Heat rises in a tale of two cities

November 07, 1999|By John Eisenberg

CLEVELAND -- For decades, Baltimore and Cleveland had little to do with each other and little interest in each other as sports towns. Aside from a couple of big NFL games, it was as if we were dots on separate maps.

Now the opposite is true. We're wrapped in a mutual headlock symbolized by today's game between the Ravens and Browns, and we're also experiencing this weird, almost paranormal parallel life in which, it seems, everything that happens in either town has something to do with the other.

We're almost twins with our new NFL teams (and lost old ones), our new football and baseball stadiums, our big-revenue baseball teams, our passionate fans, our love of the past and our overall places in the world -- we're both the butts of the jokes, not the ones telling the jokes.

Why can't we just get along? Well, let's see. We have their football team, their baseball manager and their slugging outfielder, and they have our second baseman, our stadium designs and our winning baseball tradition.

We knocked them out of the American League playoffs when they had the better team in 1996. They knocked us out when we had the better team in 1997.

We hired the football coach they wanted last winter, not that they'll admit it. They drafted the franchise quarterback we need.

Things really got out of hand in the past week, with fired Indians manager Mike Hargrove being hired by the Orioles, Ravens coach Brian Billick suggesting the officials might help the Browns today and every headline seeming to resonate at a screaming pitch in both towns.

It was a minor miracle that when the Indians were sold Thursday, they weren't sold to, say, Boogie Weinglass or someone else from Baltimore.

Basically, we can't seem to get away from each other. And although a lot of it is just fate, not the least bit personal, we don't seem to like each other, either.

Wait a minute. Let's put it this way -- they don't like us. Or, more to the point, they don't like our football owner.

That's Art Modell, of course, the central figure in the issue as the guy who yanked a beloved pro football team out of Cleveland in 1995 and steered it to Baltimore.

Without that single act, the Cleveland/Baltimore angle would be little more than a set of coincidences. Instead, today's Ravens-Browns game is a Holy War.

That part is fun, of course, in a dark way. Having another city care about beating you earns you a merit badge of sorts as a sports town, and Cleveland certainly wants to pound the Ravens today. True, it's for a reason everyone on both sides regrets -- a team moving -- but being important to anyone is a welcome change after the bored shrugs of the Yankees and Steelers.

Not that Cleveland really has it in for Baltimore. The fans in both cities actually seem to relate more than debate, having shared so many experiences and learned that we're all just pawns in the owners' games, anyway.

If Modell had moved his team to, say, Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Baltimore were playing at Cleveland today, Cleveland wouldn't give one extra hoot.

We're just where Modell landed, which, understandably, makes us their No. 1 target. They want to beat Modell, embarrass Modell, make Modell wince. He's the real enemy. We're just an accessory.

Billick, bless him, seems to be trying to add another dimension to the rivalry, and he's doing a good job.

In September, he implied that he was happier with the Ravens than the Browns because Baltimore is a more cosmopolitan city. That went over well in Cleveland. Now, after his comments about the officials, he said he might have to coach from a covered "Popemobile" today.

If anything, he has added life to a game between two losing teams, and he's boiled the blood of Browns CEO Carmen Policy, who has a league-leading sense of entitlement.

Obviously, the football side of the two-city swap meet is hotter now. But the baseball side actually has longer and deeper roots.

For decades, the Indians were losers and the Orioles had a history of winning titles and grooming talent from generation to generation -- a history that continued when Hank Peters was the Orioles' general manager starting in 1975.

But after Peters was fired in 1987, he was hired by the Indians, took the Orioles' philosophy to Cleveland and hired John Hart, a former Orioles coach who has become the Indians' GM and played a major role in turning the Indians into what the Orioles used to be -- a consistent winner.

Meanwhile, the Orioles no longer groom talent and haven't played in the World Series since 1983, and if they don't turn things around soon, they're going to start resembling the luckless Indians who lagged so far behind the Orioles in the '60s and '70s.

In any case, now we have Hargrove and Albert Belle -- Indians mainstays for years -- with some of Hargrove's coaches on the way, and they have Hart, Roberto Alomar and assistant GM Mark Shapiro, a Baltimore native.

Eddie Murray? Was here, then there, then here.

Phil Regan? Was there, then here, then there.

Harold Baines? Was here, then there, then maybe here again.

On the football side, we have Matt Stover, Rob Burnett, Stevon Moore, Bennie Thompson and Larry Webster, who were there, then here; and they have Orlando Brown and Antonio Langham, who were there, then here, then there.

On and on it goes, the connections between two similar sports towns that had zero interest in each other until a few years ago, and now, suddenly, almost seem joined at the hip as rivals, as odd as that sounds.

Baltimore and Cleveland.

Cleveland and Baltimore.

Such fraternal, intense, unusual antagonists.

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