You can argue for days whether slights between the denizens of Baltimore and the District of Columbia are mostly perceived or real. There are certainly people in Baltimore who find the national’s capital and its inhabitants detestable and arrogant. There are also, without a doubt, D.C. residents who think of Baltimore as a small, dangerous afterthought in the metro area, if at all. My job is not to settle anyone’s hash in this regard. My job is to talk about sports. And as far as sports is concerned, as much as Josh Wilson may disagree, the “Beltway Rivalry” is purely bunk.
I cannot stress enough how much buying into this rivalry is a tremendous waste of time. If you are a prototypical Baltimore sports fan, you take civic ownership of a football team and a baseball team. Those two teams each have at least three very clearly defined rivals within their respective leagues and conferences before you even catch a whiff of a D.C.-based team. If you’re a D.C. fan, the same applies. In addition, you make up the fan base for a pro hockey, basketball, and soccer franchise that have no counterparts in the Charm City. Can you feel the vitriol boiling?
Last night, the Ravens and the Redskins played yet another meaningless preseason game that fueled the falsity of this “rivalry.” Do you know why the Ravens and the Redskins play in the preseason? Because it’s 36 miles apart. Veteran football players hate travel almost as much as they hate two-a-days. Keeping players healthy, rested, and focused is the goal of the preseason and that’s much easier to do if you can hop on a bus and play Angry Birds for 50 minutes instead of five hours. The other reason? Preseason football is especially meaningless, and if you play your neighbor, you have a better chance of filling the seats and selling concessions and merchandise. Slap together a “Battle of the Beltway” t-shirt and you have yourself a manufactured version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.
The reality of the Ravens-Skins series is a four game history in the regular season. The Ravens are 3-1 in this less than memorable matchup. Perhaps the only instance of note was the October 15, 2000 loss the eventual Super Bowl-winning Ravens suffered in Washington in 10-3 snoozer. The teams last met in 2008, and may play again in the 2012 regular season.
What is more interesting to me about this imaginary rivalry concerns time and history. Specifically, the historical window I’m referring to is the years between 1984 and 1996. If you, like myself and many Raven fans, came of age during this time period, you have no real-time memories of the Baltimore Colts. It’s really unfortunate that the Colts left Baltimore. But the Colts were my dad’s team. He, and virtually everyone else in town, put that franchise to rest the day the Mayflower trucks rolled out. I was never encouraged to adopt the Colts franchise. I was taught about Johnny U., Art Donovan, Raymond Berry, and Bert Jones, but they were part of a history I could not access emotionally. I was born in 1983, and I’ve loved NFL football from the time I was old enough to do a crayon drawing of Refrigerator Perry. If you’re around my age, how could you not at least pay attention to the Redskins, a virtually local team that made three trips to the Super Bowl during this window? If you were born before 1975, you probably have some emotional tie to the Colts and didn’t need the Redskins. If you were born after 1988, you had the fortune to grow up with a pro team in Baltimore. Those of us in the 12-year vacuum, who are now in our late 20s and early 30s, are making up a larger percentage of the crowd at M&T Bank and the fan base in general. To anyone in that window, what is your excuse? What did you do for football until you were 13 years old? Please don’t tell me you were one of those annoying kids who became temporary Cowboys fans in the early 90s.
Both the Ravens and the Redskins have enough true rivals to keep the Chain Gang and the Hogettes hot and bothered year-round. The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is so well-documented and so easy to understand, it makes calling any other NFL team the Ravens’ “rival” seem completely uneducated. All of the elements of a true rivalry are present, including warring through the media, devastating games in front of a national audience, and enough hate to the keep the fire going when one or both teams are out of contention. Behind the Steelers, you could find more legitimate friction with the Browns, Bengals, Colts, and Titans before you even gave the Redskins a second thought. The Washington Redskins have a half-century long history of blood wars against the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys. They will be busy fighting this fight for the next fifty years as well. Mention the Cowboys especially to any ‘Skins fan and watch for the color change in their complexion. The NFC East is a really interesting and competitive division right now. It occupies 37.5% of the Redskins’ schedule and approximately 80% of their mental real estate. Animosity between Baltimore and Washington NFL football is a fiction you can choose to adopt, but not one worth burning calories over.
You may counter this argument by saying that you went to the game last night and got called names, or got in a fight, or that the players seemed to “not like each other.” Guess what? This is professional football. Are there two teams in the NFL that I’m unaware of that are “friends”? Do fans of any one team in the NFL openly applaud another franchise during a game that I somehow have missed in 25 years of watching football? Of course there is nastiness between the Ravens and the Redskins when they play. It would be just plain weird if there weren’t. To call it a “rivalry” though, it requires an extra element. A true rivalry is Auburn-Alabama. It’s India-Pakistan. It’s Manchester United-Man City. Baltimore-D.C. is not only not cracking the top 50 on that list, it’s not on the list altogether.
The reverse of the Ravens’ historical dilemma is true on the diamond. The Orioles, in their current form, have existed a half-century longer than today’s iteration of the Nationals. Many fans in the D.C. area grew up supporting the Orioles, and have slowly wandered over to the Nationals camp. With both teams being fairly pathetic since the Nats’ inception in 2005, there hasn’t been much to get riled up about on either end of 295. Most importantly, the teams play in separate leagues with separate rules and only meet during the forced husbandry program known as interleague play.
The Orioles seem to rotate their rival designation through the teams of the new and old A.L. East depending on the month of the year. As the doormat of the division, the O’s at this point have to play the part of petulant the kid in the class who has long given up on passing tests. He’s just looking for a smug A-student to scrap with. The Indians, Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Rays have all played this part in the team’s history. In their brief history, the Nationals have yet to carve out a true rival, but as usual, Philadelphia seems like as good a city as any to start a-hatin’. The Phillies are really good and the Nats are the opposite thereof. With the geographic proximity and the spillover from the Redskins-Eagles and Caps-Flyers rivalries, this derby will only heat up as the Nats hopefully improve.
These are the four common denominator teams in the region and nowhere in there do I see grounds for some of the unnecessary verbal sparring that goes on.
I have always loved D.C. United soccer, Washington Capitals hockey, and Washington Wizards/Bullets hoops. In fact, I care about the Capitals more than any other sports team in existence. Does that make me a turncoat because I have to drive an hour to go to games? Sports allegiances are based almost entirely on the geography of your childhood or your parents’ preferences. How is picking the closest pro team when you’re five years old any different than rooting for the Ravens because you happen to live in Baltimore County? When Baltimore doubles its population and economic viability, and then is awarded an NHL, MLB, and MLS franchise, I will happily listen to your pleas to root, root, root for the home team. Oh, and D.C. people who are so protective of “your” teams? Calm down. I’ll stack my Capitals and D.C. United allegiance against anyone in spitting distance of the Verizon Center, and I’ve never lived south of North Avenue. These are “your” teams about as much as your 1 share of Google makes it “your” company. Fandom is a transient fiefdom. The Leonsises, Biscottis, and Angeloses of the world will take every paying customer they can get. They could absolutely care less about what your zip code is.
We are part of the same metropolitan region. We have almost no meaningful sports overlap. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, and sit idling on the same god-forsaken highways. We are Marylanders, Virginians, and Washingtonians. Can’t we all just get along?
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com