- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

Pitcher Kris Benson knows all about taut, emotionally charged, interleague rivalries between teams of close proximity.

He heard taunts and insults and witnessed fights in the stands while pitching for the New York Mets against the New York Yankees in 2005.

Those games had “a playoff atmosphere,” he said. “Without being in the playoffs, it was as close to what I could imagine it’s like. I don’t think it’s gonna be like that [tonight].”

Benson will start for the Baltimore Orioles tonight against the Washington Nationals at RFK Stadium, the first regular-season game between the teams.

“Two cities that are trying to start a rivalry,” he said. “It should be fun.”

But tonight’s meeting features two teams apparently headed nowhere this season and with no history to share. Still, a large, lively crowd should be present at RFK (for a change), the atmosphere charged for a game many have awaited since D.C. was anointed the new home of the transplanted Montreal Expos in 2004. Less than 40 miles separate the teams’ respective stadiums. Amid the hype, some have labeled it the “Battle of the Beltways.”

The real fun might even start beforehand, when some fans yell “O!” (for Orioles) during the national anthem. The tradition started in Baltimore but has spread to Washington, including RFK, and beyond, and is known to be irksome to more than a few.

“It doesn’t offend me,” Nationals fan Frank Cumberland said. “It’s just one of those deals where it should be done in Baltimore and not Washington.”

Benson isn’t the only one to note that this is only the beginning. Many players and fans feel the same way.

“Everyone likes to call it a rivalry, but a rivalry has to develop over time,” Orioles outfielder Jeff Conine said. “You’ve got to see how the fans are and how the atmosphere is before you really start getting into a rivalry. Right now, I’m looking at it as just another game.”

Don Plavnick of Arlington, who saw the last Washington Senators game at old Griffth Stadium, the first Senators game at RFK (then D.C. Stadium) and the last Senators game and the first Nationals game at RFK, agrees.

“I think it will develop into one over time, but right now it’s probably kind of a novelty,” he said.

Asked if he was excited to see the Nationals play the Orioles, Plavnick said, “I’m excited to see them play anybody.”

The teams have geography going for them, but until the first pitch, they will have shared no past, dramatic episodes or mutual animosity. The only bad blood is being funneled by Nationals fans toward Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who has been blamed for keeping baseball out of D.C. and Nationals games off television, and maybe high gas prices, as well.

Otherwise, nature will have to take its course.

“You can definitely see it growing into a rivalry,” Nationals outfielder Ryan Church said. “We’re basically in their backyard. It would be nice to [beat them]. … If there’s a brawl or some kind of incident, that can start it. But there hasn’t been anything between these two clubs, other than a couple of spring training games.”

Playing in different leagues doesn’t help, and neither team is doing much on the field this season. The best enduring rivalries — Redskins-Cowboys, Yankees-Red Sox — have been perpetuated more by regular, keen competition than by geography, although Dodgers-Giants and, to a lesser extent, Yankees-Mets, managed to entail both.

A rivalry “has to be cultivated,” said Nationals manager Frank Robinson, who played for the Orioles from 1966 through 1971. “Just because you’re playing a team down the road, that doesn’t mean it’s a rivalry. Both teams have to be productive and winning over the years. You have to create the fan interest and the media interest. That makes it a rivalry.”

Robinson did his part to negate a rivalry the first time around, when the Orioles made the Senators their personal American League pinata. From 1954, when the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore, to 1971, the Senators’ last season before moving to Texas, Baltimore won all but two season series and split one.

And just when the Senators turned competitive, they moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961, leaving Washington with a team. Meanwhile, Baltimore was building a strong franchise. The expansion Senators almost always finished at or near the bottom while the Orioles mainly were a first-division club that won pennants in 1966, 1969, 1970 and 1971. During a 94-win year for Baltimore, 1965, Washington actually won a season series. The rest of the time, it was utter Orioles domination. Although many games were close, the Senators in their last four years were 18-52 against Baltimore.

“Yeah, it was pretty one-sided,” said Dick Bosman, who pitched and lost the last game for the Senators against the Orioles on Sept. 10, 1971, at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, giving up a home run to, among others, Frank Robinson. “They let us drive up there. You’d get your [expletive] kicked, and drive back.”

It should be noted, however, that Bosman the previous week pitched in the final Senators-Orioles game at RFK and beat Mike Cuellar and the Orioles 5-3.

The fans responded to the competitive imbalance by not showing up. In 1971, the largest crowd at RFK to see the two teams was the first one, 9,623. The last Orioles-Senators game drew just more than 5,100. The biggest RFK crowd to see the Orioles in the Senators’ last five seasons was 22,134 in 1969. A game the year before drew a reported 1,069.

A substantially larger crowd will be in the seats tonight, and there are some Washington fans who seem to be genuinely pumped up — to a point.

“I think it is absolutely developing into a rivalry,” said Colin Mills of Reston, president of the Nationals Fan Club. “We’ve been talking about this even before we had a team.”

Said Mike Kanick of Alexandria: “I think it’s gonna be a great regional rivalry, but you need to play some games before we can say it will be intense. I think there will be some tales told in the future.”

Orioles fans might be less enthused. “It don’t mean nothin’ to me,” said Bill Eckstein of Towson, Md., who was sitting outside of Camden Yards before Wednesday’s Red Sox-Orioles game. “Just because they’re close doesn’t mean there’s a rivalry.”

If there is a single reason for a rivalry right now, it is a supposed villain who, in the eyes of Nationals fans, lacks only a black hat and curly mustache. For years, Angelos sought to protect what he considered to be his territory and keep major league baseball out of the D.C. area. And he succeeded, until baseball had no choice but to move the Expos to the District.

As if that wasn’t enough, Angelos is now, rightly or wrongly, being held responsible by many fans for the paucity of Nationals games on television because of the ongoing legal hassles between Comcast, which serves 1.3 million cable subscribers, and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which was created by Angelos.

“I definitely consider this to be a rivalry because their owner has been the instrument of our baseball exile,” said Cumberland, who grew up in College Park, lives in Fairfax and, in addition to his regular job with a consulting firm, works as a freelance writer, mostly writing about the Nationals.

“A huge portion of our time in the baseball wilderness, with so many kids growing up in the D.C. area without baseball, is [because of] Angelos,” Cumberland said. “When Angelos departs it will be a very healthy rivalry. Right now it’s an unhealthy rivalry.”

Mark Zuckerman contributed to this article.

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