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The Battle of the Beltway
July 04, 2005
The Nationals and the Orioles are locked in a spirited contest for the hearts and minds of fans in the game's new hotbed
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July 04, 2005

The Battle Of The Beltway

The Nationals and the Orioles are locked in a spirited contest for the hearts and minds of fans in the game's new hotbed

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As measured by revenue, the Nationals have done quite well, given their history of hemorrhaging cash. The Washington Post reported last week that the team will gross $129 million this season, triple what it did in Montreal. "We're in a dramatically different position," says Tavares. "Our lifeblood in Montreal was revenue sharing, and this year we're generating funds we just didn't have. Come the trade deadline, we'll be in a position to add payroll if we need to."

That revenue augurs well both for the team's health in D.C. and for its sale to a new ownership group, a process that's moving slowly. (Eight bidding groups remain.) A purchase price of three times gross revenue, an industry benchmark, would put the Nationals in the upper range of a hoped-for $300--$400 million sticker price, and the competition among bidders, which remains heated, could push the price still higher. (That revenue will be split among the other 29 owners, yielding about $10 million to $15 million to each, including Angelos.) And despite the efforts of a minority of the D.C. Council and two-to-one opposition among residents, the club's new ballpark, on the Anacostia River in the southeastern corner of the District, will be entirely publicly financed, a resolution that MLB craved.

"The enthusiasm with which the team has been received in Washington, the movement forward on the stadium proposal, the relative period of quietude we've had on that, and the general health of the game, the competitive balance, have all increased the value of this franchise," MLB president Bob DuPuy says.

"Competitive balance" is a polite way of observing that the most pleasant surprise of this inaugural season is the Nationals' seat atop a fiercely competitive division. Despite being on the short end of a 316--310 run differential, which typically produces a win-loss record closer to .500, Washington has overachieved at 44--31, particularly in tight spots. (Its 18--7 record in one-run games was third-best in the majors.) The charitable interpretation suggests that Washington's superb bullpen, headed by major league saves leader Chad Cordero (25 saves, 0.94 ERA, 38 1/3 IP), and sound defense compensate for its glaring lack of power. The Nationals can pick it, true--leftfielder Marlon Byrd, who is good enough to play centerfield, ended Friday's shutout with an acrobatic, full-extension catch of Alex Rios's sinking line drive--and their park, which tends to neutralize power, flatters them. The pessimistic view is that it won't be long before the Nats' luck evens out, their lack of power short-circuits their offense and their overtaxed bullpen breaks down.

As fan interest has cleaved, on a snaking line somewhere in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, the Orioles have taken a hit. Baltimore's attendance will inevitably suffer: Residents of northern Virginia, who account for 40% of the Nationals' gate, and the District, which chips in another 20%, have generally stopped making the hour-and-a-half drive through rush-hour traffic to Camden Yards, while allegiances in the Maryland counties to the north of the District are still shaking out; but the Nationals' move also resulted in an immense payback for the Orioles, and their long-term prognosis is good.

Despite Angelos's concerns about the impact of a D.C. franchise on his business (he did not return a call asking for comment for this story), he is guaranteed to make at least $180 million in profit should he sell his team, and while his equity in the MASN requires him to make a fixed annual payment to MLB, ranging from $21 million to $25 million over the next five years, irrespective of broadcast revenue, the channel will over time evolve into a considerable asset; its value has already been estimated at $750 million.

The Orioles themselves, who have not only a dependable closer of their own (lefty B.J. Ryan) but also an MVP candidate in shortstop Miguel Tejada, seem unconcerned about the Nationals' success. Says Baltimore outfielder Jay Gibbons, "It feels the same as if they were in Montreal. You don't even hear about them in Baltimore. It's funny to think there's actually a team that's 45 minutes away from us. I don't feel affected by it." Adds lefthander Bruce Chen, "We know that a big part of our fan base is in D.C., and they're playing real good, and the fans are closer to them than us. But we've been playing here for a long time. Our fan base is strong enough that we won't lose as many fans as we thought initially."

Baltimore finds itself, like Washington, contending despite flaws. The Orioles score runs in bunches, but their middling starting pitching may undo them: Only Chen has an ERA below the AL-average 4.46 for starters, and lefthander Erik Bedard's rehabilitation from a strained left knee ligament is taking much longer than expected. The Orioles lost six of seven games last week, including a three-game sweep at Atlanta that dropped them from first place for the first time since late April, and in those seven games their starters were 1--5 with an 8.26 ERA and never lasted past the sixth inning.

Says one AL scout, "What the Orioles will do will depend on the pitching they get. If Bedard comes back and throws anything like he did early, they'll be O.K., but I'm not sure how that will go. It's such a meat grinder of a division." At the very least, competing with proactive, well-heeled opponents in the Red Sox and the Yankees, Baltimore must be prepared not only to add an arm but also to counter whatever moves their division rivals make.

Meanwhile, the Nationals are still comfortable atop their division and in their venerable ballpark. After they closed out their 12th straight win at RFK on Saturday night, with Blue Jays leftfielder Frank Catalanotto flailing at Cordero's diving slider, a cluster of fans above the third base dugout remained standing, cheering themselves hoarse as the Nationals filed off the field. James Brown boomed over the P.A. system, reverberating off the industrial walls of the graying ballpark. It felt like home.

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