The conversation started innocently enough, what you might call a light dose of brother bonding. It was only a few hours after the Houston Astros had eliminated the Yankees and earned the right to play the Washington Nationals in the World Series.
“Well, at least I’ve got somebody to root for,” said John, youngest of my four brothers, all of whom qualified as strong baseball enthusiasts. “What do you mean?” I asked, innocently enough, knowing exactly where the conversation was headed (call it big bro intuition).
“Well, I sure wouldn’t root for the Yankees, and why would I root for the Nationals?” he said.
“Why not?” I replied, borrowing phrase coined 30 years ago during an improbable run by the Orioles and still popular today.
“I can’t root for a team that’s taken away a big part of our fan base,” John said. Also part of the conversation was the MASN battle regarding TV dollars that threatens to last longer than some major military conflicts.
This clearly presented a counseling opportunity and a chance to revisit the history of the sporting rivalry that exists between Washington and Baltimore. So I naturally took the opportunity to remind my younger sibling that if it hadn’t been for the generosity (some would later call it stupidity) of the owners Washington’s two major sports franchises, Baltimore might have been forever saddled with a “minor-league town” reputation.
After Bill Veeck, who eventually would be voted out as owner, made the move to bring the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore, Senators owner Clark Griffith welcomed the opportunity to develop a rivalry between the neighboring cities. At the same time he was also giving up an admittedly smaller portion of his fan base because many of us saw our first major-league games at Griffith Stadium, which was only a short walk from the train station and easily accessible for many Baltimore fans.
The same was true for football, where the Redskins were the first team of choice for professional football and “Slinging Sammy” Baugh preceded John Unitas as the quarterback of choice. George Preston Marshall, the ‘Skins owner, didn’t exactly welcome a team into his territory (which basically was the entire Southeastern quadrant of the U.S.), but had he forced the issue he could’ve made it much more difficult.
Of course, those were different times. Fannies in the stadium seats were more important than those in the recliner in front of giant-sized TV sets are today. The dimensions might be the same, but it’s a whole new ball game today.
And there is some valid concern that the Nationals have absorbed a significant part of the Orioles’ fan base, at least some of which could be permanent. But that’s for the marketing department, that didn’t exist in yesteryear to figure out.
I believe most of the fan base that deserted the Orioles was geographically motivated. The rest, pure and simple, are just baseball fans looking for the best deal for the dollar. When the time is right, or ripe, they will be back.
For me, remembering the feeling when Baltimore got a major-league team, I can’t begrudge the Nationals and their fan base their time in the spotlight. The city hadn’t had a World Series appearance since 1934 and hasn’t had a champion in almost a century (1924).
The way I look at it, 65 years ago Clark Griffith could’ve kept Baltimore out of the big leagues and didn’t. That’s good enough reason for me.
Besides, how could you not root for Ryan Zimmerman, an original Nat who will be the face of the franchise for years to come? So, if you ask me why I’m still rooting for the Nationals, despite odds more staggering than there were only three days ago, you get the same answer as my awesome youngest brother.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Ed Sheahin/Gary Sousa/PressBox