THE NOBLE INTENT to meld Baltimore and Washington into a single economic market to attract new business ventures often seems, to put it mildly, like a work in progress.
The two cities pursue separate bids for the Olympics when they would obviously be far stronger -- and less of a long-shot -- presenting one unified proposal.
Politicians who represent the suburbs near Washington often seem to be at war in Annapolis with Baltimore area delegates, deeply resenting any aid flowing into the city. Gaining a sense of unity across the border into Virginia can be even more difficult.
Residents in and around Baltimore and Washington follow different news sources, are ambivalent or even hostile toward the other town's football team, and rarely even summer at the same beaches.
Thank goodness for the Orioles.
Cheap airfares at Baltimore-Washington International Airport aside, the Birds are the clearest common commodity that can make the whole region tick.
From the Shenandoahs to the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay -- not to mention at all the office water coolers in between -- you could almost feel the emotions rise and fall collectively with the triumphs and, ultimately, with the tribulations of the Orioles in the recently concluded American League playoff games.
The popularity of Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- it led the league in attendance for the third straight year -- has won the team much wider appeal. While 40 percent of fans at Orioles games come from the Baltimore metropolitan area, nearly 30 percent come from the Washington area, according to John Maroon, the team's public relations director. The remainder hail from Pennsylvania, Delaware and farther up and down the East Coast.
Indeed, while most major-league baseball teams start their night games at 7, the Orioles start at 7: 30 because many fans are traveling quite a distance to see the game.
As for the controversy that awakens angrily every few years about whether the word "Baltimore" should return to the team's road jerseys, it seems a non-starter even in the eyes of avowed Baltimorean and team owner Peter G. Angelos, because today's fan base is so broad.
This is all positive recognition of the fact that a great public structure and a great product within it can generate enormous energy to rally a region, whether it be an art museum in Bilbao, Spain, or a ballpark in Baltimore.
It was fortuitous for the Orioles that they were able to tap that wider market, especially after attempts to return baseball to Washington fell flat.
And it is fortuitous, too, for this region's efforts to define itself as the nation's fourth largest market that its two great population centers share a following for the Orioles and Camden Yards.