A Beltway Battle that finally matters

A Beltway Battle that finally matters
May 18, 2012, 2:54 pm
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There's a bit of a misnomer circulating around the region that this weekend's Battle of the Beltways marks the first time winning baseball teams from Washington and Baltimore have ever faced each other.

Not true. On April 16, 1970, the 4-3 Washington Senators traveled up the road to Memorial Stadium and beat the 5-2 Baltimore Orioles before a rabid throng of 4,674. Frank Howard homered off Jim Palmer. Davey Johnson went 0-for-3 with a walk.

It was a rare, shining moment for baseball in the District against its rivals from Charm City, a perennial American League contender in the 1960s and early 1970s while the Senators languished at or near the bottom of the junior circuit.

"It never was much of a rivalry, because the Orioles used to do a little whupping up on people over here," Johnson said yesterday. "But right now, I think we're evenly matched ballclubs, pretty good, young clubs. So I'm excited about it, and hopefully the fans around will be excited."

Indeed, there's plenty of reason for fans of both local baseball teams to be excited about the latest interleague matchup between the Nats (23-15) and O's (25-14), who for the first time in more than four decades find themselves squaring off while sporting winning records.

Actually, tonight's series opener would have pitted a pair of first-place clubs if not for the Nationals' 5-3 loss to the Pirates last night, which coupled with the Braves' win dropped Washington to 12-game back in the NL East.

Nevertheless, this weekend perhaps offers a glimpse into what many around baseball hoped could be the case when the Expos relocated to the District eight years ago: Two successful franchises in these two, connected markets.

There's been precious little on-field success for either the Nationals or Orioles since then. Though each did surprisingly find themselves in contention early during the summer of 2005, each wound up fading down the stretch and finishing well back of the pack.

The Nats franchise hasn't posted a winning record since it won 83 games in Montreal in 2003 (managed by former Orioles great Frank Robinson). Baltimore hasn't finished above .500 since the 1997 club (managed by Johnson) captured the AL East crown with 98 wins.

There's a strong sense around South Capitol Street that this Nationals squad will finally get over the hump this season, led by the majors' best pitching staff. There's still some skepticism over the Orioles' chances of maintaining this pace, though with each passing day they're winning over more supporters.

"I follow them," Johnson said. "I watch them on TV. I know what kind of a lineup they have. It's pretty potent. They've got some great young pitchers."

Whether this ever develops into a true rivalry remains to be seen, especially with realignment next year shaking up the way interleague games are scheduled.

For now, both sides can simply enjoy this new, winning component to an annual series that to date has meant far more to fans than to the men in uniform.

"I just hope I don't hear during the National Anthem the 'O's' too loud," Johnson said.