Baseball fans in the Baltimore/Washington, DC area have not had much to cheer about in the past few years. In Baltimore, once Cal Ripken retired, sports fans shifted their attention to football and the Baltimore Ravens. In DC, the team that came over from Montreal had some pretty lousy seasons, and the hopes of glory faded in 2010 when pitching ace Stephen Strasburg required season-ending Tommy John surgery.
But wait! Who is that team currently tied for first place in the AL East? It's the Baltimore Orioles, under the leadership of former Yankees manager, Buck Showalter. With the never-give-up attitude and 28 home runs by Adam Jones and the recent power surge from the previously-slumping Mark Reynolds, the Orioles are playing meaningful baseball for the first time in about 15 years. The "birds" are filling their cozy ballpark with excited fans and unveiling statues of past Orioles greats like Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, and their most recent addition, "Iron Man" Cal Ripken. Orioles fans, born and bred in the suburbs of Baltimore or in the Charm City itself, grew up cheering for these legends, and their storied past (forget the 1969 World Series!) has had many loyal fans who love to tell "I remember when..." stories about their team.
Then there's the other baseball team just as far from my house - the First-place-in-the-NL-East Washington Nationals. They have led the National League in ERA all season long, and the team features superstars like Gio Gonzalez (my pick for this year's Cy Young award - forget the Reds' Johnny Cueto), teen phenom Bryce Harper who has hit 17 home runs in his short time in the Majors, and of course that Strasburg guy who has recovered very nicely from that elbow surgery he had 2 years ago. But the Nationals don't have a storied past - most people like to forget that the team came here from Montreal, so they have no memories of nail-biting games, pennant races, crazy uniforms in the 1970s (those blue things the Expos wore back then don't count), or slug fests in the early 1990s. While the Nationals do have die-hard fans, we did not grow up following the hometown hero or the long-time franchise player. Our only "I remember when" moments refer to the few years the Nationals played at RFK Stadium, which are years we'd rather forget.
Another problem that the Nationals have attracting fans is that many residents of the DC area are transplants from somewhere else. Many government employees end up here because of work - military personnel from Ohio (who follow the Indians or Reds); NIH doctors who were brought up as Yankees or Red Sox fans; Pentagon employees who can't tell you what team they root for or they'd have to kill you; and IRS employees who don't follow any teams (because they don't have any fun doing anything but auditing us baseball fans).
While the Orioles have no trouble selling out their park, the Nationals have had very few sellouts this season. Go to Philadelphia on a Tuesday night and the park will be full. Do the same thing at Nationals Park and you're lucky if you have 22,000 people there (and the expensive seats are full of uptight government workers who won't take off their ties and spend the entire time texting during the game). DC is still lukewarm about the Nationals, which is a terrible shame for a team that has been so consistent and is so talented. When the Orioles play at Nationals Park, half the stadium is wearing red while the other half is in orange and black. But when the Nats go to Camden Yards, there is only a handful of Nationals fans who choose to make the quick drive into Baltimore.
Yankees and Red Sox fans are known for being passionate and outspoken. Orioles fans are notoriously excited any time their team wins anything. Phillies fans - they're just obnoxious. But Nationals fans seem to be just "there" - we need to get more excited, more united, more animated. Why? Because this team is going to the playoffs, and we need to fill the seats with red shirts and loud cheers. In this case, quantity is more important than quality - I don't care if you're a bandwagon fan who only wants to root for the Nats when they win (us die-hards will still be here in 20 years). The team's slogan for this season has been "Ignite your Nattitude," and that's something we need to do more of as the playoffs get closer.