FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The last time the Orioles played a team from Washington, D.C., Frank Robinson hit a home run and Memorial Stadium was more than half empty. If there was a trace of excitement in the air, it must have been passing through the city on its way to someplace else.
Yesterday's rematch took almost 34 years, and it unfolded in a modest setting -- an exhibition game in early March. But the stands were mostly full at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, and the relocated Montreal franchise, now known as the Washington Nationals, struck the first blow with a 9-6 victory over the Orioles.
Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver threw out the ceremonial first pitch. About 150 media credentials were issued, including the regulars who have been here since camp opened. The Florida Marlins didn't draw this much attention when they visited two days ago.
So is it really that big of a deal?
Guess it depends on whom you ask.
"It's just a game. Please. Come on, guys," said Robinson, the Nationals' manager, who chided a group of reporters determined to find a sentimental angle. "An exhibition game isn't a rivalry. Down the road, maybe it is."
The Senators took plenty of abuse from the Orioles before moving to Texas after the 1971 season. As a parting shot, they were beaten, 7-1, in the final meeting between the teams on Sept. 10, 1971.
Mike Cuellar allowed only three hits while going the distance, and Robinson's homer, witnessed by 13,443, came off Dick Bosman, who later served as the Orioles' pitching coach. Elrod Hendricks, the longtime bullpen coach, batted eighth and went 1-for-4 in a lineup that included Paul Blair, Mark Belanger, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Davey Johnson.
Pouring cold water on the notion that the Orioles and Senators were hot rivals, Hendricks said: "It really was not that big of a deal."
"The only good thing about it was you got to sleep in your own bed when you went down to Washington," he said. "We'd go down there and play, and then we'd go back home."
Accounts of the original rivalry's importance and impact vary, depending on the source. They either existed or they didn't. The games meant everything or nothing beyond the standings.
"In those days, we'd go over to Washington and Ted Williams was the manager," said Don Buford, the former Orioles outfielder, coach, farm director and minor league manager, who now coaches first base for the Nationals.
"With his background and history, it was always very interesting to play him. We'd go over there and we always had a real desire to beat up on Washington as much as we could, from the standpoint of it being a rivalry and them being across town. We wanted to prove we had a better ballclub."
The Orioles were the better team yesterday until the ninth inning, when the Nationals scored five runs against B.J. Ryan to wipe out a 5-4 deficit.
A rivalry was born. Or was it? "We've played nine innings," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said. "I don't know."
"That's the game plan, isn't it?" said Nationals outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, the Orioles' first-round draft choice in 1992.
"If it's not a rivalry, then we as players aren't doing the right thing. These are territorial rights. You've got pretty much the same fan base. We're coming in trying to jump in the Orioles' territory, and we've got to convert the fans to try to like us as much as they like them. There will definitely be implications in every game we play against them.
"Baseball loves us. It's a great story. D.C. definitely needs a team. But it comes down to, `I don't' want to lose my territory. This is my fence. I'm blessed to have this and this. Oh Lord, why are you pushing my fence in? Who's coming in? They've got nice uniforms. They're going to build a new stadium down there, too? What does that mean to me?'
"It's simple economics. You want to maximize all of your returns. It's going to be very competitive. You're going to want to put out a great product on the field, and that should lead to a rivalry."
The teams will play twice more before the season begins, when they move to opposite leagues and never cross paths in 2005. The distance between them -- about 36 miles separate Camden Yards and RFK Stadium -- says they'll become heated rivals. Hendricks has his doubts.
"The fans will make more of it than there really is," he said. "And if and when it does happen, it will take awhile for it to come about, and I'll be long gone.
"I don't see it. I don't feel it."