Tonight, the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles begin the first of six contests absurdly dubbed “The Battle of the Beltways.”
Every season since 2006, the attempt to manufacture a rivalry falls flat. Once interleague play finally ends, the teams, cities, and fans move on to more useful pursuits and more meaningful gams against their real rivals.
So, why are these games never the bitter feuds Major League Baseball tries to make them? Here’s four reasons:
Reason 1. Baltimore and Washington are different cities, each with their own strange identity crises.
Baltimore is a quirky, charming, ethnically diverse small city (think “Diner” or “Hair” or “Tin Men”) with affordable theatre, music venues and museums as well as two beautiful sports venues. Unfortunately, rather than celebrating its strengths, Charm City has a massive chip on its shoulder (some call it an “inferiority complex”) about not being thought of nationally as a big, sophisticated metropolis like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and, yes, Washington.
Baltimore’s self-image is like the little kid in the cartoons flailing wild punches in the air while a much older, bigger, stronger kid holds him back by the forehead and laughs at him. The perfect symbol for this identity crisis is the billboard of a snarling Ray Lewis drivers see when they cross the Francis Scott Key Bridge. It reads, with unintentional irony, “Welcome to Baltimore.”
The underlying message? “We’re Baltimore. We’re just as big, mean, tough, and talented as you big cities. Yeah, we’re a big city, too.”
Washington, on the other hand, is just as big, powerful, important and sophisticated as it claims to be. One old radio ad for a local bank called D.C. “the most powerful city in the world.”
Had it been truly honest, the ad would have gone on to say “the most work-a-holic, takes itself too seriously, unable to relax city in the world” as well. Like Baltimore, Washington can’t seem to muster up any sense of humor about itself.
Oh, D.C. desperately wants to be seen as a place where government contractors, lobbyists, politicians, and policy wonks enjoy life and their sports teams, but the nation’s capital just isn’t able to let it’s hair down enough to actually do it. Other than high-profile sporting events — Capitals playoff games, Redskins-Cowboys matches, Stephen Strasburg‘s debut, and Opening Day — lots of people in Washington just can’t be bothered to even discuss sports, let alone leave work “only” one hour late to take in a ballgame at Nationals Park.
The result? Baltimoreans usually avoid stuffy Washington like the plague. Washingtonians barely notice their neighbor to the north exists. For a sports rivalry to take root, each city’s citizens need to see themselves as something akin to peers, not ignore one another.
Reason 2. Save for Thomas Boswell, the institutional memory and knowledge of D.C. baseball history in the local media is non-existent.
Both Washington and Baltimore’s media has no interest in or recollection of Washington’s long, rich baseball history. For those who care to get the facts, Washington baseball goes much deeper than the stupid bromide “First in War, First in Peace and Last in the American League” (and, yes, most media in both towns probably don’t even know the Senators played in the A.L. for more than 70 years).
The problem is, no sportswriters or broadcasters in either town know enough or care enough to bother getting these facts. The sum total of their baseball memories are 100% Baltimore-centric. As an example, hosts of Nationals post-game shows, first WTOP radio voices Craig Heist and Jonathan Warner and now MASN’s Phil Wood, constantly make references to the Orioles during the show, because it is all they know. Wood, who has deep knowledge of Washington baseball history but seldom mentions it, began his segments after the last two Nats’ wins with his Orioles memories. Perhaps he fails to realize that this is close to the last thing Nationals fans want to discuss.
The guys on D.C.’s pathetic sports radio stations, SportsTalk 980 and WJFK 106.7 are clueless about baseball, except for 980’s Thom Loverro, who is also 100% Baltimore in his background and biases. His one baseball book is about the Orioles. Other than bring up the organization’s past flaws, he usually has little useful to offer about the Nationals.
It’s hard to generate a rivalry out of a one-sided conversation.
Reason 3. The teams play in different leagues.
The six games the Nationals and Orioles play each year are among the most meaningless in terms of relative importance the teams play all year. With the long, grinding 162-game schedule, this annual two series ritual has become a tiresome distraction. As long as MLB plays an unbalanced schedule, the Nats and O’s East Division counterparts, not each other, will be the focus of fan attention and enmity. Nearly every Nationals fan despises the Phillies much more than the Orioles. Baltimore fans hate the Yankees and Red Sox much more than they dislike the Nationals. Those are the true baseball rivalries in these parts.
Reason 4. Until this season, neither club has been good since baseball returned to Washington.
While the current fine records of both teams will add luster to this weekend’s showdown, the jury remains out on whether either team, especially with recent injuries, can sustain their winning ways into the dog days of July and August. While both teams seem to have greatly improved talent in 2012, especially on their pitching staffs, a downturn by either or both will dampen fan enthusiasm. Both teams have melted down so often in the past few years, that fans remain very cautiously optimistic. Once either or both teams is considered a legitimate contender for the playoffs, interleague play will have come and gone.
For these reasons, any local baseball rivalry, beyond a few ill-spirited trolls on blog sites, is unlikely to materialize unless they meet in the World Series. If that happens, the rivalry will be because of the stakes, not due to competitive, combative enmity between two very different cities and their fans.
Even so, enjoy the games this weekend. Here’s hoping they draw large, loud, spirited crowds.