In D.C., TV anger is channeled toward O's

Lack of Nats deal leaves fans, mayor frustrated


April 08, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After 33 years of getting their baseball fix through the Orioles, fans in the nation's capital finally have a team they can call their own.

So what happens? They excitedly turn on their televisions the past few days and find the Orioles are on, but their team -- the Washington Nationals -- is nowhere to be seen.

"Oh, the irony," said Colin Mills, president of the Nats Fan Club. "We can watch all the Orioles games here in D.C., but we just can't watch our own team's games."

Fans are spitting mad. Many blame Major League Baseball and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who collaborated on setting up a regional sports network that -- at least so far -- has found local outlets for only about half of the Nationals' 162 games. The Opening Day loss in Philadelphia was televised, but the next two road games -- the newly minted team's first win and yesterday's 10-inning triumph -- were not.

Mills responded as many other local fans did.

"I listened to last night's game on the radio," he said yesterday. "I opened the windows and poured myself some lemonade and pretended I was 9 years old again."

Then he got mad.

"It's tremendously frustrating for everyone," said the engineering administrative assistant from Reston, Va.

Some fans and media commentators say they are boycotting the Orioles to protest the handling of the Orioles-Nationals TV deal.

"I would not put a nickel in that tin cup with that owner," sports radio talk show host Steve Czaban said on Washington's WTEM (980 AM).

Yesterday, Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. Council member Jack Evans telephoned MLB president Bob DuPuy to vent and to try to find a solution.

"Frustrated? I'm outraged!" Evans said in an interview afterward. He helped secure the necessary stadium funding in the council last year to lure the former Montreal Expos to Washington.

"I called baseball and said this is ridiculous. We have a brand-new team and we're trying to make this team successful, and how do you not put this on TV?" Evans said.

Apparently, fans in this day and age feel that watching their team's contests on TV is an entitlement. Nationals fans say they only want what other teams' backers already have.

"People are outraged where I live," Evans said. "Nobody could believe it's not on TV. People are flipping the channels trying to find it. Does baseball have a tin ear up there?"

Evans said fans felt especially cheated to have missed the Nationals Brad Wilkerson hitting for the cycle, a rare baseball achievement, in Wednesday night's 7-3 win over the Phillies.

Evans and the mayor said they were assured by baseball that the matter was being addressed.

"Like thousands of other Nationals fans, I was disappointed that last night I could not watch our team win its first game," Williams said in a prepared statement. He said he told baseball "how urgent it is for an agreement to be worked out so that D.C.'s baseball team is on the air. I have been assured that tomorrow night's game against the Florida Marlins and 120 or more games over the remainder of this season will be on the air."

DuPuy did not respond to requests to comment or to elaborate, and Angelos also was unavailable.

In lengthy negotiations, Angelos told MLB that the Orioles had exclusive rights to a television territory that included Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. He negotiated for a new regional sports network that is majority-owned by the Orioles and has authority to present all Orioles and Nationals games.

The Nationals have an over-the-air TV deal in place for this season that will put nearly half of the games on Washington's WDCA-Channel 20. Officials from MLB and the Orioles said they hope to have a deal to show additional Nationals games on cable and satellite television.

It may only be three games into the season, but fans are growing impatient.

"It's not animosity toward the Orioles and their history -- with Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray and Boog [Powell] -- it's all on Angelos," said Eric Parker, a political communications consultant from Arlington, Va. "It's not surprising given that the O's owner has at every turn been trying to hold his neighbor to the south under his foot."

Local bars are hoping the issue gets resolved -- and soon.

"We've had requests for the Nationals games," said Bonnie Downing, regional marketing manager for ESPN Zone, which has branches in Washington and Baltimore. "We've tried a few different things -- using satellites to get a raw feed -- and we can't get them. We want to give our guests what they want."

Sun staff writer Ed Waldman contributed to this article.

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