- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla — Half of them wore Baltimore Orioles jerseys. The other half wore Washington Nationals caps. One woman managed to combine her support for both clubs into one article of clothing, the end result a half-orange, half-red T-shirt that read “Orio-nals.”

Baseball got its first taste yesterday of a rivalry in the making — the first game between the Orioles, who had the entire region to themselves for 33 seasons , and the Nationals, newcomers trying to make a name for themselves in the market.

The spring-training game, ultimately won by the visiting Nationals 9-6, garnered plenty of attention from fans and press alike although it didn’t count. It even attracted D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who traveled to South Florida to cheer on for the first time the ball club he helped make possible.

“I could have only imagined [this day],” said Mr. Williams, wearing a red Nationals cap and a wide smile. “It’s fantastic. To have played a role in bringing the national pastime to the nation’s capital — it’s a great feeling.”

Mr. Williams watched the game from a field box next to the Nationals’ dugout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. He was joined by an entourage of the District’s biggest baseball supporters, including D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission Chairman Mark Tuohey, Ward 2 council member Jack Evans and Mr. Williams’ wife, Diane.

While the mayor posed for photos in the batting cage and signed autographs for fans before the game, Nationals manager Frank Robinson did his best to try to quash talk of a heated rivalry already having been established between the two clubs, separated by just 40 miles.

“It’s not anything close to that,” said Robinson, who spent much of his Hall of Fame playing career in an Orioles uniform. “An exhibition game is not going to make a rivalry. No, it’s not a rivalry. Down the road, maybe so. But right now, no.”

Indeed, rivalries require history, and right now, the Nationals have no history. The Orioles and old Washington Senators met regularly as competing members of the American League from 1954 to 1971, with Baltimore usually getting the better of its neighbor down the Parkway.

But for now, the Orioles and Nationals will play no games against each other that count. Though they’ll meet twice more this spring — March 13 and March 25 at Washington’s spring base in Viera, Fla. — the clubs will not square off in the regular season. Because the Nationals’ move from Montreal was so rushed, Major League Baseball had no time to reconstruct an interleague schedule that would allow the teams to face each other this summer.

A true “Battle of the Beltways” could take place as soon as next season, though it likely would require the blessing of Orioles owner Peter Angelos to make it happen. Mr. Angelos, a staunch opponent of baseball in Washington, is in negotiations with MLB over a compensation package that will help offset any financial losses he incurs from the Nationals’ presence.

That slow-moving process has prevented the Nationals from finalizing a television-rights deal and added to the bad blood between the two cities.

“Peter knows what he’s doing,” said Nationals outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, a former Oriole. “He’s fought this for years. It comes down to, ‘I don’t want to lose my cash flow.’ It’s that simple. It’s simple economics. You want to maximize all you can.

“Only time will tell [whether a true rivalry develops]. But it’s going to be very competitive. You’re going to want to put a good product out on the field. And that should lead to a good rivalry.”

For his part, Mr. Williams tried yesterday to offer an olive branch, even inviting Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley to join him for the game. Mr. O’Malley couldn’t make it.

“I love Baltimore; I love Martin O’Malley, Peter Angelos, the Orioles,” Mr. Williams said. “Now that we’ve got a team, I urge everyone to go up there and enjoy Baltimore and the Orioles. And I’m confident that baseball can negotiate with the Orioles and Mr. Angelos. I’m looking forward to — I don’t know what we’re going to call the series with Baltimore — the Washington-Baltimore Parkway Battle?”

Mr. Williams, who also will attend the Nationals’ game against the Houston Astros today in Viera, said he’s convinced baseball in the District will be a success, citing the 20,000 season-ticket equivalents that already have been sold.

He’s particularly encouraged that so many of those tickets have been purchased by fans from suburban Maryland and Virginia, even if some D.C. residents and ballpark opponents don’t share the same sentiments.

“Hello, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do [-] bring money that was otherwise going to be spent out of town into the city,” Mr. Williams said. “That’s exactly why this is going to be so successful.”

Loyalties of the 5,662 fans at yesterday’s game seemed to be split between the teams. When Orioles star outfielder Sammy Sosa was ejected in the second inning for arguing with umpires, the orange-and-black portion of the crowd howled along with him. When Nationals outfielders Terrmel Sledge and Brad Wilkerson hit back-to-back homers in the sixth inning, the red-and-blue portion of the crowd erupted in cheers.

And when Nationals reliever Hector Carrasco got Geronimo Gil to foul out to end the game, Mr. Williams and his cohorts jumped up and down and high-fived each other as if their team had just won the World Series.

Of course, they hadn’t. Games in March are meaningless. Games in October count, and while it may take decades before the Nationals and Orioles meet in a World Series, most seem to agree that this eventually will develop into a rivalry worthy of these two proud cities.

“I think that would be good for baseball,” Robinson said. “Two teams they can compare and match up and debate. That’s not negative, that’s good.”

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