As we prepare to flip the calendar over to September, look who’s got the biggest division leads in baseball. Goodness gracious, it’s the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles. While it’s way too early to pencil them as World Series opponents, it’s interesting to consider what a long, strange trip it’s been to make them contenders in the same season.
Washington’s baseball history has been mostly bad and nonexistent. It’s been 90 years since the nation’s capital had a World Series winner. And since then there have been only three other postseason appearances. Of course there was that 34-year gap of no baseball in D.C. from 1972 to 2005, but even when there were teams in D.C. they were bad. Thus the saying about Washington – “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”
The Senators were one of the early AL teams. In the third and fourth decades of the 20th century, they featured Walter Johnson, who many consider the greatest pitcher of all time. But even with the “Big Train”, those Senators weren’t very good, save for that championship in 1924 and a return to the World Series the following year. There was another pennant in 1933, but it was followed by decade after decade of bad teams. In the mid-50′s they signed a slugger named Harmon Killebrew, who they hoped would change their fortunes. However, like Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown, owner Calvin Griffith moved that team to Minnesota for the 1961 season.
Baseball fans in Washington were relieved when an expansion team, to be called the Senators, immediately replaced what became the Minnesota Twins, but were disappointed seeing what was their team make it to the World Series in 1965. On top of that, expansion baseball in Washington was short-lived. Owner Bob Short moved that team to Texas after the 1971 season and baseball in D.C. became nothing more than a dream for decades.
As for the Orioles, they had arrived in Baltimore from St. Louis in 1954. And they arrived with the blessing of the Senators, who had the territorial rights to a city just 38 miles up the road. Senators officials thought it would make for a good rivalry, having another American League team so close. Over the next 17 years, however, there wasn’t any rivalry to be had. The Orioles were the hammer and the Senators the nail.
During the run of the expansion Senators (1961-71), the Orioles were as good as the Senators were bad. They swept the favored Dodgers for their first championship in 1966. Three years later, the Senators had their one good year under rookie manager Ted Williams. They were a whopping 10-games over .500. The Orioles and their fans tried not to giggle. They finished 109-53, winning the division by 19 games. Though the O’s were upset by the “Miracle Mets” in the World Series, they would win the championship the following year and make it back to the “Fall Classic” the year after that.
Then the Senators left.
The Orioles encouraged Washington baseball fans to make the drive up I-95 and make the Orioles their team. But those who held on to hope that baseball would return to Washington faced disappointment after disappointment. There was a move to buy the San Diego Padres in 1973, but they were sold to McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc and stayed put. There were two rounds of expansion without a team landing in Washington. San Francisco and Houston used D.C. as a stalking horse for what they wanted – new stadiums, and stayed.
In the meantime, as the 20th century came to a close, it was becoming more and more clear that the Montreal Expos weren’t going to get the stadium they wanted to stay put. Washington seemed to be the only logical destination. Problem was, Major League Baseball feared Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who’d made his fortune in law suits against asbestos manufacturers. Angelos was fiercely protective of his territory, fearing that a team so close would hurt his attendance. And baseball didn’t want to go to court with Angelos.
The log that broke the jamb was MLB taking control of the franchise and making an agreement with Angelos regarding television rights. He would control the rights for both teams under a network for both teams called the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) and share the revenue with the new team in Washington. Currently, the amount of money Angelos owes the Nationals is being disputed, but at least there is now baseball in Baltimore and Washington. And Angelos’ fears of getting hurt at the gate have been unfounded. Since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, both teams have been in the two million a season range. Last season the teams combined to draw nearly six million fans. Their interleague meetings have brought sellouts in both home ballparks.
And that brings us back to the possibility of an Orioles-Nats World Series. They’ve gotten to this point in different ways. The Orioles have been living large off the long ball, leading the majors in homers, topped by Nelson Cruz and his 34 bombs.
The Nationals have had outstanding starting pitching, a solid bullpen and hitting that’s been good enough. Star third baseball Ryan Zimmerman has missed most of the season with injuries, Bryce Harper missed a big chunk of the year with a broken thumb and is just now rounding into form, and Stephen Strasburg, who was supposed to be to the Nats what Clayton Kershaw is to the Dodgers, is 10-10 on the year.
If everybody is healthy and in form for the postseason, watch out. If the Orioles get there, they’ll have to do it without two young stars. Catcher Matt Weiters and third baseman Manny Machado are both out with season-ending injuires.
If this “Beltways” World Series does happen, don’t expect too many outside the Mid-Alantic region to get excited. The World Series between the Yankees and Mets in 2000 was the lowest rated of all time. But for two cities close enough to touch one another, it would touch off local baseball passions never seen before.