JUST AS the Ravens departed Western Maryland College to end their summer training camp, welcome rains finally arrived.
Last year, untimely rainfall canceled several of the pro football team's open practices, and reduced the number of visitors expected to be drawn by the new attraction in Westminster. This year, observers looked at the triple-figure temperatures and high humidity as reasons why training camp tourism was flat in spite of the dry weather.
The NFL team's own estimates showed an increase of 5,000 more visitors this year than last, reaching 25,000 camp viewers for the four-week session. That included a lot of repeat visitors.
There's no reason to expect those figures to grow a lot as the WMC contract runs through 2001.
Weather here in the smog bowl will play a limiting role. But so will the modern nature of pro team pre-season training and pro football itself. It's a high stakes game -- for the franchise, the staff and the players. Too much money is at risk for any summer larking, any wasted time.
Training camp schedules are compressed, maximized. They are not tailored to the desires of curious fans. The Ravens move indoors to the college field house, without the free onlookers, if need be. They shift to their training facilities at Owings Mills when it suits their needs. Their needs being to prepare for the season, and pre-season games, before the big-buck ticketholders and the national television audience.
The players' needs are to make the final cut in fighting trim and earn the mega-salaries; pub-crawling characters and training table truants start behind the rest of the ambitious pack.
Team and players agree that there's no reason to add to the demands of training camp with local public appearances.
But there's one appealing aspect of training camp that has not changed over the years, one that can pay generous long-term public relations dividends: after-practice autograph sessions.
Virtually all of the Ravens roster, from last-round pick to first-string veteran, have been accommodating on this score.
It's a healthy interaction between players and fans that builds interest in the team and its individuals, a tangible connection that's missing watching games on TV or in the stands.
A visit to the Western Maryland playing fields this year brought back memories of my childhood, when I would spend days watching the NFL team at practice in the college town where we lived.
It was a relatively short bike ride to the campus, where friends were likely to be found, exchanging their young wisdom of sports and of life. Baseball was more of a topic for the boys on the sidelines than was football, even as we watched these larger-than-life athletes go through the repeated drills and scrimmage in the oppressive August heat.
Identifying the players in practice gear was a principal diversion that separated the pubescent cognoscenti from the uninformed: there were no game-day uniforms with numbers or names.
That knowledge was especially important in the post-practice autograph hunt, as the worn warriors headed for the showers and welcomed the large electric fans that cooled down the locker room.
"Thanks for asking," one of these giants would routinely respond, in a measure of unexpected grace and humility. He was, as I recall, a starter and a star, one for whom these requests had become commonplace. But he engendered a feeling of courtesy and bonhomie that endures long beyond memory of his on-field heroics or career achievements.
'Who am I?'
"Who am I?" another player would ask the young supplicant before consenting to sign the proffered ruled tablet. He always said it with the tease of a broad grin and the twinkling eyes that were captured in his picture that regularly appeared in the newspaper. You had to know who he was, everybody did.
These manners and quirks of the players were traded freely among the youngsters who congregated at practice. One veteran was best approached by kids who called him "sir" rather than by his first name. Another had to be asked before he reached the fence around the field house, which he considered strictly off-limits.
Asking the same fellow for his autograph twice was a way to annoy some. Running with a buddy to collect signatures after one practice, I was met with that rebuke by a player, who nonetheless signed. Deeply chagrined, I later found that he had indeed signed my book -- two days earlier. He had remembered me better than I had him.
Memories of those few fleeting years were enriched by the training camp exposure to those players. It was not a shabby bunch. That team won two NFL championships. Six of them are now in the Hall of Fame.
I'd like to say I still glance over those pages of scribbled signatures. But they were long ago tossed away by my housecleaning mother, like many others of her kind who unwittingly created the expensive market today in vintage sports collectibles.
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.
Pub Date: 8/24/97