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This Could Be the Start of a Beautiful Rivalry

By George Solomon
Sunday, June 29, 2008

For the first time in the four years since Bud Selig allowed a "Beltway Rivalry" between Washington and Baltimore to exist, there was excitement before an Orioles-Nationals game -- not Mets-Yankees excitement, of course, but at least some tension throughout the stands Friday night at Nationals Park.

Maybe it was the largest crowd (35,830) since Opening Night at the new ballpark. Or the division of fans of both teams: The surprising Orioles with a 40-38 record and the struggling, injury-riddled Nats, at 32-49, now hoping to avoid losing 100 games.

Orioles fans composed more than a third of the crowd, many in orange shirts, including some with a sour look that said, "You really never deserved a team." Nats fans, some arriving late, stayed nine innings for a change.

"We want to get this rivalry going," Mark Lerner, one of the Nationals' owners, said after watching his team prevail, 4-2, on the strength of pinch hitter Kory Casto's tiebreaking double in the seventh and closer Jon Rauch's escape act in the ninth after the Orioles put their first two hitters on base.

"All I want our guys to do is play hard, make everyone aware that this is a team," said Nats Manager Manny Acta, whose closed-door meeting with players before Wednesday's game sounded like the speech by the skipper in "Bull Durham": "Baseball is a simple game; you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball."

Whatever Acta said resulted in at least a couple of wins for the Nats, whose president, Stan Kasten, lamented the team's injuries.

"We don't have our team," Kasten said, adding "at least our young kids who are our future keep showing up."

Casto is one of those kids who at 26 has been the club's minor league player of the year in 2005 and 2006 but has mostly struggled (batting around .200) at the big-league level. His game-winning double Friday followed a three-run homer that beat Seattle on June 15.

"Pinch hitting is difficult," he said. "You sit there the whole game, get one shot at someone throwing 92-mph, and if you fail, that's it for the night. This one was big. Big for the team."

"This was great," Lerner said. "New stadium, big crowd, fans cheering for both teams. Good game, too, with a good result."

Stargazing

News flash: International soccer star David Beckham's second visit to Washington with the Los Angeles Galaxy lacks the celebrity buzz he created with his first visit here last August. That's what the Reliable Sourcers, Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts, reported in Friday's Washington Post.

"So far, it's been crickets in the street," IndeBleu owner Mark Gunderson told The Source. Gunderson's D.C. nightclub hosted one of the three parties for Becks and the beautiful people (sans Feinstein) last summer as the prince of English soccer made his D.C. debut with the Galaxy, a 1-0 loss to United before a near sellout crowd of 46,686 fans at RFK Stadium.

Still, Beckham, 33, and his Galaxy teammates, who lead Major League Soccer's Western Division with a 6-4-3 record, should draw more than 32,000 fans to the 47-year-old "pitch" on East Capitol Street today at noon to face a revived 6-7-1 United side that has worked its way back into playoff contention.

That's a bump of more than 12,000 for United -- typical of Beckham's second season in MLS that has seen the Galaxy sell out three of their five road games. Not to mention the publicity he and his wife, Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham, generate around the world.

But is Beckham worth the five-year, $250 million deal he reportedly signed last year?

"David has been fantastic -- everything we could have hoped for, " MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "He's at the top of his game, which we did not see last year because of injuries."

What does United expect today from midfielder Beckham, who has four goals and six assists for the highest-scoring team in MLS?

"He's a great soccer player, a game-changer," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "You have to take the game to him, challenge him. He remains one of the best distributors in the world, blessed with talent. While no one has ever been as good a player, he's remained a likable, approachable guy who is a great ambassador for the sport. And let's be honest: He's a good-looking guy."

Fred, the talented Brazilian midfielder who will match up often with Beckham, says his strategy will be to "try to attack him and make him play defense" while knowing "he's always looking to pass to Landon Donovan," who leads the league with 11 goals.

"He's a pretty boy who has what it takes," said Fred, adding with a gleam in his eye, "but my wife likes me better."

Regardless of the result, today's game should be another illustration to D.C. council members, who are considering whether to support building a new soccer stadium for D.C. United near the Anacostia River, that the sport matters.

Just look at the team's and MLS's most passionate fan club, Barra Brava, as well as the number of young fans, their parents and general diversity of the crowd. Several weeks ago, an exhibition soccer match between El Salvador and Guatemala drew 38,759 fans to RFK Stadium, and the TV audience around town for Euro 2008 has been noticeable.

Someone ought to hear their voices.

Touching Bases

· I have a feeling once the summer league is over 7-foot, 237-pound center JaVale McGee, a Wizards draft pick, might be tough to find. Most recently, the Wizards have added Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, Andray Blatche and Oleksiy Pecherov to their roster. But when they have their annual playoff matchup with the Cavaliers, you rarely see these guys. Still, you have to like McGee more than the second-round selection, Kansas State forward Bill Walker, who was immediately dealt to Boston for cash. Cash is good, but what if Walker helps the Celtics to another title?

By the way, I hope Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo and the rest of the gang enjoyed their one year of college. How many credits did they earn? What a sham.

· No Tiger, but Woods's AT&T National tournament this week at Congressional Country Club has a field that includes my new idol, Rocco Mediate, defending champ K.J. Choi, Jim Furyk, Trevor Immelman, Davis Love III, fellow Gator Chris DiMarco, Stuart Appleby, Fred Couples, Robert Allenby and Fred Funk.

Funk, who grew up in the area, was one of the few pros who stood up when Tour czar Tim Finchem was pulling the Booz Allen plug and said Washington deserved to remain on the PGA circuit. We like Fred Funk.

Where's Phil? Pouting in Scotland with Andy Roddick?

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