Baseball fans in the Mid-Atlantic region who either root for the hometown Washington Nationals or the Baltimore Orioles – 40 or so miles up the road on route 295 – have not had a lot to cheer about in general.
The Nationals and the Orioles have been perennial losers in their respective leagues and have been an afterthought in the local sports scene. Whenever the two teams have met in inter league play during the regular baseball season during the "Battle of the Beltways" series over the past seven years, it has been a non-event.
Although both franchises have tried to drum up a rivalry through the media and their respective fan bases, so far it has been a friendly one.
However, this year, the feeling may be different. The Nationals and Orioles for the first time since the two franchises started playing one another are now winning ball clubs and contenders in their respective leagues.
Over the past weekend, fans of both franchises packed Nationals Park in Southeast Washington, D.C., for the first of two series and for three consecutive nights – Fri., May 18th, Sat., May 19th, and Sun., May 20th – the stadium was filled. The "Battle of the Beltways" series drew near 120,000 fans and the baseball world took notice.
The Nationals lost the first two games of the three-game set by a one-run margin; however, they won Sunday as pitcher Stephen Strasburg and the bats came alive at plate, defeating the Orioles, 9-3.
Both franchises have been a complete surprise to the sport; however, none more so than the Baltimore Orioles.
They have suffered through fourteen losing seasons, and have seen their attendance at their home ballpark – Oriole Park at Camden Yards – dwindle from three million-plus per year until the early part of the century to under 1.9 million last year.
This season, under the tutelage of veteran manager Buck Showalter, the Orioles have played much better than the experts ever predicted. They have succeeded thanks to a solid offense at the plate, the emergence of young players like Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis, plus a strong pitching rotation and excellent bullpen.
The Orioles have led their division – the American League East – for much of the season and they have the powerhouses of the division, the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox looking up at them.
On the other hand, the Nationals were expected to improve on their record of 80-81 from the 2011 season; however, perhaps not to the level they have played to so far.
They have been one of the best teams in the National League so far, despite a number of injuries to key players such as outfielders Michael Morse and Jayson Werth; in addition to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and talented young closer Drew Storen.
However, they are flying high so far thanks to their talented starting pitching rotation which features Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. Washington general manager spent the offseason trying to rebuild the team via trades, plus free agency and so far his moves are paying off. Plus, the Nationals have had their profile even raised more thanks to the impressive play of nineteen-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper.
In a region where fans of both teams often overlap, seeing both franchises doing remarkably well is a welcome sight; however, for some Nationals fans, the "Battle of the Beltways" rivalry has some added significance as they strongly have a dislike for Baltimore Orioles owner, Peter Angelos.
Angelos – a successful trial attorney who made the bulk of his vast fortune from asbestos litigation – bought the franchise with a group of investors in 1993.
The franchise had some success early under his tenure with playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997; however, they have not had a winning season since then.
Many Nationals fans have an issue with the Orioles – notably Angelos – tried to prevent them from coming into the region after the 2004 season. The other 29 owners in the sport approved the move of the franchise – known as the Montreal Expos at the time – and only Angelos dissented.
In the end, the Nationals moved into to the region for the start of the 2005 season only after Major League Baseball insisted that the city of Washington D.C. pay for a new ballpark.
In addition, Angelos got compensation for potential losses – the franchise cannot be sold for less than $375 million, he and his group bought them for $173 million – and the creation of a sports network, titled heavily to the benefit of the Orioles.
All those elements have added to the much of the hatred towards the Orioles that had fueled the "Battle of the Beltway" rivalry in Washington.
Dave Nichols of Alexandria, VA., who runs the District Sports Page – a local, online sports outlet – spoke about not only the rivalry with the Orioles, but its added importance this year.
"It's great that this rivalry means something this season. The last few years, with both teams at the bottom of their divisions, it was hard to find the elements of a rivalry, except for those in D.C. that continue to harbor ill will for Peter Angelos. But even then, those folks still had compatriots in Baltimore as well."
For now, the baseball rivalry between Washington and Baltimore does not have the blood lust that encompasses other places. There were some fans over the weekend that wore both Nationals and Orioles gear, plus fans of both teams came together as couples, a family, or in a group of friends.
The crowd at the Nationals Park was a bipartisan one and fans of both franchises seemed to be rooting on their teams with equal passion. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and overall, most fans just wanted to see some decent, competitive baseball.
In the end, only time and a tradition of winning of will build the "Battle of the Beltways" rivalry that can be one day be measured to what has happened annually in the New York area with the Mets and Yankees.