- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2012

When D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams donned an old Washington Senators hat and announced in September 2004 that Major League Baseball was returning to the District, there was euphoria. The nation’s capital, the national pastime: It seemed to be a perfect fit.

Not for Andy Krauss. Growing up in Silver Spring, Mr. Krauss was a Washington sports fan who rooted for the Baltimore Orioles in the absence of a D.C. team.

“It irks me that they kept saying, ‘D.C. needs a team.’ As far as I was concerned, D.C. had a team, and it just happened to be in Baltimore,” Mr. Krauss said. “In the ‘80s and in the ‘90s, Baltimore was Washington’s baseball team, and people forget that very quickly.”

Not everyone has. Even amid the Nationals‘ division championship season, there are plenty of Orioles fans still rooted in the area to enjoy Baltimore’s even more improbable run to the playoffs. Naturally, some fans left once the Nationals arrived and many now cheer for both teams, but the Orioles are far from a forgotten team in Washington.

Filling baseball’s black hole

Washington has the dubious distinction of having its baseball team leave not once, but twice: the original Senators in 1960 after 60 seasons to become the Minnesota Twins and the expansion Senators in 1971 to become the Texas Rangers.

Those growing up in the D.C. area after ‘71 had options: Walk away from the sport, maintain a casual interest without an allegiance or latch on to the Orioles.

Baltimore got the Orioles in 1954 and celebrated World Series titles in 1966, 1970 and 1983.

“You’ve got to remember that there’s a whole generation of people, myself included, that grew up in the D.C. suburbs but didn’t have a D.C. baseball team to root for,” said John Domen, 33, of Silver Spring, who grew up in Bowie. “We were all drawn to the Orioles, and that meant going to Memorial Stadium as a little kid and watching Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray, then Camden Yards after that.”

Mr. Krauss, 37, started watching the Orioles during their championship season in 1983, and he stuck with the team with no reservations or apologies through a lot of lean times, most notably 14 consecutive losing seasons before this year. Some, such as 28-year-old John Scott of Arlington, never saw the Orioles win it all but remained a fan despite growing up in Gaithersburg.

“Part of being a fan is going through the bad times. It just happened to be for the Orioles it was 14 straight years of really bad times,” Mr. Krauss said. “And I didn’t think they were ever going to end. You just don’t know. But every Opening Day has been my favorite day of the year.”

Nats’ impact on Orioles

There was no more vocal opponent to baseball’s return to the District than Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who once said, “There are no baseball fans in Washington, D.C.”

Despite that assertion, he didn’t want another team in the area cutting into his fan base.

It did. While the floundering Orioles‘ struggles contributed to it, attendance figures for Camden Yards dropped once the Montreal Expos became the Nationals beginning with the 2005 season.

In the four seasons before that, the Orioles averaged 33,612 fans; in the eight since, the average is 25,488. For the first time since 2007, the Orioles drew more than 2 million fans this season, as manager Buck Showalter and Co. won 93 games en route to capturing one of the American League’s two wild-card spots.

Along with sharing postseason billing, the Nationals and Orioles share air on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which is owned by Mr. Angelos. That Orioles games are always on television in the D.C. area, which helps fans stay connected even though the drive to Baltimore can seem like a distance.

“They’re really a second home team as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Domen said, “just because there’s a fan base and it’s so easy to follow them.”

Not as easy as before, though. There used to be an Orioles store in Farragut Square, but it closed in 2006 after a 20-year run.

“For Washington fans, the Orioles store on Farragut Square is a symbol, an emblem of all the years that we had no team and the Orioles did all they could to keep it that way,” Colin Mills, president of the Nats Fan Club, told The Baltimore Sun at the time. “It’s as if the British, after losing the revolution, had kept a royal office open in downtown Boston.”

Not enemy territory

Not everyone feels the Nationals have completely taken over Washington from the Orioles. Mr. Krauss expressed frustration over the difficulty of getting bars to tune into MASN broadcasts, but Orioles games are shown almost as often as Nationals games.

Spend a night at The Front Page in Ballston and you generally can watch the Nationals or the Orioles, though owner Jorge Fernandez said the Nationals have taken more precedent lately.

“We’ve been really lucky; [Nationals third baseman] Ryan Zimmerman used to come here a lot, so we have a tiny little connection to the baseball at our bar in particular,” Mr. Fernandez said. “I myself personally have been a die-hard O’s fan my whole entire life. Right now, I’m on the Nationals‘ bandwagon only because it’s so exciting being right here.”

There is no consensus among local Orioles fans as to whether this is Nationals territory. Mr. Scott feels that way, obviously more comfortable when he is taking a trip to Baltimore “where everyone is wearing orange and a cartoon bird hat.” Mr. Krauss said it’s not like Boston, New York or Philadelphia, where everyone has a team and seems to be hard-core about it.

“I feel like it’s kind of a mixed zone, really,” Mr. Domen said. “We’re all kind of mingled and mixed together at this point. Yeah, some teams will cheer for both or at least make one team their second-favorite team. And as long as they’re not playing each other, they’re fine with both teams succeeding.”

Janet Wilson, 56, of Centreville, is one of those people. Originally a New York Yankees fan who attended Mets games because of how hard it was to get to the Bronx, she moved to the D.C. area 27 years ago and doesn’t see a problem with split allegiances.

“In my mind, there is no competition for me being a fan of both as they represent two different leagues, so I didn’t understand the reticence of Baltimore to allow a team in D.C.,” she said. “There are so many sports fans in this area, Baltimore is very close by, so most Nats fans are O’s fans as well.”

Fans who converted from the Orioles to the Nationals cited various reasons, including identification with Washington over Baltimore, a disdain for Mr. Angelos and a connection to the old Senators franchise.

Bleeding black and orange

As much as Mr. Domen was tempted to follow that path, he couldn’t. He saw Nationals stars Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and “wished” he could have made the transition to being a Nationals fan.

“It was difficult because you watch the Orioles just struggle so mightily, and I did just kind of wish I could’ve given up on them because I didn’t feel like the organization was really putting forth its best effort. But I couldn’t do it,” he said.

“Whatever my brain suggested — ‘The Nationals have a brighter future, it’s going to be much better if you make that switch’ — the fact is, as a little kid playing whiffle ball, I wanted to be Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, not some guy from the Expos.”

Mr. Krauss, who lives in downtown Bethesda, had no such temptation, watching a lot of unwatchable Orioles baseball even as the new hope of the Nationals came to the area.

It annoyed him to see fellow Orioles fans of his age switching to the Nationals.

“I think when you grow up rooting for a team, if you’re a true fan, then you don’t for any reason stop rooting for that team. For any reason,” he said. “That’s part of being a true fan, and that’s what’s bothered me the most about it.”

Despite facing each other as part of interleague play, being in separate leagues could be a major reason for fans splitting their attention and interest. With no iconic moments between the Orioles and Nationals, there is no bad blood on the field between the two teams.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been a bit of a rivalry among fans who for years shared the plight of losing teams.

“I’m thinking that maybe just when both teams were pretty bad, everybody kind of wanted to see the other team just do worse so that they at least had those bragging rights,” Mr. Domen said. “Maybe not Yankees fans and Red Sox fans, but you get the general idea that neither team wanted to be the worst in this region.”

‘Not in my wildest dreams’

The 2012 season was a departure from the Orioles and Nationals fighting not to be the worst. Both are in the playoffs, which Mr. Domen said has gotten rid of much of the animosity between competing fan bases.

When Mr. Scott was coming back from the Washington Redskins’ home opener last month, he heard a woman on the Metro complaining about how people crowd toward the doors because they want to be first.

“I looked at her and said, ‘Yeah, because this is a town of winners.’ Definitely not something I could have said with a straight face before this year,” Mr. Scott said. “That’s why this is fun. For once, we’re not bickering about who has the worst team in baseball or who is a bigger laughingstock, but we’re talking about who has a better chance to win it all.”

While the Nationals‘ success has been building around a young core of stars, the Orioles‘ postseason berth came out of nowhere. Picked by many to finish last in the American League East, they’ve been the biggest surprise in baseball. They face the Texas Rangers on Friday for the chance to move on to a Division Series against the New York Yankees.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think this was going to happen this year,” Mr. Krauss said. “Not in my wildest dreams.”

It’s perhaps validation for the Orioles fans, in Washington and elsewhere, who never stopped paying attention.

“I don’t know if validate is the right word, but it’s certainly very rewarding to see them succeed now and know that I’ve gone to so many games,” Mr. Domen said. “A little while ago, I just stopped trying to rationalize it and wait for the other foot to drop and I just started to have fun with it, and it’s been a blast.”

It could get more fun as October rolls along. And if somehow the Orioles and Nationals meet for a Beltway World Series, there will be a buzz in Washington that is hard to quantify.

And it will make for some hard decisions.

“If it came down to the World Series, it would be really tough for me. I don’t know where I’d go,” Mr. Fernandez said. “That would be just incredible. It would be so awesome for baseball.”

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