Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

On the surface, it could be argued that there is little that currently distinguishes the Baltimore Orioles from the Washington Nationals (nee Expos). Both are bottom-dwelling teams that haven’t won many hearts or ballgames in years. This year, the O’s are 29-40 and just fired their manager Sam Perlozzo. As for the Nats, at an almost-identical 30-40, they have a roster comprised almost entirely of no-names and has-beens—and only a handful of fans could likely name an active starter on the pitching staff.

But, as I keep telling my Oriole-loving brethren, it’s not where you’re at, it’s where you’re going. The Orioles have languished for the past decade under the Angelos Era, and nothing indicates they’ll be able to turn around their underachieving ways anytime soon. Meanwhile, back in March many people predicted the Nationals would lose 120+ games this season, and that rookie manager Manny Acta would find it impossible to motivate his players to slog through this dismal season. Instead, so far he’s got a loose, fun club that has defied all expectations. Consider the difference between Washington and Baltimore, as Tom Boswell noted today:

Last month, Sam Perlozzo watched as his Orioles batted in the ninth inning against the Nats at RFK Stadium, trailing 4-3. On the top step of the opposite dugout, the entire Washington team was leaning over the railing, rooting for its reliever to get three outs to avoid a sweep by Baltimore. Every Nationals player and coach, as well as several Nats who were in uniform despite being on the disabled list, were all shoulder-to-shoulder, yelling, laughing and analyzing.

Across the field, in dismal contrast, only one Orioles player, Nick Markakis, stood on the top step of the Baltimore dugout -- the only Bird on the rail, the lone player who cared enough to leave his seat to yell for a rally. The Orioles lost.

"I saw it. It wasn't the first time this season," Perlozzo said yesterday. Once, according to a coach, he told his staff, "Let's all get up on the top step and see if they'll follow us." That didn't work, either. But then, in the Orioles' 10th straight losing season, what has worked in Baltimore, except turning down the heat temporarily by firing the manager?
If I were an O’s fan, I’d be embarrassed at what the once-proud franchise of Robinson and Ripken has been reduced to. (And by the way, what’s up with Javy Lopez making like Bobby Baccalieri in the article? Weird.) I’d love to suggest that, under a new manager and new front-office personnel, Baltimore will finally be able to turn things around—but I’m not confident about it.

The city with optimism right now is Washington, a team with good clubhouse chemistry, dedicated owners, smart front-office personnel, some promising young talent, a few useful trade bait veterans, and a no-quit attitude. How about that near 9th-inning comeback in an inconsequential June game last night against the big, bad Detroit Tigers?

The Nats’ also have a new ballpark on the way for next year, with the promise of a rapidly expanded payroll. My bet is Washington’s going to be winning a lot more hearts and ballgames in the next few years. Don’t get too jealous, Baltimore!