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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Nationals, O's games are wild scenes

Nationals, O's games are wild scenes

Did you catch the crowd at Camden Yards on Friday night? It was a wild little scene, an ocean of orange amid a packed house of 45,389 rocking the beautiful ballpark down to its brick-and-steel bones during a walk-off victory over the Yankees.

It was the sixth crowd of at least 44,000 at Camden Yards this season, and now with the weather heating up and the Orioles atop the American League East, there's likely to be many more scenes like that one in the months ahead.

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Two years ago when the Orioles drew a string of big, noisy crowds on their way back to the playoffs, center fielder Adam Jones occasionally would tap longtime trainer Richie Bancells on the shoulder during games.

"Is this what it used to be like here?" he would ask.

For the longest time, Bancells would smile and shake his head no. And then one night in September with the Yankees in town and the place roaring, Bancells smiled.

"THIS," he told Jones, "is what it was like."

And that's what it may be like this summer, too. The Orioles are good, really good. They've made up nine games in the standings in less than a month, and while they may not be a perfect team, they're good enough to win a championship.

Thirty-eight miles south of Camden Yards, the Nationals are also in first place and also drawing big, noisy, passionate crowds.

You didn't know Washington was capable of such things, did you? Oh, silly one. People around the country almost always get Washington wrong. They watch the political gasbags on television, and they think, "That's Washington."

No, no, no.

Those are the people who come and go, who really aren't Washingtonians. Real Washingtonians love sports, not just the Redskins, but the Wizards and Caps, Terps and Hoyas.

There was plenty of skepticism about how Washington would support Major League Baseball when the Nationals moved to town in 2005. Those of us who've lived there and love the place knew better.

We knew there was a passion for the Orioles, but for baseball in general, for the Cubs and Yankees and other teams. We knew that if the Nationals did things right and became competitive, there were more than enough fans to support both franchises despite the proximity.

The Nationals drew 2.37 million fans when they made the playoffs in 2012 and 2.65 million last season. This season, they're on a pace slightly under that, but could end up flirting with 3 million as they attempt to win the National League East for the second time in three seasons.

There's a similar story in Baltimore, with the Orioles on pace to draw around 2.4 million. But that number could rise dramatically in the weeks ahead given how the Birds are playing. This is the franchise that cracked 3 million in its first nine full seasons at Camden Yards, and there's a passion for the team that compares with almost any in baseball.

Last season, the Nationals and Orioles both missed the playoffs and still cracked the 5-million mark in combined attendance. If both clubs continue to roll, they'll smash that 5-million mark, and it'll be interesting to see how close they get to 6 million.

If you want to have some real fun, show up at Nationals Park on August 4th when the O's and Nats play for the final time this season. At least, it's the final time they'll play in the regular season, and who knows what October will bring?

The O's have stars like Jones and shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Manny Machado. They have feel-good stories like outfielder Steve Pearce and a solid pitching staff.

The Orioles also have Buck Showalter, who is as good as there is at reaching his players and motivating his team and running a game. No general manager in the game has done a better job than Dan Duquette the last three seasons, and so the Orioles are positioned to make it a memorable baseball summer in Baltimore.

Likewise, the Nationals have instantly likable stars like third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Ian Desmond and first baseman Adam LaRoche. They've got the star power of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and a pitching staff general manager Mike Rizzo smartly constructed around power arms and one of the savviest starters in baseball, Doug Fister.

There's enough of a civic rivalry between Baltimore and Washington and enough people who commute between the two cities that almost all the baseball fans who root for one team keep an eye on the other. In a lot of cases, they're probably rooting for both.

In short, it's the way baseball ought to be. Here's to more of it in the weeks ahead.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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