For more than three decades, the Orioles were fine on their own. After the Washington Senators departed for Texas in 1972, the O’s played on relatively undisturbed, courting fans all across the mid-Atlantic.

Until they moved in.

From the moment then-Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig returned baseball to the nation’s capital in 2005, the arranged marriage between the Orioles and Nationals has been awkward. The O’s stout opposition to the arrival of another team in the region created a rocky foundation, and when the union was soon “blessed” with a lopsided television deal, the relationship between the franchises became cantankerous.

These circumstances, plus the sheer proximity between the two teams, should have led to the creation of a thrilling rivalry. But despite yearly series and such branding attempts as The Battle of the Beltways and the MASN Cup, it never formed.

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Did baseball miss its window?

The Orioles and Nationals’ competitive cycles were in sync for the first dozen years of their coexistence. From 2005-2011, the Orioles posted a winning percentage of .423; the Nationals put up a .434.

But their failures paved the way for the selections of future superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado with the first- and third-overall picks, respectively, in 2010. Harper and Machado both debuted in 2011 to great fanfare.

Weirdly enough, both teams reached the playoffs in 2012, 2014 and 2016, but missed out in 2013 and 2015. The trend was broken in 2017, when the Orioles began a six-year postseason drought. The Nationals, meanwhile, broke through to win their first World Series in 2019.

That December, at a Winter Warm-Up event at Camden Yards, a fan told Orioles general manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias that seeing the Nationals win a championship was like “a slap in the face.” A composed Elias responded by saying he was looking forward to “getting back on equal footing with them one day.”

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“I think that the fact that the Nationals won the World Series, it’s good for baseball in the region,” Elias said diplomatically. “But more specifically, I look at it from the perspective of I remember where they were, and they built that organization the way we’re building the Orioles right now. Scouting, a very strong international focus, they were patient, they did a good job with some high draft picks — which we’re in the midst of right now — and it shows that that exact model can lead to where the Nats are.”

Elias used that same blueprint to build a playoff-bound juggernaut in 2023. But as the sun has risen on the O’s, it has set on the Nats, who have a .397 winning percentage since taking home the Commissioner’s Trophy four years ago. The teams are still on unequal footing, but now, Baltimore has the high ground.

Though both teams have rostered superstar talents over the last 14 seasons, the matchups have produced few classics, with the Orioles holding the all-time series advantage 53-39. And aside from a minor dust-up between Machado and Nats closer Jonathan Papelbon in 2015, little animosity has festered.

Now, the source of ownership acrimony — the controversial Mid-Atlantic Sports Network deal — could be closer to resolution than ever before. In June, the two teams reached an agreement over the fair market value of the TV rights fees for Washington for 2012-16.

Why hasn’t a real rivalry between these two clubs, who play a mere 40 miles apart, developed over time? Maybe they’re too alike.

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Both teams have felt the sting of October disappointment. From 2012-16, Baltimore and Washington won just one of their seven combined postseason series.

Both teams have watched homegrown talents, such as Machado and Harper, sign mega-deals with other clubs, leaving their cities far in the rearview.

Both fan bases are frustrated with their respective ownership groups. O’s fans are annoyed with CEO John Angelos’ delay in signing a new lease at Camden Yards. Nats fans impatiently await a firm answer from managing principal owner Mark Lerner as to whether the team will be sold.

In addition, the relative newness of the Nationals’ existence means many of their fans grew up rooting for the Orioles. It’s one thing to change allegiances; it’s another to throw out your jersey and turn your back on a team entirely.

Perhaps it’s simpler than that. Baltimore and Washington occupy separate leagues and divisions with their own sets of long-standing rivals. Most rivalries are built up over decades, and maybe this one will just take time.

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Or perhaps the Orioles and Nationals are the only ones who understand each other.

paul.mancano@thebaltimorebanner.com

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