Birds of a different feather make flap for fans' affection

April 29, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon in April, the Orioles are in first place, Camden Yards is sold out and I'm at . . . football practice?

Heresy? Lunacy?

Not anymore.

As you may have heard, a pro football team has sprouted in the city of the baseball monster. It still sounds weird, but we had better start getting used to it.

The Orioles don't own this town anymore.

I chose minicamp over Mussina yesterday, just to see how it felt. It's a viable option now. We're a football town again.

You can't tell the difference yet because the Ravens haven't played any games, but their arrival is an earthquake that has rearranged our sporting landscape.

After a dozen baseball-only years, there soon is going to be competition for fan attention, media interest and corporate dollars.

Sure, the Ravens are just going to butt their way into our hearts instead of earning their way. Not a pretty business.

But no one will remember the details once they kick off. A football team is a football team is a football team.

That's why it almost made sense for me to drive out to the Ravens' Owings Mills complex on a perfect afternoon for baseball and watch a bunch of football players run around in shorts and helmets during a minicamp practice yesterday.

The sideburned center fielder is hot, the high-priced starting pitching is cold and the Yankees are coming to town, but the Ravens are installing a one-back offense designed to light up the Memorial Stadium scoreboard next fall.

New blocking schemes, bubba! What could be more important?

OK, OK, so developments in both sports are important. That's the point.

The familiar geometry -- one town, one team -- suddenly is outdated.

"I'm anticipating this city going crazy for football in the fall," Ravens defensive tackle Larry Webster said yesterday in the locker room between minicamp practices. "After 12 years without games, people are going to be fired up. I anticipate a lot of hoopla. Football fans won't have to go to the mall anymore after church."

Yes, there will be games on Sunday afternoons. Practices during the week. The draft and minicamp in the spring. Training camp starting in July.

A whole new routine to become accustomed to, again. A whole new set of names and numbers, personalities and controversies.

L The football equivalents of Anderson and Bonilla and Alomar.

That's another reason I felt compelled to drive to Owings Mills yesterday. I had to see the Ravens' players on local turf. I had to see Andre Rison and Tony Jones and Vinny Testaverde working out in the 410 area code.

I had to see them because there are times when I still must convince myself that the NFL really has returned to Baltimore. Sometimes I'll be driving along and, like magic, for no apparent reason, just stop believing it happened.

The phenomenon afflicts all of us who experienced the Last Temptation of Bill Bidwill in 1987 and the Great Expansion Rip-off of 1993.

We won't believe until the ball is in the air on the opening kickoff next fall.

Anyway, I drove to Owings Mills, to the old Colts complex, which has been used as a training site for Baltimore city police.

There were no officers. But there was, indeed, a squad of football players.

The team formerly known as the Cleveland Browns.

They worked out on two grass fields behind the building that houses the team offices, locker rooms and training facilities. Offensive players wore white shirts. Defensive players wore black shirts. A steady breeze blew. Coaches shouted and players exhorted.

The offense and defense worked separately for a while in the morning, scrimmaged without hitting, then broke for lunch.

The sight of 95 football players cleaning out several vats of lasagna pretty effectively confirmed that pro football was, indeed, back.

The players wandered in and out of the locker room waiting for an afternoon practice. Several did interviews. Several studied their thick playbooks. A players union representative held a meeting. Rison showed off a new tattoo across his midsection.

"The move is behind us," Webster said. "The attitude in here now is, 'Let's get this thing started.' "

Football fans in Cleveland are angry, not so much anymore because they lost the team, but because fans in Baltimore won't get to experience the grim Bill Belichick. Bringing him here was their idea of revenge.

His replacement, Ted Marchibroda, is a respected offensive tactician who should make the team more interesting than it was in Cleveland.

"We're starting from scratch offensively," Marchibroda said after practice yesterday, "but we have a veteran team. They'll pick it up."

Is he consciously trying to put an exciting team on the field in its first year in a new city?

"A coach just tries to win," he said, "but I'm aware of the excitement."

He has a baseball monster with which to contend.

But he also has a public that has waited a dozen years for the chance to cheer for a football team again.

Orioles and Ravens.

Not necessarily in that order.

Welcome to your world.

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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