Kickoff to celebrate, then game to forget Football: Though the Ravens lose to the Steelers, for the fans in Baltimore's new stadium, 'Today, we are winners.'

OPENING DAY Steelers 20, Ravens 13

September 07, 1998|By Jon Morgan and Paul McMullen | Jon Morgan and Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Christian Ewell and Bill Free contributed to this article.

With equal parts celebration and defiance, a sellout crowd of Baltimore's football faithful yesterday consecrated the Ravens' new, downtown home -- a red brick stadium some thought would never get built for a team some thought would never play here.

"This is divine intervention. . . . Nothing can stop us now," said Eric Allen, a 38-year-old fan from Owings Mills who, like many in attendance, had lived through the emotional roller coaster of Baltimore's efforts to replace the Colts since their departure 14 years ago.

Despite the fervor of devout fans such as Allen, the Ravens were beaten, 20-13, by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A crowd of 68,847 gathered under cloudless skies and in temperatures that were more suited to baseball than football. A pair of preseason games had been played at the stadium this year, but yesterday's was the first that counted.

That proved unfortunate for the Ravens, who went 4-0 in the preseason. To make matters worse, Ravens starting quarterback Jim Harbaugh left the game in the second quarter with an injured finger. His status for next week's game against the Jets is uncertain.

The Ravens wasted numerous scoring opportunities in the first half. Kicker Matt Stover missed three field-goal attempts, and the Ravens bungled a crucial punt play. The team went more than 57 minutes before Jermaine Lewis finally got the Ravens' first touchdown.

"I'm really bummed out. Especially after the preseason and especially since it was the first game here. I expected a little more," said one fan, Blake Gambrill, a 40-year-old salesman from Reisterstown.

The mood was better before the game, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening said seeing the stadium open was worth the long years of struggle.

"We had some bad years because of some bad decisions made elsewhere, but the home team persevered," Glendening said.

The governor, joking about his reputation for lackluster public speaking, said he was feeling something "uncharacteristic for me: I'm pumped."

Despite the fans' emotion over a game against archrival Pittsburgh, police reported a generally peaceful crowd. The biggest problem was more than 100 people showing up with counterfeit tickets who had to be sent home. Mass transit officials reported generally smooth sailing for cars, trains and buses.

Most important, a feared invasion of Steelers fans never materialized.

When Steelers wide receiver Charles Johnson scored what proved to be the winning touchdown on a 20-yard reception with 10 minutes remaining, he leapt over the end-zone railing and into the arms of several dozen Steelers fans. But Johnson said it was nothing like October, when Pittsburgh and its followers took over Memorial Stadium.

"It was harder to find our fans this year," Johnson said. "Last year, that was like a home game for us. This was different. Their fans were extremely loud. We had trouble hearing Kordell's [Stewart, Steelers quarterback] cadence because of the noise."

Steelers coach Bill Cowher concurred.

"I've never seen a city so excited about a single game," Cowher said. "I was totally impressed with the people of Baltimore. They've been at the forefront of what a city has to do when it wants to get something like this done. . . . I'm glad we're not coming back here this year."

The $223 million stadium took a little more than two years to construct but was more than a decade in the making. State lawmakers approved the funding in 1986, in the dark days after the Colts left town complaining about dank and uneconomical Memorial Stadium.

In the ensuing years, Baltimore was bypassed by the league when it added two expansion franchises in 1993, and fans had their hopes raised and dashed repeatedly when team after team flirted with moving here before the Cleveland Browns finally decided to in 1995.

"Today, you are winners. Today, we are winners," Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag told the crowd during elaborate pre-game ceremonies that included confetti shot into the air and a game ball delivered by a man flying a jet-propelled backpack developed by the Pentagon.

Banners and posters throughout the stadium reflected the prevailing notion that the league would just as soon be celebrating a stadium opening somewhere other than Baltimore. Typical of the signs was one mounted on the field wall in a corner that rhetorically asked NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue: What do you think of our new museum?"

Tagliabue, who once suggested that the cities that failed to receive expansion teams in 1993 could build factories or museums, viewed the game from the home and visiting teams' skyboxes without making any public appearances. He declined, through a spokesman, to comment on the fan's missives.

Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was on the field for the ceremonies, savored the moment, which he viewed as a victory over Tagliabue -- whom Schaefer blames for the city's troubles rejoining the NFL.

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