The Orioles-Senators rivalry, such as it was, suffered from being exceedingly one-sided. Of the 350 head-to-head games, the Orioles won a staggering 224 of them -- a winning percentage of .640. Toward the end, it was even worse, as the Orioles went 52-18 (a .743 clip) against the Senators from 1968 to '71.
"We were just the dominant team of that era," said Davey Johnson, the Orioles' second baseman from 1966 to '72. "They weren't necessarily rivals of ours. Our rivals were teams like the Tigers and Yankees who were our top competition for the pennant."
Naturally, however, the lowly Senators viewed the rivalry as being more significant than did Robinson, Johnson and the rest of the Orioles.
"When I played here, the competition between the clubs was fierce," said Frank Howard, the Senators' slugging first baseman who is now a scout for the New York Yankees. "But we just didn't have the talent to compete with those Baltimore clubs."
"It was always special when [the Orioles] came in," said former Senators pitcher Dick Bosman, now a pitching instructor for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "It was just as special as when the Yankees came in."
It was Bosman who took the loss in that final Orioles-Senators game on Sept. 10, 1971, losing to Baltimore's Mike Cuellar. Among the runs Bosman gave up was a solo homer to Robinson in the bottom of the third. Bosman's stated goal that season was to win 15 games, and the late-season loss essentially eliminated that as a possibility.
Senators Manager Ted Williams yanked Bosman after the seventh inning, and according to the account in The Washington Post by staff writer George Minot Jr., Bosman's last act of the night "was a disgusted heave of his glove into the dugout."
The homer Robinson hit off Bosman, meantime, was the 498th of his career. Three days later, in a doubleheader at Detroit, he hit Nos. 499 and 500, and he retired after the 1976 season with 586, which ranks sixth all-time.
"He was a fierce competitor," Bosman said, "just a tough, tough out."
Sluggish ticket sales for this weekend's series -- which may not draw more than 30,000 fans to any of the three games -- suggest fans do not see Orioles-Nationals as a rivalry yet. But the attendance figures will be huge compared with what the Orioles and Senators drew in 1971.
The final game between the teams at Memorial Stadium -- a game that was promoted as "Firemen's Night" -- drew only 13,443. Five days earlier, in what was the final game between the teams at RFK Stadium, the attendance was only 9,623. Sadly, those figures were average nights for the respective teams, as the Orioles drew only 1,023,037 fans in 1971 -- indeed, the Orioles failed to sell out Games 6 and 7 of the World Series at Memorial Stadium -- while the Senators drew only 655,156.
"We had the good team in supposedly the bad city," said Jim Palmer, the former Orioles pitcher and current television analyst, "and they had the bad team in supposedly the great city. But it was two cities that coexisted in a big metroplex. But you didn't have the media coverage you do now. You didn't have the affluency. It was totally different."
Said Howard: "I think it's great that Major League Baseball is back in Washington, and Baltimore still has a tremendous tradition. They call it the 'Subway Series' in New York. We'll call it the 'Bus Series' here, because both teams will be going back on forth on buses."
Phil Itzoe, the Orioles' traveling secretary since 1968, confirmed the Orioles' plans to bus down to RFK this afternoon. In that sense, it will be just like 1971 -- with one exception.
In 1971, when a motor vehicle could still expect to make it from Baltimore to Washington at the outset of rush hour in less than 60 minutes, the Orioles' team bus left Baltimore at 4 p.m.
"This time," Itzoe said, "we'll be leaving at 3."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.