There’s a suspicion among DMV baseball fans that every Washington Nationals fan of a certain age secretly has an Orioles jersey or maybe a hat buried in their closet. It’s a sign of their original rooting interest. With the Nationals plummeting to the bottom of the National League East this year and the Orioles closing in on their first 100-win season in 40-plus years, some have begun digging for that orange evidence.
“Before the Nats came, this region was all O’s fans,” said Mike Hicks, a St. Mary’s County native who turned 50 this week. “So when the Nationals came in 2005, I think it gave D.C. residents something more to root for. But they still got that Orioles jersey hidden somewhere.”
Hicks found a workaround for that deception without hiding his fanhood.
When he and his father, Jim, attend Orioles-Nationals games — they try to get to at least one matchup each season — Mike dons his custom-made top. A few years ago he took a blank jersey for both teams, cut each down the middle and had them professionally sewn together. Along each back half are the respective team’s World Series patches.
Mike joked that he has been careful with how outwardly he cheers or how often he turns on the TV with how successful the Orioles have been, notching win No. 98 Tuesday night, 1-0 over the Nationals at Camden Yards. This week they’ll have a chance to clinch their first division title since 2014.
“It’s been a great last two years,” said Jim, a lifelong Orioles fan. “You see some of the moves starting to pay off. When Adley [Rutschman] came up and Gunnar [Henderson] got here [both last season], stuff took off. It’s been great. The only time I’ll root for the Nats is when the Orioles are out of everything. I was rooting for the Nats when they won the World Series [in 2019]; they’re still a local team. But that was a little hard to do.”
Troy Haliburton grew up in Washington and lives there, so, like many of his peers, baseball fandom started with the nearest major league club. But his childhood excitement took a toll watching the Orioles repeatedly finish near the bottom of the American League East.
That’s when, as a middle schooler crying after one particularly disheartening loss, Haliburton first heard a pearl of advice from his father that would come to define his relationship with the sport. “Winning and losing is part of life,” his father said. “And part of life is making choices.”
The choice Haliburton ultimately made was to ditch the Orioles. Shortly after, he found an allegiance to the closer-to-home, newly formed Nationals.
“I definitely still have a soft spot for the O’s chasing 100 wins,” Haliburton said, admitting to have given up by July 4 on the Nationals, who at that point were already a downtrending 34-51. “But this team is very likable and they have an exciting style of play. … Looking back, I would tell middle school me that it’s OK to root for a winner. It feels good to root for a winner.”
Baseball rooting interest in the district and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs can often be traced by age.
Fans there who don’t remember baseball before 18 years ago when the Nationals arrived from Montreal, may have never shown interest in the team from Baltimore. But those like Mike Hicks and Haliburton would have naturally been drawn to the Orioles first.
That’s the case with Charmona Whitfield, too. Her affinity for baseball started in college when she began dating her now-husband, Telly, who pitched at Methodist College in Fayetteville, North Carolina — more than 320 miles from any MLB park.
The Whitfields moved to Maryland in 1996 and quickly became Orioles season-ticket-package-holding fans. “A baseball family,” as she called it. They held on tightly to their O’s fandom that was initiated by back-to-back American League Championship Series trips in 1996 and 1997 but ushered in a 15-year playoff drought. When they moved to Fairfax County, Virginia, shortly thereafter, they pivoted to the budding Nationals.
“It was disappointing for the O’s because they weren’t winning,” Whitfield said. “But the last three or four years, you could tell they were getting some things together. … We kept our eye on the O’s, but obviously we were following the Nats because they were consistently winning, getting better and better. Then when they finally won, we were screaming as loud as we could.”
Whitfield likes to say she has two teams, one in each league. But if someone asks who her team is or who she’d lean toward in a potential World Series matchup, what would she say?
“I will say the Nats, but I’ve never given up on the O’s,” Whitfield said. “We were at the game [Sept. 15 against the Tampa Bay Rays, second in the AL East] and we were so excited that Baltimore was winning. The Nats are now back in the O’s situation where we suck and have to build our farm system. I’m so excited and proud of the O’s because they were a team that when we first moved here was really doing it.”
Gardenville native Nicki Castagna, 46, never felt her fandom sway. Similar to Mike Hicks, she’s been an Orioles fan “as far as I can remember remembering.”
Castagna never sensed any true animosity. The nature of the two teams finding independent success in separate eras makes them difficult to portray as traditional rivals the way the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are. As Haliburton said, it feels good to root for a winner, and so far, DMV fans haven’t been pressed to choose in a given year.
Playoff pushes for both Baltimore and Washington in 2012, 2014 and 2016 were as close as they came. But the only team to escape the divisional round in any of those years was the Orioles in 2014.
“I’ve always felt like it’s been a friendly rivalry,” Castagna said. “I think a lot of people from the D.C. Beltway and that Maryland area, once they got a team, they were like, ‘OK, that’s our team.’ It was more of a natural pull to that. Then there were people that were anti-Angelos [Orioles ownership] that were like, ‘Yeah, we’re going there!’ But I’ve never felt like it was a nasty, hate-hate thing.”
“I feel like they’re our sister team or brother team,” she continued. “As long as they’re not challenging us, then I can kind of be like, ‘Hey, they’re our brother.’ But I want to kick their butts tonight.”
It wasn’t uncommon to find fandoms intertwined in various forms Tuesday night. Some paired a commemorative Ravens baseball jersey with a district hat. Or friend groups were divided, with Nationals fans and Orioles fans strolling Camden Yards together.
Picture a Venn diagram of Orioles and Nationals fans. The outer two pockets are those who individually ride with either organization. Then where the circles overlap — a significant portion of the fan bases — are those who keep their fandom of the other tucked away, saving it for a playoff run.
“It’s easier to root for teams that are close to you,” Mike Hicks said. “When the [Baltimore] Colts left there was nobody. There were people in North Carolina who were still [Washington] fans until the Panthers came [in 1995]. I’m sure they still got [Washington] jerseys somewhere in their closet too.”