Parkway rivalry needs added punch

May 21, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

WASHINGTON -- The best possible advertisement for interleague baseball was on display for a team whose rivalry with its new neighbor is in its infancy. Some three hours before the first pitch of Orioles-Nationals Part II yesterday, Orioles players were glued to a big screen in the visiting clubhouse at RFK Stadium.

They were riveted by the Cubs-White Sox brawl.

Not that this is what interleague baseball aspires to be, or what this series needs to legitimize it. No, no, young children, we're not advocating violence to sell these games.

Then again ... "That would probably stir things up," said the Orioles' Kris Benson, the winning pitcher Friday night in the first baseball game between Baltimore and Washington in 35 years. As a former Met, Benson knows about stirred-up interleague games; as a former Pirate as well, he knows about unstirred ones, too.

This rivalry needs stirring, shaking and possibly slapping and punching, the way they did at U.S. Cellular Field yesterday. Once the Orioles-Nationals game started - before another sparse, mixed and relatively docile crowd - there was little evidence that many on hand viewed this as more than just another game.

Yet to see how the players were engrossed in the replays of the fight in Chicago - watching them, bantering about them, even arguing animatedly about who was right and wrong, who started it and who was asking for it - was to see how much they like the chance to toss some spice into the middle of a long season.

The sooner this competition gets spicy, the better.

"You've got to have classic ballgames. That's where the tradition and the history come," Benson said. "The epic-type games, moments that people won't forget."

Moments like Roger Clemens beaning Mike Piazza, then Shawn Estes blowing a chance to bean Clemens. Like A.J. Pierzynski and Michael Barrett colliding, bumping, glaring and then punching, causing the benches to clear and satellite brawls to break out.

Even like Barry Bonds saving up No. 714 for the Athletics' ballpark, where the home fans despise him but where Giants fans come from across the bay in waves when the teams meet.

Both the Nationals and Orioles have players from past intense interleague rivalries all over their rosters - plenty of former Yankees and Mets, Cubs and White Sox, Rangers and Astros, Giants and A's, Reds and Indians, even Expos and Blue Jays from the Nationals' previous incarnation in Montreal.

It's probably no coincidence that those players - and least on the Orioles' side of the building - were the ones getting the most worked up about the Cubs-White Sox brouhaha.

What was there, in Chicago and those other cities but so far not in this one? "The passion," said Miguel Tejada, who was on the scene for six years' worth of the Giants-A's meetings. "You could feel it in the stands, and you could feel it with both teams. You would look up and see fights in the stands. We always wanted to win, and if we didn't, we wanted to make sure we did something about it."

Tejada represents the potential of this duel. He was booed - not heartily, but enough to be noticed - every time he batted and whenever a ball was hit at him. Somebody out there hates him, and he's probably wearing red, not orange. (Whoever's in orange booing Tejada must not notice that he's hitting nearly .360.)

The seeds of the rivalry may be a little scattered, and they might be struggling to take root. But they are there; all they need is watering. Something as simple as shouting "O!" during the national anthem - which has been happening since the Nationals' home debut last year and continued last night - could flower into a nice, healthy nastiness.

There are wide swaths of fans who will be torn between their old loyalties and their new for years to come.

The Nationals, still being run on a shoestring budget by Major League Baseball until the new owners take over, did the same amount of promotion for this series as for all the previous ones - practically none. To everybody's relief, that will change when the Lerners take over, and you can bet they won't miss a chance to push as many D.C.-Baltimore buttons as possible next time the Orioles come down the parkway.

Meanwhile, expect the Orioles to give the Nationals' return trip next month the proper exploitation, even though that surely will invite, in large numbers, the most hostile of ex-Orioles fans, still using Peter Angelos' picture as a dartboard.

If anything can spark a rivalry, it's a stadium full of disgruntled fans - from the other team.

With a little time and some well-directed emotion, this rivalry can be something. Maybe it won't even need the benches to clear. But nobody would be too upset if it did. david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

It's true, there absolutely, positively unquestionably was no player who made a greater impact on the history of our national pastime, on American sports and on society as a whole than Babe Ruth. And I'm pretty sure Jackie Robinson would have no argument with that. Right?

What happened yesterday at the Preakness is the sort of thing that will make you stop watch horse racing for a couple of years, the way Dale Earnhardt's accident at the Daytona 500 a few years ago made you squeamish at the first sight of an auto race for a while.

One more reason Ruth will always tower over every ballplayer since: Ruth discovered the vaccine for polio.

The best first round of the NBA playoffs ever has turned into the best first two rounds ever. Three Game 7s out of four second-round series? If that happened in baseball, at least 12 books about it would be in the stores by next week.

Let's see Maris, Aaron, Bonds and the rest beat this: Ruth came up with the original concept for I Love Lucy.

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