What's in store for O's in D.C.? Shop closure

Outlet has lost business since arrival of Nats

September 18, 2006|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- The Orioles are quietly planning to close their Washington outlet store, which had once buzzed with fans but lately has become a relic of an era when the team claimed the entire Baltimore-Washington region as its own.

The club won't renew the Farragut Square store's lease when it expires at the end of the calendar year, according to team employees. The action, which will end a 20-year run in the heart of downtown, can't come soon enough for many Washington Nationals fans.

"For Washington fans, the Orioles store on Farragut Square is a symbol, an emblem of all the years that we had no team and the Orioles did all they could to keep it that way," Colin Mills, president of the Nats Fan Club, said in an e-mail reply to a Sun query. "It's as if the British, after losing the revolution, had kept a royal office open in downtown Boston."

The store, which sells Orioles tickets and merchandise, became an anachronism after the Nationals relocated here from Montreal before the 2005 season. The new club's arrival led many area baseball fans to stay away from the store and led some to speculate openly whether it was appropriate for the Orioles to maintain a presence in the District. After all, they reasoned, the Nationals don't have a store in Baltimore.

In the past few years, Internet discussion groups and blogs have been filled with Washington-area fans denouncing the store or more recently asking the Nationals to open a store at the Inner Harbor in retaliation. "There was once some joking talk about picketing the store or burning it down," Mills said.

One discussion forum, Baseball Fever, tells of Nationals fans calling the Orioles store and asking for Nationals gear "just to bust their chops."

The store doesn't sell Nationals merchandise.

A clerk at the store said yesterday that people walking by have occasionally taunted those working inside. "Some of the things got a little vulgar," said the clerk, who declined to give her name. She said the taunts were more frequent last year after the Nationals first arrived and were not a problem lately.

Much of the anger no doubt resulted from the longtime contention by Orioles owner Peter Angelos that the Baltimore-Washington region couldn't support two teams without damaging both.

Despite the harsh rhetoric directed by some fans at Angelos, the Orioles believe they maintain a sizable fan base in the Washington area. The Orioles hope to keep those fans happy by ensuring that the team's games - as well as Nationals contests - continue to be televised in the District on the Angelos-controlled Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

The Orioles' store opened in the mid-1980s and sells Orioles jerseys, caps, mugs, cushions and wall clocks. It moved to a roomier location on the other side of the square about six years ago.

Once, the store had teemed with fans lining up on Friday afternoons in the 1990s to buy tickets for hot weekend series at Camden Yards.

On Friday, by contrast, there were no customers inside when a reporter arrived in the midafternoon and found much of the merchandise discounted and cartoons playing on the in-store televisions.

The store's demise was precipitated not only by the Nationals, but also by the increased popularity of the Internet, which allowed fans to purchase tickets online.

"We just thought it was no longer viable to maintain the store," Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka said. "We're still going to market heavily as an American League team to that region." He said there were "some discussions of having a presence in Prince George's or Montgomery counties, but nothing has been finalized."

The Nationals had no response to the store's planned closing. Asked whether the Nationals would consider taking over the store - which is in a prime location - or opening others nearby, team president Stan Kasten said: "Nothing to report."

The Nationals had said last year that they had no plans to open a store in downtown Baltimore. The club does market to Howard and Anne Arundel counties, whose sports loyalties are split between Baltimore and Washington.

Not all Nationals fans are convinced the two teams can't share the nation's capital, at least to a degree.

"I'm in the minority that the Orioles and Nationals can co-exist, as far as stores/merchandise sales goes," said Doug McKinney, who writes a column for a Nationals fan site but says the Orioles are still his favorite American League team.

"Having a Nationals and an Orioles store in D.C. would be one of those cases where competition is a good thing," McKinney said in an e-mail. "I think Nationals fans would be so happy to have another outlet to purchase their favorite merchandise that they [couldn't] care less there is an Orioles store right down the block." jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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