- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

Giants vs. Dodgers.

Red Sox vs. Yankees.

Redskins vs. Cowboys.

Hillary vs. Barack.

Honest-to-goodness, rip-snorting rivalries can be found almost anywhere you look these days — but Washington Nationals vs. Baltimore Orioles isn’t among them.

Not yet.

Someday?

Maybe — who knows?

On the RFK Stadium scoreboard before last night’s initial 2007 meeting between the clubs, a gaudy logo insisted “Battle of the Beltway.” Since only one interstate highway was cited, this presumably referred to the frequently agonizing commutes of motorists on either I-495 or I-695.

The baseball confrontation should have been labeled “Battle of the Parkway” because state road 295 is what directly links the nation’s capital and Charm City. But no matter what it was called, the horsehide hassle seemed more like a mere skirmish — one ultimately won by the Baltimore baddies 5-4. Be still, my heart!

On a chilly, overcast night, ancient RFK was vastly unpopulated as the 7:05 hour of combat arrived. No official count was provided of visitors from the north, but as the national anthem approached its climax, the dratted cry of “O!” arose. In Washington? You almost expected vendors to be hawking crab cake sandwiches.

Several hours later, the official turnout was announced as 22,375, barely topping the average for 21 previous games and leaving more than 23,000 seats unburdened by fannies. Which seemed to prove earlier denials by people in both white and gray uniforms that any earthshaking struggle was imminent.

Sam Perlozzo, the Orioles’ manager and a George Washington University graduate, might have said it best: “This has a chance to be a great rivalry, but right now it’s just another interleague game — although some fans may feel it means a lot more.”

Manny Acta encountered two gung-ho types while chowing down in a restaurant Thursday night. As the Nats’ first-year manager told it during his pregame press conference, “A couple of guys came up and said, ‘You better win tomorrow!’ I told them I want to win every game, but I understand how people feel about the rivalry.”

A few of them anyway.

It remains to be seen whether a general conflagration will ensue. Two major obstacles appear to exist.

First, the teams are in different leagues. This is great for fans hereabouts because it enables them to see every other major league team and star. Problem is, it means the O’s and Nats will never meet in an epochal game. (Unless both make the World Series. Don’t hold your breath.)

Which leads us to negative No. 2: Both clubs are lousy as presently constituted. The Nats somehow had won six of seven before last night, but that mini-spurt didn’t make up for a prior eight-game skid. All it accomplished perhaps was to lessen the likelihood of a 110-loss season, but maybe we should be grateful for even small blessings.

Meanwhile, the Orioles are looking good, if that’s the word, for a 10th straight losing season under the messy ministrations of autocratic owner Peter Angelos and assorted lackeys. Perlozzo, a smart baseball man, is fortunate to be managing a team in the bigs. He also is unfortunate to be managing this one.

Under such circumstances, it’s hard to whip the populace into any sort of froth. When the players on both sides say they’re taking the games one at a time, it makes perfect sense. Contemplating all the games and results from now until October could be extremely painful.

Asked whether he regards the current challenge in terms of Armageddon, Nats third baseman and putative superstar Ryan Zimmerman understandably demurred.

“I try to treat every game the same,” he said. “I guess [the rivalry] is good for the cities and exciting for the fans, but if I start to think of it as something special …”

Zimmerman shrugged and left the final words unspoken: “… I’ll mess up.”

As so often happens in baseball, these two mediocre outfits staged a crackling good ballgame for a while last night. It was scoreless until Jay Payton launched a sacrifice fly that fetched Miguel Tejada across the plate for the Orioles in the fourth. One inning later, Nick Markakis and Kevin Millar whacked RBI hits to make it 3-0 and provide breathing room. But Dmitri Young got the Nationals back into it with a two-run dinger in the sixth.

Then the Nats brought forth the popular racing presidents, who definitely seemed out of place on this evening. After all, George, Tom, Abe and Teddy never lost a game, er, election.

After playing tonight and tomorrow, the Nats and O’s will part company until their reunion June 12-14 at Camden Yards. It’s unlikely fans of both teams will be counting the days, but Nats president Stan Kasten said that will happen someday.

“This rivalry will be big when we’re both good,” Kasten insisted. Sad to say, he couldn’t say when.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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