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.

"Washington is the most important city in the world with some of the richest suburbs. It's on us to do our job and bring crowds out. The market is sensational," Kasten said. "We'd like to reach the point where these six games are the highlights of each team's season -- six sellouts," he said. "Then someday seven more in late October. Four here."

Some progress in this rivalry already may be building. Last season, the teams drew a measly 63,703 to three games at Camden Yards. This year, 95,673. In part, Orioles fans, after three straight years of seeing the Nats finish with a better record, enjoyed cheering their winning team against the struggling Nats.

Last night's game may be the first in three years of these meetings in Washington that actually had an increasing sense of rivalry, largely because many Orioles fans, who might find it sacrilegious to come to Nationals Park otherwise, showed up in various orange guises, chanted "O" during the anthem and even clapped for rallies. Last year's games at RFK attracted 82,317, while this series may be a third higher.

In this installment, the Nats' youngsters stole the night as Milledge, Flores and Dukes all had RBI hits off 6-foot-9 Orioles starter Daniel Cabrera. However, this series, and both teams' seasons in the first half, may illustrate a longstanding baseball truism. You don't know how good a team really is until you factor in whether it has been extremely healthy or devastated by injuries. These teams epitomize the extremes.

The Orioles may be the healthiest team in baseball. No regular player, and only one prominent pitcher (rookie Adam Loewen), has missed significant time. The Orioles have eight players who have appeared in 70 or more of their 78 games as well as Ramón Hernández, who has caught a full load with 64 games. The Orioles have seven players on pace for 500 plate appearances. The decimated Nats, who did not plan to platoon at any position, have only three such players and two of the healthy guys are hitting under .250.

Asked to sum up the Nats' first 80 games, Acta said simply, "Hurtful." Of Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns -- his 3-4-5 hitters on Opening Day, who are also the team's three best fielders as well as leaders -- Acta added: "It's killing those guys because they love to be out there. They just love to play the game."

In such a year, when he has now lost projected ace Shawn Hill to the disabled list, perhaps for the season, as well as long-gone closer Chad Cordero, can a manager measure his club accurately? "How can I evaluate my team without my main players?" Acta said.

If anybody can sympathize, it is the Orioles and Trembley.

"Remember last [August]," the Orioles manager said. He'll never forget. On the very day the Orioles' turned him from interim manager into full-time boss, the Orioles lost, 30-3, in a game that inspired late-night comedy routines. That defeat began a 3-18 collapse, including loses by scores of 11-3, 15-8, 10-0, 17-2, 10-5 and 18-6 -- all within three weeks -- that made the Orioles appear to be even worse than their 93-loss record.

Part of the reason the Orioles are better than expected this season is that they weren't as awful as they appeared last year as injuries, especially to pitchers, demolished a season that looked respectable at 50-55. Now, it's the Nats who probably aren't what they seem.

"When you look at the pieces we need for a contending team, how many are here now?" said Kasten, who can't get enough of his five youngsters -- Milledge, Flores, Dukes, Zimmerman and John Lannan, as well as Kearns, Jon Rauch, a healthy Cordero and several potentially solid "bridge" players, such Cristian Guzmán, Tim Redding and Ronnie Belliard.

"I'm not going to say what I think the number is right now and how close we might be -- that is, when we're healthy -- because people might say I'm crazy," Kasten said.

In baseball, being crazy is sometimes good. It helps you imagine things that don't exist. After all, five years ago, who thought the Orioles would come to Washington to play against a National League team in a packed, sparkling new park beside a neglected river in a forgotten part of town that has already started to boom.

Then, almost nobody thought it was possible. Now, you can barely get a ticket.

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