- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

And so it was, as March indeed went out like a lamb, that the Nationals and Orioles girded their loins, sort of, for a ballgame at RFK Stadium that technically meant nothing.

It should have been fraught with meaning, however, for D.C. fans who either adopted or ignored the Orioles for the dreary 34 years during which the nation’s capital and the national pastime were not on speaking terms.

After a proper mourning period for the expansion Senators, thousands shrugged their shoulders, swallowed their civic pride and rooted for those dratted Birds. And for a while, it wasn’t hard.

The O’s won pennants in 1979 and 1983, plus a World Series the latter year, and nearly always were in a pennant race. Earl smoked cigarettes during games in the dugout bathroom when he wasn’t spitting at umpires. Eddie and Cal bashed baseballs. Wild Bill sloshed beer all over himself in Section 34 at Memorial Stadium.

Then, in 1984, it all started to go wrong. The Orioles became annual also-rans, save for two inexplicable seasons in the late ‘90s, and Peter Angelos assumed his wrongful role as baseball’s worst owner. After destroying baseball in Baltimore, he sought to do the same in Washington by denying us a team. But then the Montreal Expos slunk south, and there no longer was a necessity for longtime fans in these parts to bleed black and orange.

Of such circumstances are fierce and frenetic rivalries born, so there was reason last night to savor the knowledge that soon, on May 19, the Nats and O’s would begin playing each other for real. They did not meet last season, but now the nines at either end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway will play six interleague games each season as “natural rivals.”

You might not hate the party of the other part at this early juncture, but trust me — you will.

Even last night’s squad scrimmage seemed significant. To some of us, baseball — with all its corporate and esthetic faults — remains the best sporting pursuit devised by man. And when your team comes home to play on an uncharacteristically balmy evening in March, it’s not hard to feel that all’s right with the world.

I know — that doesn’t make sense. The threat of terrorism looms large, gas prices are ridiculous and global warming is an issue that should concern us all. But when you’re sitting in a ballpark with a cold hot dog in one hand and a warm beer in the other, who cares — at least for two or three hours?

That’s the beautiful thing about sports, as long as we retain some perspective. We pretend it’s so important when we know, deep down, that games don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Therefore, when our favorite team loses, we lose — not really. It just seems that way.

And when that team wins, we feel a little better about ourselves and our world for a little while.

So when Nationals pitcher John Patterson wound up and hurled a horsehide in the general direction of Orioles leadoff man Brian Roberts at 7:06 last night, it was possible to discern all sorts of lovely portents.

In just two more days, the Nats will be playing for real at Shea Stadium against the New York Mets, one of the likely bullies this season in the National League East, and baseball will be available to us in one form or another every day for the next six months. Is there anything under the sun that makes a cup of coffee taste better in the morning than a sports section full of box scores?

Not everyone feels this way, of course. Largely through lunkheaded leadership, baseball long ago ceded the role of America’s favorite sport to pro football. This weekend George Mason’s marvelous march to the Final Four is the most entrancing sports story. But to those who wrap baseball’s history and tradition in a loving embrace, nothing else can be as wonderful among the games people play.

Forget Barry Bonds and the steroids mess.

Think Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Walter Johnson — guys who graced the game with a style and talent for the ages.

Think Ryan Zimmerman, Jose Guillen and John Patterson — heirs who have at least the potential to do so for the Nats.

That’s why, after all, they play this silly game. And why watching it can be such a joy.

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