The Battle of the Beltways: In Need of Some Hatred?

The Nationals and Orioles are desperate for a genuine rivalry, but so far it lacks the requisite heat.
Battle of the Beltways 2010. Photograph by Flickr user wfyurasko.
Battle of the Beltways 2010. Photograph by Flickr user wfyurasko.

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.

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