As heat rises, 54,000 can't wait for fall

July 17, 1996|By John Eisenberg

It was just a trickle of unfamiliar football players sweating through a set of indecipherable drills on a warm summer morning. But it was good.

The sun was shining, the fields were green and the Ravens were opening their training camp yesterday morning at Western Maryland College.

And it was particularly good.

The warm scent of the old Colts hung in the air, mixed with the palpable anticipation of a new era.

"Can't you get [Art] Donovan to play?" a fan shouted to Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda after the workout.

Marchibroda, a thread connecting the past and present, just smiled and shook his head.

It was impossible not to step back and reflect again on the still-stunning reality of the NFL returning to Baltimore after 12 lost years.

There have been other such emotional markers recently -- the start of minicamp, the draft -- and there will be more in the coming weeks, each increasingly poignant, as the season and the team begin to take shape.

But with momentum building and a fine autumn looming, it was impossible yesterday not to stand in the sunshine and gloat over how wrongly the city was treated for so long.

Baltimore's football fans were overlooked, underappreciated, misrepresented and forgot ten, drenched in a long, hard rain of disdain to which they have responded with a slam-dunk rebuttal: the purchase of 54,000 season tickets.

Fifty-four thousand!

"That's more than we ever sold in any year in Cleveland," Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said yesterday.


What about that fanatical following the Browns had for all those years?

"The most season tickets we ever sold there in one season was 51,437 in 1987," Byrne said.

Not to diss Cleveland's fans; they were the best, totally undeserving of what happened to them.

But let it be known that Baltimore, Paul Tagliabue's favorite Washington suburb, also seems to have a fair constituency.

The Ravens almost broke the Browns' season-ticket record in the first 15 days after their seats went on sale in late May.

"We sold 50,000 in 15 days," Byrne said. "And those weren't pledges. The money was sent in."

Remember when Charlotte and Jacksonville were deemed better markets in the expansion debacle of 1993?

Remember when Bill Bidwill used the city as leverage to get a better deal in Arizona?

Remember when Tagliabue, the NFL's commissioner, thought Baltimore belonged in one big market with Washington?

Remember when others criticized Baltimore's fans for not supporting Irsay's Colts at the end, as if that were wrong after the way he ruined a good thing?

Remember when we were advised to take our money and build a museum?


All insults and criticisms have been rendered irrelevant by 54,000 replies.

The fans have spoken.

Not that this yearning for pro football was the reason Art Modell moved here from Cleveland.

He didn't come because he liked us.

He came because we put an absurdly profitable deal on the table.

It was the money, stupid. Modell would have gone anywhere for such a deal.

But he came here, and he got far more than he expected.

"We're stunned at the ticket sales," Byrne said. "We didn't know what would happen. It's fantastic."

The fans have spoken.

There are caveats attached to this new beginning. You know them well by now. The guilt of gaining through Cleveland's loss. The ridiculousness of paying a permanent seat license fee for the right to buy a ticket. The doubts about the front office's ability to put together a winner.

All legitimate issues, grounded in reality.

But the fans have spoken.

They don't care.

They'll live with the guilt, as unfortunate as it is.

They'll pay the absurd PSL fee.

They'll live with the team if it loses, at least for a while.

They'll take anything except no team at all.

Been there, done that, hated it.

"I'm not surprised at all those season tickets selling," quarterback Vinny Testaverde said yesterday. "I've heard the stories about the way it used to be here. The sold-out stadium, the loud crowds. It's obviously a great football town."

Obvious now, after 54,000 yeas.

Not obvious before now, at least not to many people in the NFL. Or to the right people.

But obvious now, yes, finally.

And so the old routines are coming back around again, feeling new and familiar at the same time. Draft choices negotiate. Veterans work on their games. Coaches set up training camp. The team begins to take shape. The fans gear up.

"I have to tell you," Marchibroda said yesterday, "it's as if we never left Baltimore. I felt that way from the first day of minicamp, and I feel that way today. Like we were here all along. Like this was always home."

Something about the place; something that just felt right on the first day of training camp in an old football town renewed with a new and awesome vigor.

Pub Date: 7/17/96

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