This is a question that may seem irrelevant to some and incredibly unlikely to others. But for all those D.C.-area residents and baseball fans who grew up in the 30-year time frame when D.C. was team-less, this is a very real conundrum and represents the dual love that one can share for the home-team (Nationals) and the childhood-team (Orioles).
Growing up Orioles
As an educated estimation, the average sports fan starts following a team at about age seven (give or take a few years). That would mean anyone in the D.C. area born after 1964 but before 1997 entered into a local baseball market that adopted the Orioles as its own ‘home away from home’ team in order to fill the void left by the emigrated Washington Senators.
The only option was the Orioles. I’m sorry to say that a much smaller amount of those people born between these times enjoyed the option of the winning Orioles.
That gives us about a 30-year window of D.C.-based fans that, unless they were ready for a three-hour drive to Philadelphia, only had the Orioles. But what did that matter at first?
The Orioles were one of the most successful organizations in the 1970s, appearing in more AL Championship Series than the Yankees and Red Sox combined. There was no real reason for fans to yearn for the days of losing D.C. baseball.
The Orioles won the World Series in 1970 and 1983. They won the AL pennant and appeared in the World Series in 1971 and 1979 without winning it. From the time D.C. baseball crumbled before the eyes of many miserable fans to the time it returned long-overdue, the Orioles had appeared in five World Series.
Of course, after 1983 the pickings were slim. The Orioles had a brief time in the mid-90s where the stadium was sold out and the team was going wire to wire, winning divisions and AL playoff series. However, sandwiched around this brief success was pure losing.
There was an 0-21 start to the 1988 season, 13-straight forgettable years from the late-90s through present day, and a 30-3 loss to the Texas Rangers—the worst whipping any team has taken in Major League history.
Going-Going, Back-Back, to D.C.
By the time baseball returned to D.C. many fans did as well. Orioles legends like Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray were simply distant memories at that point. Peter Angelos had run the Orioles organization into the ground with some historically brain-dead decisions that notoriously included the firing of Davey Johnson after two winning seasons with the club, and the dismissal of Jon Miller, one of the greatest broadcasters the game has ever see.
D.C. residents, transplant Orioles fans, and even long-time Orioles supporters couldn’t wait to see RFK Stadium in D.C. filled with infield dirt, sunflower seeds, screaming line-drives and screaming fans.
The first year back was even fairly magical. Under the gritty old-school leadership of the great Frank Robinson (also a former Orioles great) the Nationals pulled out a .500 season and were in wild card contention until the last few weeks of September.
A stadium that was essentially just sucking in its gut all year, a cast of fairly forgettable players, and a loving, yet hesitant fan base all meshed to form an incredibly successful inaugural season for the Nationals.
Unfortunately, none of the years between 2006 and 2010 was even remotely similar to that inaugural year. Poor personnel decisions, political stadium battles, injuries, and lackluster management made the team incredibly difficult to warm-to, even for a hungry, long-suffering D.C. baseball fan.
The team was re-packaged in a new stadium for the 2008 year, but jerseys sat on sale racks, scalpers practically gave away tickets, and row after row of seats went unfilled due to the unfortunate product that kept being placed on the field. Meanwhile, down I-95 the Orioles were piling up losses quicker than a middle school relationship. Which team would Nationals/Orioles fans choose to follow?
Baltimore and D.C.
Baltimore has the inner harbor while D.C. has the National Mall. Baltimore has Federal Hill while D.C. has Capitol Hill. Baltimore has the Hippodrome Theatre while D.C has the Kennedy Center. Separated by so much more than 45 minutes, Baltimore and D.C. now finally shared something in common: losing baseball teams.
Many fans, myself included, were born and raised either in D.C. or the surrounding area. By the time we came of age, we had our first mitts, bats, and trading cards. We understood the Orioles were from Baltimore and the rest of the teams we loved were not. This may have seemed odd at the time, but it didn’t stop us from driving about an hour with traffic to Baltimore in order to see a professional baseball team, especially after the stunning Camden Yards was built.
There were plenty of stars in Baltimore to plaster our room with posters and to emulate: Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken Jr., and Mike Mussina, to name a few. The cartoon Oriole Bird was highly kid-friendly, and the team enjoyed some very successful years.
The Orioles/Nationals fans were born out of a generation that will likely never exist again in the foreseeable future in this area. Nowadays, those from D.C. follow the Nationals, and those from Baltimore follow the Orioles. Unless there is prolonged success from either one of the franchises, it is unlikely that kids growing up would ever root passionately for both teams.
The teams do share a TV sports network and there is the possibility that fans could support one American League and one National League team, but gone will be the excuse for D.C. area residents that you follow the Orioles and Nationals because when you grew up there was no home team.
The last four years have been especially difficult for us duel-fans because they have been spent almost exclusively in the cellar for both the Orioles and the Nationals. Believe me, there is no wine is this cellar, although there is outrageously priced eight-dollar beer. Baseball fans that grew up without a team in D.C. and latched onto the Orioles essentially have had nowhere to turn. Why run to yet another losing franchise in the Nationals?
I used to love the Orioles as much as a hitter loves a good hanging-slider. Now that the team has gone through so much dysfunction I find it hard to put the same enthusiasm into the team as I did in days gone by. Of course, winning cures all fan-related sickness, so for me it is really a question of who will win first.
There hasn’t been an answer to that question for about five years now, but both teams seem to be hovering around .500 in 2011. Will Orioles and Nationals fans finally get double the delight instead of double the displeasure? Time will tell, but I suspect we will always remain justifiably fair-weathered, bouncing back and forth between whatever team has more wins. After-all, we deserve it for putting up with not one, but two perennially pitiful franchises. Even those folks with bad marriages only have to deal with one at a time.