- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

The Washington Nationals won the “Converter Box” three-game series yesterday against the Baltimore Orioles, getting a 3-1 victory at RFK Stadium, and now the Nationals own the television rights of the Orioles until the teams meet next month at Camden Yards.

Nationals president Tony Tavares was presented with the first “Coaxial Cup” after the game, the trophy the winning team will hold until it loses a subsequent series. The names of Nationals players were etched into the trophy with the ceremonial “Terminator Tool” used when the cable company comes to cut off your service.

Not really, but that would spice up the rivalry a little bit, wouldn’t it — playing for TV rights, which right now fuel the animosity among fans from both sides.

No such luck, though. After yesterday’s game, the Nationals return to Mid-Atlantic Sports Network until they play the Orioles again.

Still, at least at RFK, the first regular-season series between the teams certainly picked up steam with the Nationals’ 8-3 win Saturday night and went up another notch with yesterday’s win because, after all, there haven’t been too many reasons this year for fans at RFK to get excited. They had only seen their team win four times in person until yesterday’s victory, which may have been the best day at RFK this season for atmosphere in the stands and play on the field.

The Nationals charged things up right from the start with three stolen bases and a run on an RBI single by Royce Clayton in the first inning and added two more runs in the fourth inning on an RBI single by Wiki Gonzalez and a sacrifice bunt by pitcher Livan Hernandez, which brought a standing ovation from the 32,152 on hand.

Hernandez did his part on the mound with his best start in three weeks, holding the Orioles to one run over seven innings. With the sun shining on a 77-degree day, it was good to be Nationals fans yesterday.

“It was absolutely one of the better days here, probably the best day,” manager Frank Robinson said.

But now it is back to the drudgery of having a team that most fans can’t watch on television because of the dispute between Comcast and MASN, Orioles owner Peter Angelos’ regional sports network, which has the rights to Nationals telecasts under a suspect deal made by Major League Baseball.

MLB is now trying to find a way out of that deal, or at least amend it somehow, because it now has owners — the Lerners — who will pay $450million for this team and surely will run out of patience if they have to continue to market a team in a vacuum.

Unfortunately, in Angelos, they are dealing with a legendary negotiating brick wall. Those who have done business with him jokingly say he will let a deal for paper clips sit on his desk for weeks at a time.

The answer, though, may have been staring everyone in the face yesterday at RFK after the completion of the Nationals-Orioles game, when the Class A Potomac Nationals took the field in a promotional major league-minor league doubleheader against the Salem Avalanche.

Minor league baseball.

The Nationals recently signed a four-year agreement with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators. Harrisburg is a big bone in Angelos’ throat. He wants to be there, and he wants it badly. That is where his franchise needs to expand marketing — into south and central Pennsylvania.

It’s a nice market for the Nationals, but the direction this franchise needs to market is south of the District into Virginia. So why not put the rights to Harrisburg (which would love to have the Orioles as well) on the table in the cable television negotiations to sweeten the pot a little bit?

The Potomac club in Prince William County will be moving into a new ballpark within two years, and it would be natural for them to move up to Class AA and for the Nationals to find another Class A affiliate somewhere else in Virginia — maybe even Salem, where a Nationals affiliation would be far more attractive there than the current Houston Astros connection.

It may be a minor league solution to a major league problem, but it is the biggest problem facing the Nationals’ new owners. It is also getting in the way of developing any sort of serious rivalry between fans of both sides because right now the Orioles have a collective thumb pressed down on the Nationals’ future.

For this rivalry to grow, both sides need to be on equal footing. Otherwise, it is nothing but bitterness.

“This thing takes years,” Robinson said of the rivalry. “It doesn’t take three games. This is just a sample, really. This thing will build over time and has a good chance to be a rivalry and a very good one. But let’s not try to force it into what it is not yet. Right now it is for bragging rights.”

Washington fans can brag that their team beat the Orioles in the inaugural regular-season series. But Baltimore fans can say, “That’s nice. What channel is your team on tonight?”

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

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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