- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009

I asked Nationals president Stan Kasten if he had any gamesmanship ready this weekend to spice up a series between two last-place teams and named after two roads that cause suffering every day.

He joked that he couldn’t divulge it.

I was thinking it would be bringing Daniel Cabrera out of the bullpen. A few hit batters by Cabrera against his old Baltimore teammates might do the trick.

The “Battle of the Beltways” between the Nationals and Orioles sure could use something to spice it up, other than the obvious - competitive teams facing each other.

The Nationals and Orioles came into this three-game series, which started Friday night at Nationals Park, with fewer combined wins (28) than the Los Angeles Dodgers. And the Orioles managed to distance themselves a little more from the Nationals with a 12-inning, 4-2 win Friday night.

The three-game series against the Orioles at Nationals Park in June 2008 drew more than 115,000, including the largest crowd of the season at the new stadium - 39,824. That crowd witnessed what was probably the greatest moment of the year at Nationals Park when Ronnie Belliard hit a game-winning home run in the 12th inning - after the Orioles had taken a 2-1 lead in the top of the inning - for a 3-2 win.

All the Orioles fans in the place were on their feet clapping for strike three from closer George Sherrill, while Nationals fans were in their seats, resigning themselves to defeat and abuse. Then, just like that, as Belliard hit the home run, Orioles fans dropped in their seats and Nationals fans were on their feet, stomping and cheering.

It showed just how good this rivalry may be someday. It may never be Yankees-Mets or Cubs-White Sox, but playing six times a year, this really is the only arena of competition between the cities that has potential to become a real bragging rights series. The Redskins and Ravens face each other occasionally, but that hasn’t sustained any kind of rivalry to speak of. And Baltimore doesn’t have an NBA or NHL franchise.

The managers of both teams agreed that you need to give fans something to brag about before the rivalry gets some juice.

“It’s picking up, but it is going to take both of us getting out of the cellar,” Nationals skipper Manny Acta said. “That is the bottom line. I think everybody in the Baltimore area is rooting for their team and going along with the plan of rebuilding and all that. The same thing with our fans over here.

“But like Stan usually says, you get the attendance you deserve. Not until both teams become more competitive in their own divisions, I don’t think you will see the rivalry pick up as much. I do think last year it was great, a lot better than 2007. It looks like it is building up.”

Attendance for the series last year certainly got a boost from the new ballpark and Orioles fans’ curiosity about the place. For the Friday contest in 2008, nearly 36,000 showed up. This Friday night’s game drew 22,556. The Memorial Day weekend exodus to the beaches didn’t help.

“I think what makes it the rivalry are the fans,” Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. “The players love to play and like to compete, but it is the interest by the fans that make it more of a rivalry. Obviously, what fans want are winning teams. They want competitive, winning clubs. They have to understand that the direction that we are taking - probably very similar to what the Nationals are taking - is not geared towards now but towards the future.

“I think there is enough of a fan base in both areas that those who are in on the ground floor will come to appreciate it, and it will grow and become even better.”

Until then, a little trash talk or a hit batter or two would do the trick. And team executives are not above a little gamesmanship.

Kasten said during the 1992 World Series, when his Atlanta Braves were in Toronto facing the Blue Jays, team president Paul Beeston would have upbeat, energetic music played for Toronto’s batting practice. The Braves would get a version of soft jazz. So when the Blue Jays came to Atlanta, Kasten struck back with music so low-key for the visiting team that it sounded like “funeral dirges,” he said.

He joked that during the 1991 World Series against the Braves, when current Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail was the general manager of the Minnesota Twins, the massive fans on the wall in the outfield would blow in when the Braves were up to bat - and out when the Twins hit.

“I’ve been answering that question for years,” MacPhail said. “I would say, no, it blows the same for everybody. Finally I watched Al Newman, a middle infielder for us, answer the question. Newman smiled and said, ‘Yep, that’s exactly what happens. We put the fans on, [manager Tom] Kelly has a switch, and we put them on when the other team is hitting, they blow in, and when we’re hitting, they blow out.’ Then he laughed. I thought to myself, ‘Heck, I’m going to start answering it that way. Let them think it was all about the fans.’ ”

It is going to take a little more than front office gamesmanship to inject some juice to this rivalry.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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