- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson has been hit with back spasms recently.

That’s certainly understandable, considering he is carrying the weight of two franchises on his back.

Last night, the Orioles and the Nationals faced each other in Game 1 of their first interleague series at RFK Stadium, and there was plenty of hype about the rivalry between the cities and all that.

But there was little to really care about for fans from either city about this series, unless Washington fans showered the field with remote controls to voice their anger over Orioles owner Peter Angelos holding the broadcast rights to their team and keeping them off the air.

Really, look at the rosters of both of these teams, and what do any of the players mean to the franchises? Who is the face of the Orioles? Miguel Tejada? Dr. Feelgood himself? He, along with second baseman Brian Roberts and pitcher Rodrigo Lopez, are on the cover of the Orioles 2006 media guide, but they could have picked any three names out of a hat. This Orioles team has no identity.

Neither do the Nationals, although Washington baseball fans may have thought their team had an identity after last year’s exciting inaugural season. If you still feel that way, it’s a one-way street. These Nationals play with none of that enthusiasm, and if you look down the roster, there is also really nobody who is the face of this team, either. Or do you really feel any connection to Livan Hernandez?

Ironically, the identity for both of these franchises is the 70-year-old Hall of Famer who was sitting in the Nationals dugout last night.

Frank Robinson remains the face of the Nationals, and is still very much part of the identity of the Orioles franchise, which has only its history to embrace, because this team has had no heart or soul for a long time.

I asked him if he felt torn by being such a major figure in both franchises, but the connection across the field has been all but wiped out.

“There have been too many years gone by, too much water under the bridge,” he said. “I still feel like I am a part of that past and the franchise, but I don’t really feel any excitement about facing them, playing them or seeing them or being involved in a game against them. No.”

Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer is part of that Orioles identity, and one of the few connections to the past that Angelos has not burned. For him, Frank Robinson is still very much part of the Orioles identity.

“For somebody like myself, he certainly is,” Palmer said. “But for another generation, it is probably Cal. The older generation would say everything changed when he got there. For those of us who were on that ride, I would say he is certainly the face of the franchise.”

But even for kids who have never seen Frank Robinson play, when they come to Camden Yards, they see the large metal numbers on display outside the ballpark honoring the numbers the franchise has retired. There are only six, and one of them is Frank Robinson’s No. 20. They ask their fathers what these numbers mean, and their fathers tell them stories about a player who was in an Orioles uniform for only six years, but changed the entire history of the franchise, leading them to four pennants and two World Series championships.

Who on this Orioles team will they tell stories about years from now? Melvin Mora and his quintuplets?

The Nationals are just babies in the tradition department, which puts Frank Robinson into the role of the identity of this franchise as well (he has actually managed the Expos/Nationals longer than he did the Orioles, from 1988 to 1991).

When the manager of one team means more to most of the fans of both teams than the players do, it doesn’t make for much of a rivalry. There were some moments last night when fans from both teams made their allegiances known, and the plunking of Nick Johnson in the fourth inning by Orioles starter Kris Benson could start an ember or two (now if Anna Benson were in the ballpark, that might have helped).

“Just playing someone down the road from you is not a rivalry,” Robinson said. “Fans have to get interested in it.”

Fans have to have players they care about to be interested in it. Perhaps the Lerners, as the new owners of the Nationals, will develop those kind of players. And perhaps someday Peter Angelos will sell the Orioles, so their fans can look forward to a time when they, too, can develop a new generation of players to be proud of.

Then we’ve got a rivalry.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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