Believe it or not, there was a point this past season when the World Series-bound Washington Nationals and the moribund Orioles had a lot in common.
It was mid-May and the Nats were floundering — their 19-31 record after 50 games is not hard to remember because it has been flashed on your TV screen at some point in every broadcast during their amazing march through the postseason.
On the same day, the Orioles were 15-35 and marching hard toward 100-plus losses for the second year in a row, both teams facing double-digit divisional deficits in the first season after free agency — or the prospect of it — cost each of them their biggest star.
That’s where the similarity ended, of course. The Nationals were still a star-studded team that figured to straighten itself out, though no one could have imagined just how dramatically they would do that.
The Orioles were committed to continuing in a different direction after the successful Buck Showalter-Dan Duquette era flamed out in late 2018 and smoldered long enough to set an ugly franchise record with 115 losses that year.
So, why draw that comparison as the World Series arrives in the nation’s capital for the first time since 1933? What does the high likelihood of the Nationals winning their first championship have to do with the Orioles’ attempt to remake themselves relevant again in the Mid-Atlantic region?
Because the success of both franchises has been intertwined from the moment Major League Baseball struck that deal with the Orioles to allow the Montreal Expos to relocate to Washington, and appropriate a large chunk of the territory Peter Angelos and his partners thought they were buying when they paid a record price for the O’s in 1993.
The arrival of the Nationals did — as Angelos long feared — have a significant economic impact on the Orioles, but that was offset by the now-controversial broadcast rights partnership that was tilted heavily in favor of the O’s.
Now, the two franchises are embroiled in a seemingly endless battle over the fruits of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, but the Nats might have an opportunity to take another bite out of the Orioles fan base if they can hammer out two more victories over the Houston Astros.
Since only three teams have ever failed to win the World Series after winning the first two games on the road, it seems pretty likely that the Nats will be become world champions at a particularly poor time for the Orioles.
Attendance has declined in each of the past five seasons for a variety of reasons that have been well-documented. Their 2019 total of 1,307,807 was almost a quarter-million lower than in 2018 and their 2018 total was nearly a half-million lower than 2017.
Maybe it can’t go much lower, but with the Orioles in the early stages of a rebuilding plan that could take another three or four years, the Nationals could steal some more of the market by appealing to the new generation of younger fans in the populous suburbs between Baltimore and Washington.
Admittedly, MLB is struggling to attract a younger demographic, but kids still like to go to the ballpark and a lot of them still watch on TV, and this World Series might be that catalytic moment that turns them into lifelong fans ... of the Nationals.
The Orioles are going to be hard-pressed to counter that until they rebuild some star power and start winning again, which apparently isn’t even going to be a priority for at least one more season.
This is not an indictment of the new approach. The Orioles had little choice but to find a different path after the way the team collapsed in 2018.
They’ll just have to get even more creative in their attempts to keep their remaining customers satisfied.
The Nationals have earned the high ground in the region and the right to exploit it, but with MVP candidate and pending free agent Anthony Rendon finishing up his walk year in style, they’ll still have to work to stay there.