Every fan who can be driven away is gone by now. The stubborn and the true believers remain. The Orioles threaten to field their 10th straight losing team and the Nats have deliberately slashed payroll to the third cheapest in baseball to save ammunition for some future free agent day. Peter Angelos, by accident, and Stan Kasten, on purpose, have done their worst.
So, the 82,317 fans who came to old RFK Stadium this weekend to enjoy three one-run games were the hard core: the students of the game, the kids just starting to fall in love with the sport and those so loyal to their teams that they never stop dreaming of better days. And all weekend they got their reward. If you squinted, if you ignored the standings and the names on the disabled lists of both teams, if you just watched the baseball, you saw tight games and promising young players as well as journeymen busting their buttons to get a chance to play key roles. Every game was tight to the last pitch and, in a way that perhaps devoted fans can appreciate, both teams proved again that you don't have to be a contender to keep your dignity over the long mean season.
On Friday night, the O's closer, Chris Ray, survived a final-out line drive by Ryan Zimmerman that might have scored the tying and winning runs, to save a 5-4 Baltimore win. On Saturday, the Orioles won another nail-biter, 3-2 in 11 innings, thanks largely to a fourth straight brilliant start from Jeremy Guthrie, 28, a late-blooming fireballer claimed off waivers who may become a Baltimore star. And yesterday the Nats avoided a sweep, winning 4-3, with a three-run rally in the bottom of the eighth.
The common denominator of these entertaining games was good-humored antiphonal cheering from rival fans in the stands and late-inning drama that had thousands on their feet, even though neither team is headed within a light year of a pennant race.
If both teams had arrived here demoralized and uninterested, it would have been easy to understand, though not excused. The Orioles have lost three of their projected starting pitchers -- Adam Loewen, Kris Benson and Jaret Wright, Benson for the season. On Opening Day, the Birds seemed poised for a run at a winning season. Now, that's a long shot.
The Nats have surpassed those modest miseries, losing so many pitchers to the disabled list that their rotation is one of the most bizarre in the game's recent annals: Micah Bowie, Levale Speigner, Mike Bacsik, Jason Simontacchi and Matt Chico. As Nats Manager Manny Acta said to General Manager Jim Bowden yesterday: "Look at those five names. They aren't even the guys we had penciled in to start for Columbus in AAA this season."
Yet, as a crowd of 29,281 yesterday proved, there are still plenty of fans who will overlook teams with such flaws, stifle the occasional desire to snicker and enjoy what the scruffy present has to offer. In fact, the Nats may develop a bit of a cult following. On Opening Day, they were massive underdogs. Now, decimated by injuries and using rookies, Rule 5 pick-ups and virtual unknowns in many spots, they have become a kind of baseball Foreign Legion, underdogs raised to a higher power.
Before the season, many predicted the Nats would be one of the worst teams ever. If they were lousy then, they should be abysmal by now. Yet they aren't. Not yet, at least. After a 1-8 start in which they were outscored by 40 runs and were close to being the joke of the sport, the Nats have gone 15-20 while showing the spunk to stay competitive in almost every game.
Yesterday was typical. The Orioles' ace, Erik Bedard was at his best, equaling his career high of 12 strikeouts while holding the Nats to one run and three hits in seven innings. Opposing Bedard was Bowie, a bounce-around short reliever who lasted 3 1/3 innings. He was followed by just-up-from-AAA Billy Traber and venerable, rotund Ray King. Yet the three of them kept the game close with the Nats trailing only 3-1 when Bedard told coaches he was tuckered out and needed a shower after 98 pitches.
As if on cue ("He's gone, he's gone, hooray!), the Nats immediately rallied for their winning runs in the eighth inning against an Orioles bullpen that's been on the verge of a nervous breakdown ever since blowing a 5-0 lead in the ninth inning at Fenway Park last Sunday. This time, Danys Baez surrendered the two-run, two-out game-winning single to the Nats' Nook Logan.
Afterward, Acta was almost giddy with delight in his humble team. "I'm very proud of these guys . . . even if we had five Cy Young-caliber pitchers, 7-3 is a terrific homestand," he said. "We're last in a lot of offensive categories. When we got behind, they could have rolled over and played dead. But this team does not give up."
One simple statistic shows how much gumption the Nationals have shown. With a 16-28 record, they would need to lose their next 20 consecutive games to get back on a pace to challenge the '62 Mets' record of 120 defeats.
"Go 0-20? We've got it in us," deadpanned disabled starter Shawn Hill, who threw his first side session yesterday. "Come on. No chance. Things will have to turn out poorly for us to lose 100. I don't know if we'll win as many games as we did last year (71), but we might. And by the end of this year, I'm sure people will be a lot happier with what they see than with what we had at the end of last year."
For the hard core, for the true-believing fans who come out to cheer a 100-loss season or a 10th straight losing year, it is such defiance that makes their teams appealing. The Nats, with the promise of huge revenues from their new stadium in '08, have far more optimism. In fact, their clubhouse is so consistently cheerful they might be mistaken for a contender. "We get along. Chemistry is a huge part of what makes a team," said reliever Jon Rauch. "Everybody enjoys coming to the yard."
For decades, one question hung in the air in this area: Can Washington and Baltimore support two major league teams? You can't get an answer to such a puzzle until you see both teams at their worst. That's the true test. This may not be the bottom. But it's close. On their current respective paces the Orioles (20-24) and the Nats may lose close to 200 games this season.
In the past two seasons, both teams have seen attendance flag, to about 22,000 fans a game this year for each team. Just two years ago, when the Orioles were on an early-season tear and the Nats were in first place into the second half of the season, both cities averaged around 33,000 in '05.
Which is closer to long-term baseball reality for this region? This weekend series was one more data point. Why not see the glass half full? If the worst of times brings over 27,000 to crumbling RFK Stadium, what kind of crowds would better O's and Nats seasons in the future -- and the emergence of a true inter-city rivalry -- attract to parks as attractive as Camden Yards and a new Nationals park? Then, perhaps Rauch would truly have it right: Everybody enjoys coming to the yard.