The Battle of the Beltway

The Nationals and the Orioles are locked in a spirited contest for the hearts and minds of fans in the game's new hotbed
July 03, 2005

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all baseball fans are created with a desire to support a home team...." ¶ On the Fourth of July the members of the newborn Washington Nationals Fan Club will, with some pomp and solemnity, declare their baseball independence. The club's secretary, Steve Berke, a senior analyst at the Government Accountability Office who lives in Springfield, Va., has written a manifesto, to be read aloud outside RFK Stadium before the Nationals' matinee with the New York Mets; he has replaced the disenfranchised colonists of the original Declaration with the District's forsaken baseball fans, and King George III with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. "It surprised me how well the wording could be adapted to the current situation," says Berke, who moved to the D.C. area in 1974, three years after the Washington Senators left town. "I always went to Orioles games, always followed the Orioles, but only out of necessity."

Berke's declaration is self-consciously dorky, a history buff's Mad Lib, but it breathes the buoyant, proprietary attitude the District has adopted toward its Nationals, returned prodigals who have restored baseball after a generation's absence. Though the Beltway, with its two improbable contenders, has become the sport's new fertile crescent--through Sunday, Washington led the National League East by three games, while Baltimore had only just dipped to second in the AL East, 2 1/2 games out--the cultural and geographic divide between the franchises has widened. Today's Nationals fans, whether they have resuscitated their childhood loyalty to the Senators or come newly to this club, evince as much enthusiasm for their home team as they do antipathy toward Angelos, whom they see as the greatest historical obstacle to D.C. baseball. The clubs' mutual success has deepened the fault line.

Last Friday, an hour before righthander Esteban Loaiza threw the first pitch of a 3--0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, three thirtysomething classmates from Bullis High School in Potomac, Md., sat tailgating in one of RFK's far-flung parking lots, grilling hot dogs and burgers on a small hibachi in the steamy dusk. "I can't wait until I have kids, so I can take them here," says Kyle Blackstone, a 31-year-old attorney from Bethesda. "I always felt like a visitor in that park in Baltimore. Now I feel like this is a major league sports town."

Blackstone lounges shirtless, a beer can gripped firmly in his left hand as he speaks. "My wife got me a Nationals cap for Hanukkah, and when the stadium financing looked like it was going to fall through in December, it nearly ripped my heart out." With all three men there is a sense of great fortune to have landed a team at last, in spite of Angelos's efforts to prevent it. "I have a lot of resentment toward the Orioles now," Todd Levine, a 30-year-old salesman from Silver Spring, says from behind a pair of sunglasses as he puffs on a cigar. "A vendetta."

While the Expos shuttled for two years between a somnolent ballpark in Montreal and a substandard one in San Juan, Major League Baseball, which has owned the franchise since February 2002, believed D.C. was its soundest long-term destination; but Angelos's opposition to a competing franchise in his backyard, and the possibility of litigation to prevent it, forestalled a more immediate move. He was placated only by a generous compensation package--including an MLB-guaranteed $360 million sale price for his own franchise (twice what he paid in 1993) and a 90% stake in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), the cable TV channel that, starting in 2007 (and pending the outcome of a lawsuit with Comcast), will carry all of the Orioles' games as well as half the Nationals' to the Washington and Baltimore markets, the nation's eighth- and 23rd-largest, respectively.

The Nationals' immediate success has vindicated the institutional belief that baseball would thrive in D.C., even if it did so at Baltimore's expense. The Nationals are drawing about 32,000 fans per game, more than 70% of RFK's capacity and 13th in the majors, a threefold increase from the paltry crowds that dappled Olympic Stadium a year ago. (Attendance at Camden Yards, by contrast, is down about 10%, to 30,700, though bad weather in the season's first two months was almost certainly a factor.) More than a million fans have already pushed through RFK's turnstiles, a threshold that the last incarnation of the Senators failed to reach even once, and the palpable energy of the crowds, the giddiness that attends this honeymoon, has energized Washington's players, accustomed as they had become to playing in libraries.

"It's huge," says first baseman Nick Johnson. "Puerto Rico, that was a little difficult, but playing in front of this many people every night, it's been fun to have that kind of crowd behind you."

RFK, built in '61, is an anachronism. A multipurpose stadium that housed both the Senators and the Washington Redskins, it is a bowl fashioned of pockmarked concrete; its rooftop overhangs block out the surrounding landscape, and the seats in its two highest tiers, tinted Skins yellow and red, have blanched and faded from sunlight. During afternoon batting practice the field, thick with humidity rising off the grass, suggests in both look and temperature the inside of a soup tureen. Scattered white seats in the upper deck mark the landing points of outfielder Frank Howard's moon shots of a generation ago.

But once the game starts, the building's quaintness shifts to a crackle of energy; the ballpark is beginning to assume the political character of the District. On Friday, while commentators Tim Russert and James Carville sat among the groundlings behind the third base dugout, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined Nationals president Tony Tavares in a mezzanine box. "It was like going to a ball game with an extremely knowledgeable friend," Tavares says. "The President's command of information is completely up-to-date; I think he does a lot of research, reading through box scores to relax." Elsewhere the nuances that forge a stadium's identity are emerging; in the first row of section 444, which overhangs leftfield, the K PLACARDS TAPED ON THE FACADE TO MARK STRIKEOUTS ARE GREEN REPLICAS OF D.C. STREET SIGNS AND READ k st ne.

This is precisely the sort of thing that captivated MLB's imagination when it settled on D.C. as a franchise destination. It is a wealthy market whose population has doubled since the Senators left; it has a knowledgeable, baseball-starved fan base and can become a destination point not only for the monied suburban families who constitute four fifths of RFK's patrons but also for the capital's political elite, the lobbyists and contractors who will snatch up luxury boxes in the Nationals' new park, scheduled to open in 2008. "It's a whole different scale," says righthander Zach Day. "You've got the volume of people, you've got the politicians, Capitol Hill, the CEOs. You could see big things happening here."

As measured by revenue, the Nationals have done quite well, given their history of hemorrhaging cash. The Washington Post reported last week that the team will gross $129 million this season, triple what it did in Montreal. "We're in a dramatically different position," says Tavares. "Our lifeblood in Montreal was revenue sharing, and this year we're generating funds we just didn't have. Come the trade deadline, we'll be in a position to add payroll if we need to."

That revenue augurs well both for the team's health in D.C. and for its sale to a new ownership group, a process that's moving slowly. (Eight bidding groups remain.) A purchase price of three times gross revenue, an industry benchmark, would put the Nationals in the upper range of a hoped-for $300--$400 million sticker price, and the competition among bidders, which remains heated, could push the price still higher. (That revenue will be split among the other 29 owners, yielding about $10 million to $15 million to each, including Angelos.) And despite the efforts of a minority of the D.C. Council and two-to-one opposition among residents, the club's new ballpark, on the Anacostia River in the southeastern corner of the District, will be entirely publicly financed, a resolution that MLB craved.

"The enthusiasm with which the team has been received in Washington, the movement forward on the stadium proposal, the relative period of quietude we've had on that, and the general health of the game, the competitive balance, have all increased the value of this franchise," MLB president Bob DuPuy says.

"Competitive balance" is a polite way of observing that the most pleasant surprise of this inaugural season is the Nationals' seat atop a fiercely competitive division. Despite being on the short end of a 316--310 run differential, which typically produces a win-loss record closer to .500, Washington has overachieved at 44--31, particularly in tight spots. (Its 18--7 record in one-run games was third-best in the majors.) The charitable interpretation suggests that Washington's superb bullpen, headed by major league saves leader Chad Cordero (25 saves, 0.94 ERA, 38 1/3 IP), and sound defense compensate for its glaring lack of power. The Nationals can pick it, true--leftfielder Marlon Byrd, who is good enough to play centerfield, ended Friday's shutout with an acrobatic, full-extension catch of Alex Rios's sinking line drive--and their park, which tends to neutralize power, flatters them. The pessimistic view is that it won't be long before the Nats' luck evens out, their lack of power short-circuits their offense and their overtaxed bullpen breaks down.

As fan interest has cleaved, on a snaking line somewhere in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, the Orioles have taken a hit. Baltimore's attendance will inevitably suffer: Residents of northern Virginia, who account for 40% of the Nationals' gate, and the District, which chips in another 20%, have generally stopped making the hour-and-a-half drive through rush-hour traffic to Camden Yards, while allegiances in the Maryland counties to the north of the District are still shaking out; but the Nationals' move also resulted in an immense payback for the Orioles, and their long-term prognosis is good.

Despite Angelos's concerns about the impact of a D.C. franchise on his business (he did not return a call asking for comment for this story), he is guaranteed to make at least $180 million in profit should he sell his team, and while his equity in the MASN requires him to make a fixed annual payment to MLB, ranging from $21 million to $25 million over the next five years, irrespective of broadcast revenue, the channel will over time evolve into a considerable asset; its value has already been estimated at $750 million.

The Orioles themselves, who have not only a dependable closer of their own (lefty B.J. Ryan) but also an MVP candidate in shortstop Miguel Tejada, seem unconcerned about the Nationals' success. Says Baltimore outfielder Jay Gibbons, "It feels the same as if they were in Montreal. You don't even hear about them in Baltimore. It's funny to think there's actually a team that's 45 minutes away from us. I don't feel affected by it." Adds lefthander Bruce Chen, "We know that a big part of our fan base is in D.C., and they're playing real good, and the fans are closer to them than us. But we've been playing here for a long time. Our fan base is strong enough that we won't lose as many fans as we thought initially."

Baltimore finds itself, like Washington, contending despite flaws. The Orioles score runs in bunches, but their middling starting pitching may undo them: Only Chen has an ERA below the AL-average 4.46 for starters, and lefthander Erik Bedard's rehabilitation from a strained left knee ligament is taking much longer than expected. The Orioles lost six of seven games last week, including a three-game sweep at Atlanta that dropped them from first place for the first time since late April, and in those seven games their starters were 1--5 with an 8.26 ERA and never lasted past the sixth inning.

Says one AL scout, "What the Orioles will do will depend on the pitching they get. If Bedard comes back and throws anything like he did early, they'll be O.K., but I'm not sure how that will go. It's such a meat grinder of a division." At the very least, competing with proactive, well-heeled opponents in the Red Sox and the Yankees, Baltimore must be prepared not only to add an arm but also to counter whatever moves their division rivals make.

Meanwhile, the Nationals are still comfortable atop their division and in their venerable ballpark. After they closed out their 12th straight win at RFK on Saturday night, with Blue Jays leftfielder Frank Catalanotto flailing at Cordero's diving slider, a cluster of fans above the third base dugout remained standing, cheering themselves hoarse as the Nationals filed off the field. James Brown boomed over the P.A. system, reverberating off the industrial walls of the graying ballpark. It felt like home.

Choosing Sides

The competition for fan loyalty between the Nationals and the Orioles is fiercest in the four Maryland counties that lie between the two ballparks

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