- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
This week, the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals clash in their annual interleague baseball series, two games in D.C. and then two in Charm City. Each team is in solid contention for the playoffs as the All-Star break approaches. And there are plenty of fans of each team in Southern Maryland, so it begs the question: Which pro baseball team rules here?
‘I’d never seen grass so green’
Thomas Russell of Leonardtown grew up a baseball fan, attending his first big league game in the 1950s.
“I was 7. My dad took me to old Griffith Stadium, and the Yankees were playing the Senators,” Russell said. “Mickey Mantle hit a 3-0 pitch. I just remember how angry my dad was that he got to swing at a 3-0 pitch, but I was just mesmerized. I’d never seen grass so green. It was just one of the highlight experiences of my life.”
Following the 1960 baseball season, the Senators moved to Minnesota from Washington. A second, expansion Senators franchise replaced them in the American League for the 1961 season, but that franchise was soon gone, too, to become the Texas Rangers, following the 1971 season.
For the following 34 years, the only Major League Baseball team in the area was the Baltimore Orioles, which did not sit well with Russell or many of his peers.
“I really disliked the Orioles,” Russell, 63, said. “Of course, the Orioles and the Senators were in the American League, and they [the Orioles] were always a far better team, or so it seemed. I remember just despising their broadcaster Chuck Thompson. Oh, my goodness, was he a homer,” he said of the Hall of Famer.
Russell rather grudgingly came to root for the Orioles during the Cal Ripken era of the 1980s and 1990s. But when the Montreal Expos (a National League expansion team in 1969) moved south to Washington to become the Nationals for the 2005 season, he did not think twice about where his loyalties should lie.
“I am a Nats fan,” he said. “I never did have any intention of permanently being a Baltimore fan unless I was forced to.”
Geography isn’t everything
But now with the Nationals in the midst of their 10th season in the District, where exactly do Southern Marylanders stand? Was it an easy switch to back the Nats? Or did those who supported the Orioles for the more than three decades they were the only game in town stay put?
In April, the New York Times compiled a map using data collected from Facebook to try to put percentages on fan loyalties broken down by ZIP codes. Charles County leans in the favor of the Nationals, while Calvert and St. Mary’s still hold Orioles’ ties, according to that map. Regardless, if a person were to do a poll on virtually any street in Southern Maryland, the opinion would likely vary widely from one person to the next.
For Steve Willett, a 1994 La Plata High School graduate, baseball always has been about the Orioles.
“Most of my friends I think were O’s fans, but being a pretty transient community you would have pockets of Red Sox fans or Yankees fans. You always had those intermixed, but it was definitely an Orioles town growing up,” said Willett, an assistant coach on the Huntingtown High School baseball staff. He was previously the head coach at Westlake High School for seven years and had been an assistant on La Plata’s staff for three. “Once I got a little bit older, they had some rough years, and I think the interest kind of died down a little bit. It was hard to find the true die-hards anymore. With the run in the late ’90s, I think it really started to take back over again in the Mike Mussina days,” he said of the time when that right-handed pitcher was the Orioles’ ace.
The story is similar for Travis Mister, baseball coach at Calvert High School since 2006. Mister, a 2000 Calvert graduate, has been a lifelong Baltimore fan. He attended the final game at Memorial Stadium in 1991 and the first game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, as well as the All-Star Game when it was hosted by the Orioles the next summer.
While his allegiance never wavered, he has seen a difference since the Nationals came to town nearly a decade ago.
“I think it’s close to being 50-50, actually,” Mister said. “There’s a lot of Nationals fans based on their success the last couple years, and more Orioles fans coming back out since they’ve had decent seasons lately. This area has so many people that have moved in from other areas. You see Yankees fans, Steelers fans, Orioles fans. [Patuxent River Naval Air Station] has a huge effect, and D.C.’s very close. You really have a smorgasbord of sports fans.”
‘I fell out of love with the team’
Growing up in College Park, John Childers was an Orioles fan and baseball fanatic, as well. Childers, who has coached the La Plata High baseball team to three regional championships and one state final appearance in the past three years, hit four home runs in a game for Parkdale High in 1988, a record that still stands in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association record book.
As a youngster, Childers experienced the thrill of watching an Orioles team that was a perennial contender and reached the pinnacle with the franchise’s third World Series championship in 1983.
“I used to listen to the radio with my fingers and toes crossed waiting for [outfielder/designated hitter] Ken Singleton to get the big hit,” he said.
But when current owner Peter Angelos led a group that purchased the team in 1993, Childers’ feelings started to change.
“When Peter Angelos took over and fired [manager] Davey Johnson and [TV announcers] John Lowenstein and Mel Proctor and that group ... I fell out of love with the team,” Childers said. “I went a few years where I wasn’t rooting for anybody. I was just watching Major League Baseball, in general ... When all the people I liked left, [giving up the Orioles] wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.”
‘I’m a one-team guy’
Whether many other fans jumped ship due to personnel moves within the organization or not, the losses that piled up in the years that followed pushed many Orioles fans to the brink. Following playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997, Baltimore did not produce a winning record until 2012 and finished as high as third in the American League East only once during that span.
“It was tough,” Willett said of sticking with the Orioles, “but I wasn’t going to root for anybody else. Every year you thought maybe this is the year where the prospects start panning out, and there’s hope at the end of the tunnel. Then, generally by July every year it was done, and you were looking forward to next year.”
Even with the Orioles mired in losses during the period of time when the Nationals opened up shop in D.C., Willett said he never paid them any more attention than any other team not based in Baltimore.
“I’m aware [of what the Nationals are doing],” he said. “I’m a huge baseball fan, so I’m aware of everybody. If the Orioles aren’t on I might flip by a Nats game and catch an inning or two. I just find it hard, if you’re a true Orioles fan and have been all your life and are dedicated to them, I just find it hard to go and root for another team.
“It rubs me the wrong way when I see people who used to be Orioles fans and now all of a sudden they’re Nats fans,” he said. “I’m a one-team guy.”
Putting fans in the seats
Of course, the Nationals did not exactly tear up the joint upon their arrival to the nation’s capital. After producing an 81-81 record in 2005, they were under .500 each following year until 2012. Twice, in 2008 and 2009, the Nationals lost more than 100 games, and they finished dead last in the National League East five times.
Almost mirroring the teams’ similarities in performance since 2005, the teams’ attendance figures have remained relatively close, as well. In the nine seasons from 2005 to 2013, Washington drew a higher per-game average six times with Baltimore holding the edge in the other three. But the separation was never that large, as the largest margin between the two was in 2008 when the Nats drew roughly 4,000 more fans a night. This season, Baltimore had drawn 31,101 fans through its first 32 dates (as of June 18), while Washington had drawn 29,992 a night through 36 home dates.
Even through the bleak early days of the current Washington baseball franchise, hitching his rooting interests to the Nats’ wagon was an easy decision for Childers.
“When the Nats came along, I was ready for a team,” he said, noting that the franchise’s early strategy made it easy to jump right on board, as well as having La Plata graduate Darryl Thompson in the minor league system. Thompson had been a 2003 draft pick of Montreal. “They did some good things. They drafted some local kids and got some guys out there that were recognizable, put a minor league franchise in Northern Virginia. They did a lot of good things to get people excited about the team coming here and kind of got me on board.”
With Russell, who has gone to Florida for spring training games for more than three decades and rubbed elbows in the stands with Hall of Famers like Stan Musial and George Brett, becoming an Orioles fan during the Ripken years was not an easy transition. Returning to being a fan rooting for a Washington baseball franchise — even with a tortured history of only 20 winning seasons and one World Series title (1924) — could not have been easier.
“They’re my team,” he said. “Frankly, I wish they had still been called the Senators. That was asking for too much.”
As far as which team currently holds the hearts of Southern Marylanders in general, though?
“I think it is kind of different between the counties,” Willett said. “Having coached at La Plata it seems like I saw more Nats fans than Orioles fans. Then you always have your couple who claim they always rooted for the Yankees or Red Sox. You still have that now over at Huntingtown, but there definitely are a bunch of guys who every night are watching the Orioles.”
Added Childers: “It’s so mixed. It’s so random I can’t make rhyme or reason of it. I always ask people if they’re an O’s fan or a Nats fan because you can’t tell, really. When I’ve been down in St. Mary’s County it seems like a lot of O’s fans, like they’re not switching. But in Calvert and Charles, it depends. It’s very diverse.”
For a longtime fan like Russell, who recalled taking a Greyhound bus from St. Mary’s County to an opening-day Senators game in the mid-1960s, it’s ultimately about baseball, itself, in the end.
“I guess it’s just part of my core being. I think back when people talk baseball,” he said. “I think the history of the game is what I find as interesting as anything else. I think the way the game is evolving constantly is interesting.”
And for a long-suffering Washington baseball fan who never had too much to cheer for, the Nationals’ 2012 National League East title made all the years of waiting for a team to come back worth it — even if the team fell short in the postseason against St. Louis.
Emotions were the same on the Orioles’ end, when they finally made their postseason return in that same year for the first time since their division crown in 1997.
“Going to the home playoff games, I’ll never forget that,” Willett said of the series with the Yankees. “I wasn’t really able to go to games in late ’90s when I was in college. Being able to finally experience playoff baseball was amazing. It was beyond electric. It made all those years of losing baseball worth it.”