Are the Nationals and the Orioles Really a Rivalry?
The Beltway Series is here as the Orioles have come down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway for a two game set, to be completed this evening. This interleague matchup is always special to watch because of the two teams' close proximity to one another, but are the Nationals and Orioles really rivals?
If one were to only consult on-field history to answer this question, the answer would likely be that, no, nothing has happened between these two clubs that would make a Nationals v. Orioles game anything more than a friendly, neighborly contest between two teams and their fanbases. Because the teams compete in different leagues, the only time they could meet in the playoffs is in the World Series, which has never happened in the history of these two franchises. While it's always more fun to see the Nationals beat the Orioles, winning the so-called "MASN Cup" (a pretend award bestowed by the network upon the winner of the teams' season series) isn't much for fans to brag about in the grand scheme of things.
A comparable situation elsewhere in baseball would be the Yankees and the Mets, one of the sport's few (if not the only) true interleague rivals. Their annual Subway Series (not to be confused with the sandwich shop's marketing campaign of the same name) doesn't have any more impact on each team's playoff hopes than any other regular season series, but it means something more than that to the fans. This rivalry exists the way it does because these to teams have met for meaningful baseball in the past, specifically the 2000 World Series, which the Yankees won. Until the Nationals and Orioles face off in late October, it would seem that our interleague duel is more spectacle than authentic rivalry.
However, the issue runs much deeper than what we see on the diamond. In courts of law, these franchises have a deeper rivalry than any other pair of professional sports franchises I am aware of. I'm referring, of course, to the ongoing litigation over MASN, the clubs' shared broadcast which is primarily owned by the Baltimore Orioles. O's ownership was very comfortable being the only Major League team in the DMV before the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington in 2005, and heavily resisted the move. As compensation for having another team move into "their" territory, a broadcasting deal was struck that heavily favors Baltimore from a financial standpoint.
Nationals fans have a lot to gripe about with the MASN issue. It can be a pain having another team own your team's broadcast network, especially since the MASN litigation has basically been about whether the Orioles owe the Nationals more television revenue than what has been paid. Every fan wants to see their team give out big contracts to star players, something that would be easier to do with a fair share of the income. There have been other issues too, like when MASN fired beloved Nationals broadcaster Dan Kolko. While he was quickly hired by the Nationals themselves, the incident is a reminder that DC was given a bad deal from the beginning, one that may have been the reason the Lerners were unable to sell the team this past year.
Will the off-field drama, that may escalate with new developments in the lawsuit, heighten fans' sense of rivalry between the Nationals and the Orioles? Not likely. It seems from the conversations I've had with fellow Nationals fans that many of us enjoy seeing the Orioles succeed in the American League. While I do not know whether the inverse is the case with fans up in Baltimore, I know that those DC-based O's fans who did not migrate to the Nationals fanbase back in 2005 were still excited to see our Nats win it all in 2019.
For now, the games played between Baltimore and Washington remain little more than an entertaining contest between two amicable fanbases, but will this continue to be the case in years to come? For the first time in a long time both teams find themselves as underdogs, both rebuilding for the future (albeit at different stages of this process). There will likely be a lot of overlap between the Nationals' and Orioles' windows of competitiveness, if all goes well with each rebuild. Perhaps when playoff chances are truly on the line for both teams, the Beltway series will morph into a real rivalry, and maybe one day we'll even be lucky enough to see the two face off in the Fall Classic.