Beltway Battle Has Become Crowd Pleaser

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, June 28, 2008

The massive thunderheads blew past, the rain stopped before game time, cracking the summer heat, and a sweet 75-degree night unfolded on the Anacostia waterfront last night as the biggest crowd in Nationals Park since Opening Day came to razz the Orioles.

Some things aren't supposed to happen. The odds against them seem far too long. For decades, their possibility is denied by the small-minded or selfish. Then one night on South Capitol Street, you look up and realize that, though Peter Angelos still is Baltimore's owner, the Orioles are better than .500 and there is a team in Washington despite his tantrums.

You see the upper decks filled to the top rows, just as they will be today and tomorrow. Washington and Baltimore, the two cities that for 30 years were deemed incapable of supporting and nurturing two healthy teams, are, in fact, well on the way to doing just that. The job isn't done. But the project is probably too far along to derail.

Just five years ago, no aspect of this Baltimore visit to Washington, this Battle of the Beltways, seemed credible to those in the inner sanctum of baseball. Every shred of conventional wisdom stood against the scene that unfolded with young emerging players like the Orioles' Nick Markakis, 24, and Adam Jones, 22, facing the Nats' Jesús Flores, 23, Elijah Dukes, 24, and Lastings Milledge, 23.

And every bit of that half-baked thinking is on the verge of being proved wrong.

The magic number in baseball is 30,000 -- that's the average attendance at major league games. Since the Orioles could only draw 30,298 a game in 2003, it was "obvious" to baseball, and certainly to Angelos, that teams in both cities would cannibalize each other.

Yet here we are. The Orioles are 40-38 after losing, 4-2, to the Nats, drawing 27,531 per game with crowds growing quickly as Baltimore realizes that Dave Trembley's rebuilding team is already entertaining. With prospects such as switch-hitting catcher Matt Wieters, who just jumped to Class AA Bowie after hitting .342 at Class A Frederick, racing through the minors, the Orioles may improve quickly.

In just two years, the Nats, whose attendance will round off to 30,000 after this three-game series attracts about 110,000 fans, have ripped up and rebuilt their farm system until it is one the game's top 10. Few teams have more young pitching prospects. With a conversation-piece ballpark and a payroll so low that it can be doubled to $100 million within a few years, the Nats' future has no excuse not to be bright.

Both teams also have found excellent no-nonsense managers -- Trembley, who managed in the minors for 20 years, and Manny Acta, still just 39. Harder to believe, the presidents of both teams have taken previous teams to multiple World Series. The Orioles' Andy MacPhail actually won two titles in dinky-market Minnesota, while Washington's Stan Kasten helped take the mid-market Braves to 14 straight first-place finishes. (Stan still thinks his other 13 Series rings are lost in the mail.)

With the normal summer increase in attendance, the two towns will come close to averaging 60,000 combined, even though neither is remotely close to a playoff race. The Nats have the advantage of their new park, but that's balanced against a 32-49 record. With both teams apparently on the rise, interest in each club may feed the other.

"It was always ridiculous to think these towns couldn't each support teams. Their markets are big enough," Kasten said last night.

The Orioles have their long tradition, loyal fans and Camden Yards.

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