RFK heavy on red, light on orange

April 15, 2005|By David Steele

WASHINGTON - Half of the sellout crowd at RFK Stadium standing at attention during "The Star-Spangled Banner" last night shouted "O!" at the point in the anthem that they've shouted it for more than a quarter century.

The other half of the crowd booed in response, as if to say: Not that team, not that city, not anymore.

Peter Angelos, wherever you are (and wherever you were when your territory was officially breached), take note. But maybe the Orioles' owner doesn't have to. The fans packing the decrepit old ballpark to see the Nationals' debut in Washington proved every point Angelos has tried to make for demanding damages for the breakup of his baseball kingdom.

Everywhere you looked at RFK last night, you saw red, just as Frank Robinson had requested on the eve of the home opener, to establish an instant tradition in a place where tradition had skipped a couple of generations.

Those who didn't have official (or professionally knocked-off) Nats gear wore whatever they had - Maryland sweats, Red Sox hats, Michael Vick jerseys, Bullets caps, Expos shirts, whatever they had from their high school, elementary school, rec center or CYO league with red in it.

What you didn't see even the slightest trace of was orange and black.

Yet there couldn't have been more than a few hundred, if that many, in the rickety stands who hadn't worn those colors before, at Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards and all over the metropolitan area for the past five years or the past 30 - who hadn't been shouting "O!" during the anthem as far back as they could remember.

Just ask, for example, the kids perched cross-legged atop the home dugout 2 1/2 hours before the first pitch: three boys and a girl, ages 8 to 14, all from the edges of D.C.'s Virginia suburbs, wearing red from head to toe, screaming for Vinny Castilla to give them an autograph (or pleading with nearby reporters at the railing to get his attention). Hey, do you kids like the Orioles, too?

"Yeah!" they all yelped in unison. And they'll probably be at Orioles games a few times this year. But, right now, first in their hearts is the team nearby, the one that takes an hour and a half less to get to, the one that belongs to them. The one, as 14-year-old Brandon Marlowe said, that his father had seen in the last game in its previous incarnation in 1971.

(Not to doubt young Brandon, but apparently everybody at RFK last night either was at that last game or knew or was related to someone who had. Whoever said that one day 100,000 people would claim to have been there was right.)

And, most assuredly, not the team representing the city that despises D.C. and, apparently, the very presence of the new team down the road. Sitting a row behind the youngsters, Sarel Kromer of Chevy Chase said she had stood up in a coffee shop in Baltimore yesterday morning and asked, out loud, who in the room would be paying attention to the Nationals.

"You know what they said?" Kromer said, pausing dramatically before giving their answer: "Who are the Nationals?" Which did Kromer's heart glad because she already had dropped the Orioles like a bad habit.

OK, so the seeds of the rivalry aren't only planted, they're sprouting fast. A far bigger rivalry, however, is taking place in the hearts of the fans in the disputed regions Angelos once had clenched in his fist.

Some have chosen not to choose; like the aforementioned kids, they'll inhale all the baseball their bodies can stand. Others swore off their once-beloved team instantly and have been clean and sober since Sept. 29, the day the move from Montreal was announced.

Many of those fans, who had always griped about the lengthy commute to Orioles games, cheerily stood outside the RFK gates for two hours before they opened; many patiently waited through long security lines. That, of course, was nothing compared with waiting 34 years for the privilege, so they're likely to do it again now that they can.

Check the reaction by about a dozen fans (grown-ups this time) behind home plate before the game - again, wearing more red than anyone should be allowed to in public - when asked if they retained any loyalty to the Orioles.

All either shook their heads no or shook their heads and frowned deeply or shook their heads, frowned and took Angelos' name in vain. For them, the switch was easy, and they don't plan to switch back. "No way. No. Way," said one fan. "Not as long as he's there."

A picture was forming - granted, from a sample with a pretty large margin of error - of a fan base on its knees proposing to its fiancee, then leaping to its feet when its true love moves back into the neighborhood. It had seemed like such a dumb, greed-driven, shortsighted theory cooked up by a rapacious owner. Not anymore.

Of course, that wasn't the full picture. Another graduate of the infamous Senators finale, Silver Spring resident John Sery, showed up last night with a "W" cap and a button from the first game at Camden Yards in 1992. He wasn't going to miss this, he said, but he's not halting his trips up the parkway, either.

"You can't just abandon a team after 34 years," Sery said.

And after all those years, you can't stop yourself from shouting "O!" that fast.

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