Whether the messenger is Public Enemy or Jim Thome, the message remains the same: “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
by Matthew Taylor
If you read between the lines of the romance novel that the Washington Post has penned for the long-courted baseball team that makes its heart go pitter-patter – the novel that began when there was a hint, a whiff, a mere suggestion that the Expos might fly South for the summers, allowing at the very least for a fling – you’ll discover that even the best writers in the business know the truth: the Orioles-Nationals “rivalry” is, at best, a minor concern.
Consider, for example, Dave Sheinin’s words on March 30, 2005, when he directly addressed the topic in the Post article, “Brewing a Rivalry”:
“There is a long, long, long way to go before the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles can develop anything that remotely resembles a great rivalry. In fact, there are many things working against it. The lack of shared history. The separate leagues. The lack of head-to-head matchups until 2006. The non-competitiveness of recent seasons. You can’t be great rivals if you never play each other and never win.”
If Sheinin’s not enough of a baseball expert for you even though he has his own blog (the true mark of genius if ever there was one?), then what about Tom Boswell?
(And if Boswell isn’t enough of an expert I have some face paint, some fraternity letters, and a one-way ticket to Bristol for you. With all due respect to Peter Gammons, ESPN is fast earning its designation as a four-letter word.)
Even while fanning the flames of a rivalry, particularly as it relates to his tortured memories of the Senators games with the Glory Days Orioles, Boswell acknowledged early on the possibility of “a win-win atmosphere in which both franchises flourish and, in many cases, share the same supporters” (Jan. 27, 2005; “Nats are Beating O’s to the Punch”), along with the suggestion that “the proper path for the Nationals and Orioles to follow is one of mutual respect and, when it is deserved, even admiration” (March 30, 2005; “Given the History, Rivalry Should Come Naturally”).
As the head-to-head match-up moved toward (exhibition) fruition, Boswell put his cards on the table at the end of spring training this year: “No, this complex relationship between towns and teams, which will be on display for the next two days, runs deeper and is more tangled than the usual dumbed-down rivalry.” (Also be sure to note Boswell’s fond recollection in this column of the Roar from 34 at Memorial Stadium.)
The point, then, is not for Orioles fans to love the Nats. You don’t even have to like them. But whatever you do, fair, intelligent, anti-dumbed-down baseball fan, don’t allow for a manufactured rivalry to consume you this June simply because the opponent is a new neighbor. Imagine arriving at the door of someone who just moved to town, whose relatives once lived on the same block, and stuffing that welcome pie your wife baked for them right in their face. That might make for good television – and indeed the cable networks love just that type of nonsensical conflict – but considered rationally it makes no sense. (On the other hand, if that neighbor winds up sleeping with your wife a few years down the road, make sure the pie is piping hot before you arrive at his doorstep for a return visit.)
There’s really no need for me to add to the list of reasons put together by the aforementioned Post writers about why “O’s-Nats” isn’t naturally an intense rivalry. If you want to hate a team managed by one of the greatest Orioles of all time, that’s your business. But I’m going to stake out a middle ground. I tried to do as much in 2003 with a Post “Letter-to-the-Editor” after Joel Achenbach penned an arrogant piece about D.C.’s inherent superiority over Baltimore in a pre-Nationals effort that was intended to inflame passions. Instead, the newspaper edited out the portion of my letter that essentially acknowledged, “I know what you’re trying to do,” and added the headline, “Bring on the Washington Senators, Hon!” I guess there’s just no resisting the core belief that a team of free-agent, non-native, millionaire baseball players reflects the essence of a city, in keeping with the Onion’s satirical headline, which is similarly spoofed on a T-shirt, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area.”
(On a separate but related note, this line of thinking was particularly bothersome following 9/11 when Fox’s narrative about the World Series so often focused on how the Yankees’ performance in the post-season was somehow emblematic of the spirit of New Yorkers. Did the team’s eventual loss to the Diamondbacks brand the city as having a spirit that wasn’t quite strong enough? That type of thinking was about as valid as the suggestion that the “Ex-Cubs factor” would keep the Diamondbacks from winning it all. I wonder what mythmaking storyline Fox will put together for the June 24 broadcast of the O’s-Nats game.)
So feel free to get excited about the O’s-Nats series in June. As a baseball fan you should; it’s an historical moment. Feel free to get pissed off at the Nats fans seated behind you who overcheer in an opponent’s ballpark just to bother the hometown fans. I did as much last weekend with a group of Mariners fans at Camden Yards. (Who really cheers for first- and second-pitch strikes in the fourth inning of a four-run game?) But as rap group Public Enemy so famously said, – or, if you really must have a baseball connection, as Jim Thome’s license plate used to say – “Don’t believe the hype.” (Don’t believe me about the Thome license plate? Sports Illustrated made note of it in an article about Thome while he was with the Indians in the late ’90s, and this company references the player’s car tag on its website.)
It’s rare that I would encourage anyone to be like me, but this is a case where I’m going to go ahead and make the suggestion: follow my lead and find your middle ground. Be one of the Baltimore/D.C.-area’s baseball moderates, the guys and gals who frustrate partisans and the powerful alike because they refuse to be part of a conflict that’s really just convenient, overly simplistic, easy to argue but harder to understand and altogether great for hype (and ratings). Maintain your loyalties, but don’t be afraid to flirt with your neighbor if it helps get a response from your original partner (“Hey, Peter, that Ted Lerner sure is looking good these days. How about treating me to a No. 1 starter?”)
As for me personally, I’ve found my middle ground in Frederick, Md., but, to be honest, things aren’t looking good so far. Those damn Potomac Nationals have had the upper-hand on my hometown Keys this year, owning a 4-1 lead in the season series. I’ve always hated Potomac, even when they were the Cannons. Talk about familiarity breeding contempt; we’ve got 10 more games this season with those lousy P-Gnats and their stuck-up, too-good-to-live-in-a-town-that-really-exists fans. Potomac is extinct; the town was annexed by Alexandria in 1930. Their Class-A team (and I use the word “Class” lightly) should suffer the same fate.
[Quick break: You see how silly this all sounds? It’s pretty easy to manufacture a rivalry and make it seem intense when you want to.]
I just hope that pretty boy, Brandon Powell, gets promoted to Double-A before the Gnats come back to town on June 23. Everyone else’s eyes and passions might be focused on Camden Yards that weekend, but I’ll be worried about what’s going on in Harry Grove. I’m a step ahead of those big-league buffoons, who’ll be watching my guys carry out their so-called rivalry in five years time.
We’re still the Carolina League Champions until someone takes it away from us, darnit. And that’s no minor concern.
Note: Although I didn’t actually use it at all for this posting, Clem’s Baseball looks to be an interesting resource for tracking news stories about baseball coming to D.C