The Orioles and Nationals became the first two teams to clinch their divisions on Tuesday. Baltimore got their first banner since 1997, when Cal Ripken Jr. was still holding down third base, and first since the Washington Nationals moved in next door. The Nationals, meanwhile, have been a relative success since ditching Montreal in 2004, buoyed lately by young stars Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.
This year, both clubs have put at least a dozen games between themselves and their runners up. Nationals pitchers have the second lowest team ERA in the league. They've taken a balanced rotation and deep lineup all the way to the NL's best record. The Orioles haven't had it quite that easy thanks to season-ending injuries for Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, but they remain the most powerful team in baseball, leading MLB with 196 home runs.
But despite their proximity, and the looming possibility of a Beltway Series, Nationals-Orioles has yet to blossom into a full rivalry. Washington is simply too new. Sure, Nats fans have gotten mad at the O's tradition of yelling the "O!" in the national anthem's penultimate line, but that's more courteous disdain than true seething hatred (aside from this magmatic take.) All that said, a Beltway Series would speed up the rivalry timeline, that's just how regional rivalries work.
What holds this rivalry back is that the Nationals don't quite have a complex identity or deep history to draw on yet. Baseball is a sport of empty spaces, of men standing in a zen garden. Tradition matters in a concrete way. Camden Yards is 38 miles from Nationals Park. A hypothetical World Series would inevitably bring up questions about the civic differences between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. The two clubs are foils for each other because they come from similar places with crucial differences. A World Series between them would both reveal each club's identity, and help form it.
There have only been three World Series in the modern era between teams closer than Baltimore and Washington. The first half century of American baseball featured intracity contests between teams from Chicago and St. Louis and a handful of New York teams facing off. As the population moved west and spread out, they became quirks rather than regularities. The Yankees took on the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956 and there wasn't another World Series between teams from the same area until the Bay Bridge Series in 1989 and then the Subway Series in 2000. The average distance between stadiums hosting World Series games in the last 20 years is 1,118 miles, with the 2,770 miles between San Diego and New York as the most diffuse matchup.
But this year, there is the potential for a few different regional matchups. St. Louis and Kansas City are on opposite sides of Missouri, but they have a serious rivalry and a precedent in the 1985 World Series. Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium are about the same distance apart as the Beltway ballparks. If the A's and Giants nab wild card spots, we could have a redux of the 1989 World Series, when the A's swept and the Loma Prieta Earthquake delayed play for 10 days.
Any of these matchups would be fun. They would all give the baseball community a chance to dig into regional geography and culture. An immersive look at the differences between the communities filling AT&T Park and O.co Colisseum would be a fascinating lens into the large-scale gentrification of the region and all the civic strife that accompanies that process. AT&T Park is ringed with glimmering condos. O.co has nonfunctioning sewers and dog-sized rats. That story is right there to be told.
The same goes in D.C. and Baltimore. A Beltway Series would be a way for the region's cities to define themselves in the national spotlight. The Orioles would tap into decades of tradition. The Nationals would start to weave the type of identity that sustains the life of baseball franchises. Also: good baseball.