For seven years I tried my darndest to give a hoot about the Battle of the Beltways--and for seven years I failed miserably. I just didn't care. Neither did you. Six times a year the Nationals and Orioles would play one another, and the marketing departments from the two franchises would do their best to manufacture some buzz. After all, we were dealing with two organizations that reside just 35 miles apart. Surely the fans would sink their teeth into a showdown between teams that are so close they share a weather system each day. But we just weren't buying it.
The primary reason we couldn't muster the will to emotionally invest in the rivalry was, to put it bluntly, that the two teams mostly stunk. The Nationals had failed to post a record above .500 in their seven years of existence, while the Orioles--well, the Orioles have spent the past two decades redefining the term "putrid." The Os haven't had a winning season since 1997. In fact, they haven't come close. Over the past 14 years their average record has been 71-91. Eesh.
But this year, things are different. The Orioles entered this past weekend with the second-best record in baseball (behind the Dodgers), while the Nationals found themselves eight games over .500 and just one half game out of first place in the National League East. Yes, there must be a blue moon over the Eastern seaboard--the Nationals and Orioles are good at the same time.
As a result, the two teams treated us to a highly entertaining three-game series at Nationals Park over the weekend. Friday night, Nick Markakis blasted an 11th-inning home run to hand the Orioles a 2-1 win in the opener. Saturday, Baltimore's Adam Jones extended his hit streak to 11 games with a homer in the third inning, as the Os won again, 6-5. But Sunday the Nationals rebounded, as Stephen Strasburg struck out eight and belted his first career home run, pacing the home team to a series-ending 9-3 win. (Strasburg left the game after five innings with a tired arm; Nats manager Davey Johnson says it's not serious.) If you measure the series by what happened at the turnstiles, it was a resounding success. The average attendance for the three-game set was 40,310.
So here's the problem: I still can't get juiced up about it. To me, it's still a manufactured occasion--like Valentine's Day or the Goodwill Games. Like most Washingtonians, I'm pleased that the Nats and the Orioles have finally found success, but the rivalry between the two teams simply lacks the history and ill will (for now) to be meaningful.
First of all, the name is confusing. Is it the "Battle of the Beltway" or the "Battle of the Beltways"? The singular version has a better ring to it, but sticklers for the facts point out that while both cities have beltways, they're not the same beltway. With due respect to the people of Charm City, anyone who has sat idling for 45 minutes on the American Legion Bridge knows that the frustration of driving on I-695 doesn't hold a candle to what we go through on I-495. The two teams have opted for the plural version in their official marketing of their series. I admire their allegiance to accuracy, but I don't think it will sell as many T-shirts as the other option.
Second, if a good rivalry requires that one team's fans hate the other team, I'm not sure we here in Washington are doing our part. Most of us don't hate the Orioles. In fact, most of us used to root for them. For the 33 years that Washington was without Major League Baseball, the Orioles were our home team, and we'd make the pilgrimage to Camden Yards (and Memorial Stadium before it) at least once a year to see an Os game. We reveled in Cal Ripken's streak right alongside our friends to the north. Heck, when they play the Star-Spangled Banner at Nationals Park, we still yell "OHHH!" at the start of the song's final two lines. That's a Baltimore thing--the "ohhh" stands for Orioles. Hard to turn around and spew venom at the same franchise whose traditions we've co-opted for the past three decades. It would be disingenuous.
Quite frankly, of all the natural geographic rivalries Major League Baseball established when interleague play was introduced in 1997, the only ones that have any genuine heat behind them are Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, and Giants/As. Those fan bases live in über-close proximity to one another and have long-standing animus towards one another. Just open the gates 90 minutes before those games and watch the bleacher brawls commence. But does anybody in southern California really get amped up when the Dodgers play the Angels? Do folks in Florida perk up when the Marlins meet the Rays? Rivalries are born of frequent meetings, and by definition, teams in opposite leagues don't meet frequently. True, Yankees vs. Mets is a fun watch, but ask someone in the Bronx who their true rival is, and to a man, he'll say the Red Sox. Likewise, Nats fans despise the Phillies far more than the neighboring Orioles. It's an NL-East thing.
I want to care about this rivalry. Really, I do. And if the two teams ever remain good enough, long enough to meet in the World Series, the Battle of the Beltway(s) will forever be among the hottest tickets in both towns. For now, however, it remains a Hallmark holiday.