Three Cities, Three Candidates

I was in line at a Baltimore bar last year on a day when the Red Sox were playing the Yankees in Boston late in the season. A middle-aged Orioles fan saw me staring intently at ESPNews on a television above the bar during the highlight of the game.

"Who won?" he asked, politely.

"Sox. [Armando] Benitez blew his first game as a Yankee," I replied, flashing a sinister smile.

"Great!" was his response. "I'm an O's fan from birth, but now that we're out of it, I root for the Sox since they have the best chance of beating New York."

Some Boston fans might appreciate this unsolicited, allied support. Some, like my buddy Rob, who wished for a meteor to land on Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of last year's World Series, would not. Others, like my Bostonian friend Sav, would rather berate such flip-flopping fans for supporting another team. Die-hards have a motto: us, or no one.

But Baltimore is not Boston. Baltimore fans understand how fortunate they are. Since 1966, they lay claim to six American League titles, three World Series championships, and one national icon, Cal Ripken, Jr. Baltimore is the embodiment of baseball's middle class: satiated, and while more success would be nice, it's not imperative. If the team misses the playoffs, Baltimore fans have a contingency plan: root against New York.

The derivation of Baltimore's loathing of New York was born on October 9, 1996 in the Bronx. A 12-year-old named Jeffrey Maier stole a Derek Jeter fly ball from the glove of Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. The play was mistakenly ruled a homerun, sending the game into extra innings. The Yankees eventually won the game and the series, and Maier has since remained the most divisive figure in an otherwise uninteresting Orioles/Yankees history.

Baltimore just wants to be recognized as a contender. They have no chief rival, the way Boston has New York, and St. Louis has Chicago. They also have a recent history of welcoming high-priced, former stars (e.g., Albert Belle, Pat Hentgen, Rafael Palmeiro, etc.) and missing the playoffs. If the Orioles and their fans were signified by a politician, Ralph Nader would be the only choice.

Why Nader? Consider: Nader scraped his way onto as many ballots as possible in 2000, and is duplicating the act this year. No one believes he really has a chance at contending in even one state, let alone the entire election. Still, he insists upon turning the limelight on himself, consequences be damned.

Similarly, the Orioles maintain that they should be considered a contender each year following their inevitable and aforementioned high-priced signings. Palmeiro, Javy Lopez, and Miguel Tejada, with their 108 homeruns from 2003, were supposed to resurrect the Orioles. But their 42-50 record is hardly indicative of a turnaround. Tampa Bay has been more threatening than Baltimore this season.

In recent years, people who have any baseball knowledge, but not a life-sized poster of Baltimore idol Cal Ripken, Jr. displayed on their bedroom wall, dismiss the Orioles' playoff chances immediately every season. Lately, the Orioles have lacked the front office to compete, and this season, the names on their pitching staff read like a "Who's Who?" of AAA ball.

But Baltimore is like Nader in one other very important way. Insignificant, they are not: Nader took vital votes away from Al Gore in 2000, possibly costing him the election. Baltimore, meanwhile, has already affected the outcome of the AL East race, and will continue to do so.

In 2003, Baltimore helped New York clinch the East by scoring more runs against Boston than any other team all season. They won three more games against Boston than against New York, and thanks to a 10-run eruption against Pedro Martinez in April, they cost Boston's ace pitcher the Cy Young Award.

Yet, when Boston and New York squared off in the ALCS, the city donned its Sox cap.

2004 has been even worse. Baltimore has taken four out of six this season from Boston, including two high-scoring wins against Martinez. Yet against New York, Baltimore is 1-8 and allowing a shade under 10 runs a game.

And who will Baltimore's legion of loyal fans back in a Boston/New York showdown in October? Guess.

Nader, in his crusade for the presidency, will once again take votes away from Democratic candidate John Kerry. But he has been quoted on ABC's "This Week" as saying that in the likely event of his presidential bid falling short once again, he'd back anybody but George W. Bush. That's a de facto endorsement of Kerry.

But Kerry, who is preparing for the Democratic National Convention in Boston (fitting), would rather see Nader drop out of the race. A posthumous endorsement from the Nader ticket does Kerry far less good than the damage he'll sustain from Nader's presence on the ballot. And Bush, who is also preparing for his party's convention in New York City (also fitting), can't help but smile knowing that Nader, though one of Bush's biggest critics, will displace some of the Kerry vote in Nader's direction.

See the connection? Kerry represents Boston, the only team with enough resources to oust the incumbent, Bush and New York. Baltimore is Nader, publicly decrying their biggest adversary, but directly harming Boston, New York's only viable opponent.

Like the Orioles fans, Nader tells Kerry to blame himself if Kerry loses the election. Nader considers himself a foe of the Republican party, but a challenger to the Democrats. He sees himself as a catalyst, encouraging Democrats to reform their own policies and give forth a stronger campaign effort.

The Orioles, while padding the Yankees' lead in the AL East, will point to the Red Sox as failures. Fans will say, for better or worse, that Boston should simply have played better baseball if they wanted to usurp the AL East crown from New York.

And perhaps rightfully so. But, like Kerry's shunning of a de facto backing from Nader, Boston fans should not happily accept any support they receive from Baltimore. For today's ally was yesterday's enemy.

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