The revival of baseball in the Beltway
Tim Kurkjian [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
September 25, 2012
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Washington Nationals utility man Steve Lombardozzi has lived in Columbia, Md., about equal distance between Washington and Baltimore, for 20 years, since he was 4. He is too young to truly understand the tremendous story that is developing in and around the Beltway, a story of hope and redemption and magic, a story that has never been told in that area, a story that wasn't supposed to happen this season. All Lombardozzi, 24, knows is that, until this year, he couldn't remember a .500 season for the Nationals or Baltimore Orioles.

"It's funny because me and my buddies used to go to Orioles games, and we loved it even though they weren't winning," he said, laughing. "My buddies are still going to Orioles games all the time, and I've had to tell them, 'Hey, guys, can you give us some love, too?'"

There is plenty of love to go around the Baltimore-Washington area these days. The Nationals have qualified for the playoffs -- the first Washington team to do that since 1933 -- and they are days from clinching the National League East title. The Orioles have recorded their first .500 season since 1997; they are only 1.5 games out of first place in the American League East; and they lead in the AL wild-card race. This is unprecedented. The Orioles and Nationals/Senators have finished .500 in the same season only once -- 1969 -- and in that season, the Senators still finished 23 games behind the Orioles.

"It's wonderful," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who played for the Orioles and managed the Orioles and can appreciate what's happening this year in Baltimore and Washington. "I grew up here. My kids grew up here. I have great friends here. Baltimore is having a great year; we're having a great year. It's so nice to see this. The fans deserve it."

The Orioles were the first team in history to follow a 98-win season (1997) with 12 straight seasons under .500; only their streak was 14 straight years. A great baseball town that used to boast about "The Oriole Way" and "Oriole Magic" sadly became irrelevant for more than a decade. But now it is back, and making incredible magic again: The Orioles are on a pace to have the best record in one-run games in one season in major league history; they have won 16 straight extra-inning games (one short of the major league record in a season); and they are the first team ever to win 11 straight extra-inning games on the road. And they've done all this partly with a collection of spare parts, from Nate McLouth to Lew Ford to Taylor Teagarden, and with help from a few top prospects and a few astute trades.

The Nationals lost 100 games in 2008-09. They are not far removed from the days when Matt Chico led the staff with 94 strikeouts (2007), the days when hope rested with the likes of Eljiah Dukes and Lastings Milledge, when a decent season depended on the health of pitcher John Patterson, when a prayer was needed that Jesus Colome, or anyone, could get three outs in the ninth. Now the Nationals have a staff of power pitchers -- they'll have at least five pitchers finish the season with 99 strikeouts -- an excellent defense and a formidable lineup.

"Back in the day," Johnson said, meaning the 1960s, "the Senators had Buster Narum. Now we have [Stephen] Strasburg, Gio [Gonzalez], Jordan [Zimmermann] and a whole lot more."

The 2012 managers of the year likely will come from Baltimore and Washington. Buck Showalter, who specializes in reclamation projects, has done perhaps his best work in Baltimore, changing the culture, restoring the rich tradition of the Orioles, running a bullpen as well as any manager and creating an us-against-the-world atmosphere, which includes absolutely no fear of their powerful division, especially the Yankees. Johnson's work has been so complete and expert, he might have made the Hall of Fame with this season, in which he has joined Billy Martin as the only managers to take four franchises to the playoffs. One of Johnson's squads was the Orioles in 1997, the last time they went. A Washington franchise had not been to the playoffs since 1933. Coincidence? We think not.

And each franchise has received a huge boost from a teenager, the Nationals' Bryce Harper, 19, and the Orioles' Manny Machado, who turned 20 on July 6. Each has brought an edge and an enthusiasm to his team; each has filled a gaping hole in the lineup and the defense; and each gives hope that his team is going to be good for years to come.

"It's so cool what's happening here," said Nationals co-closer Drew Storen. "My sister lives in Baltimore. For her and all her friends, it's always the beloved Orioles, but until this year, it was just one of those things. But what makes it so neat is that we share a fan base."

Indeed. It doesn't work like this in New York, where you love one team and hate the other. In Baltimore and Washington, next-door neighbors are fans of the Orioles and Nationals, some of both, and they don't hate each other. Around the Beltway, where, for the past seven years, no baseball fan has been truly happy or content, they're all happy now.

Showalter's impact on the Orioles was felt his first day in July 2010 when, seconds into his introductory speech to his team, he told a famously loud Japanese interpreter to shut up, "I'm talking here!" Later, one Oriole said, "We've been waiting for two years for someone to do that." Showalter had everyone's attention. He summoned a key player into his office after a game to explain why he had jogged to first base on a ground ball: Showalter had the tape cued up; he had a stopwatch in his hand -- the player hasn't loafed since. Six weeks into Showalter's tenure, a young Oriole forgot how many outs there were.

Showalter: "That's the third time you forgot how many outs there were."

Player: "Well, it was only twice."

Showalter: "How about the time in Kansas City?"

Player: "Oh, you saw that?"

Showalter: "Yeah, I saw that."

Showalter sees everything. There is no more observant, perceptive person in the game. It used to work against him: It would make his players nervous and self-conscious knowing that if they missed a sign, or a cutoff man, he was going to see it. But these Orioles like his vision.

"He'll come up to me and whisper something like, 'You know, this guy has only thrown six curveballs in the last three starts,'" McLouth said. "I'm thinking, 'How does he know that?'"

DH/outfielder Chris Davis smiled and said, "He'll walk through the dugout and ask a baseball question, and it's like, 'Buck, we know you are the only one who knows the answer.'"

First baseman Mark Reynolds smiled and said, "He'll walk by me on the bench and let me know about something that's going to happen later in the game, and then when it does, I will look over at him and he'll just tilt his head as if to say, 'I told you about...
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