A tale of 2 teams, 1 region

Baseball

October 02, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

By the second week in June, it seemed the Baltimore-Washington corridor might be in for a truly memorable summer of baseball.

The Orioles and Nationals each stood in first place. Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts looked like a Most Valuable Player candidate, Nationals manager Frank Robinson like a crusty magician. For the first time in 34 years, the region had two teams, and both were shocking the baseball world.

The season didn't end so well for either. But each team unfurled a narrative that was fascinating in its own respect.

The Nationals won more games, drew more fans and stayed in the playoff race longer despite entering the season without a superstar, a permanent home or an owner.

The Orioles entered with several stars, a widely beloved ballpark and a cash-rich owner, but their season collapsed under the weight of thin pitching, bad behavior and unsteady management.

Despite the easy snap of such comparisons, a real rivalry never developed between the teams or their fan bases, observers said.

"They're competitors only in the broadest sense of the word, in that in a region that stretches from Leesburg to Aberdeen, there are only so many billions of dollars being spent on leisure entertainment," said Christina Kahrl, a freelance baseball writer based in Fairfax, Va.

"There's no `upper hand' to be gained, and thinking in those terms is less important than focusing on doing what it takes to successfully rebuild their organizations and contend in their respective divisions."

The Orioles had so many internal problems that they hardly had time to think about a new team to the south, said broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer.

"I just think there were a lot of strange things going on," Palmer said. "Things you couldn't predict. It was just a bizarre season."

From a business standpoint, the initial season of co-existence failed to produce conclusive results.

Going in, Orioles owner Peter Angelos argued that his club could lose a quarter of its audience to a Washington competitor. Average attendance at Camden Yards declined by about 2,000 a game from 2004 but was up slightly from 2003. Club officials attribute some of the drop to lagging ticket sales in the Washington suburbs.

But Nationals or no Nationals, crowds have plateaued at levels far below those of the mid-to-late 1990s. Sports economists said that won't change until the team becomes a consistent winner.

"The Nationals' impact on the Orioles this year is probably marginal compared to the impact of their performance on the field," said John Moag, chairman of Moag & Co., a Baltimore-based investment banking firm with a specialty in sports. "Performance is always the ultimate determinant."

Surprising play did not bring regular sellouts for the Nationals. They outdrew the Orioles by about 1,500 fans a game, but in early September, when the team was battling for the wild card, RFK Stadium appeared half empty for some weekday contests.

That didn't surprise Washington State economics professor Rodney Fort, who noted that two Senators franchises left town because Washingtonians were fickle with their baseball affections.

"Further, fans may feel the success is illusory since MLB is trying to sell the team to the highest bidder," he said. "Fans may wish to see what the `real owners' will do with the team."

Moag, whose firm is working with one of the groups attempting to buy the Nationals, said the team surpassed his attendance projections. "You've got to remember, RFK is a dump," he said, adding that crowds will swell when the team enters a new ballpark in 2008.

The clubs' economic fates are intertwined because the Orioles own 90 percent of the regional Mid-Atlantic Sports Network slated to broadcast both teams beginning in 2007. MASN produced Nationals games this year but failed to reach a distribution deal with Comcast Corp., which controls cable packages for most households in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs.

Until such a deal is struck, both teams will be crippled - the Nationals because their games won't be on television in millions of households, the Orioles because they won't get an expected influx of revenue from the network.

On the field, hardly anyone picked the Nationals, who had lost 95 games in their last season as the Montreal Expos, to finish out of the cellar.

The team's offense appeared terribly thin, with hotheaded Jose Guillen and injury-prone veterans Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson as its leaders.

The pitching appeared deeper, but only Livan Hernandez seemed a sure bet to pile up wins.

Almost from the start, though, the Nationals seemed touched, whether by their own spirit, Robinson's uncompromising intensity or just plain luck.

Prospect-turned-question-mark John Patterson emerged as an ace starter. Closer Chad Cordero could do no wrong in the ninth. And the team looked nearly unbeatable at cavernous RFK.

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