I WENT to the Ravens practice last week. Didn't pay $10 to park. Simply put the car in the Western Maryland College parking lot and followed the crowd toward Bair Stadium.
Didn't pay $10 to enter the practice area. Easily found a seat in the bleachers - the practice field stands even had a shade awning - and watched the morning workout with hundreds of kids and adults.
I didn't feel compelled to buy a $45 jersey or a $275 letterman jacket. The oppressive humidity of a Central Maryland August made them superfluous. Brought my own sun hat instead of buying a $17 souvenir. What do you think I am, a Washington Redskins fan?
After several years of wondering and worrying whether Westminster was worthy of the summer training camp of the Ravens, or vice versa, folks have now become accustomed to the fact that 100 or so football players and team staffers will converge on the county seat for a few weeks and go about their business as efficiently and conveniently as possible.
If they can do so, it benefits the team. And that will benefit the college and the community, for the time being.
There's no long-term commitment, no basis for a lifetime relationship with pro sports teams these days.
Better for summer camp towns to follow the Little Bo Peep formula: Leave them alone and they'll come home. Hopefully.
No, the Ravens are not the Colts. Hasn't everybody except a few whining Baltimorons gotten over that yet? Remember, the Colts abandoned Westminster as a summer camp years before they abandoned Memorial Stadium.
Memories of those yesteryear summers are great. Savor them. Just don't let them come between today's football fans trying to collect their own in a different era. Enjoy what's here now, on its own terms.
No, the Ravens aren't doing local golf tournaments, Main Street parades and sidewalk socializing. The players, both those with a sure spot on the roster and those trying like mad to get one, are here for a serious purpose with serious money at stake.(But give them all full credit for the annual charity dinner, which drew more than 600 paying guests to the campus fieldhouse Tuesday.)
Want to count the Ravens signs and banners in town? Be my guest. But don't kid yourself into thinking that's why they are here, or why they won't be here in the future.
For the record, the team signed a five-year contract in 1997 with Western Maryland College to hold annual training camps at the campus through 2001.
Yes, Ravens president David Modell visited the Frostburg State University campus to look at facilities that were until this year used by the Redskins.
That Western Maryland college would certainly like to woo the Ravens to their campus for summer training. But team officials are on the record that they plan to stay at this Western Maryland College until the contract ends.
The future will depend on the economics of pro football. The Redskins have broken with NFL practice, charging for admission and parking at their own Virginia training complex.
Other NFL teams may follow, as long as it suits their financial and training needs. None is going to jeopardize preparation for the regular season, where the real money is, just to make a few more bucks on training camp admissions.
But pre-season scrimmages and exhibition games have already taken on a new hue in the quest for added revenues; season-ticket plans require pre-season ticket purchases.
Practice games have become more like regular season contests, with coaches less willing to experiment (except to bench the first-string quarterback) and the media validating the outcomes of these exhibitions.
So it wouldn't be much of a stretch for other teams to charge for watching practices, maybe just on weekends when the crowds are always larger.
Down in Ashburn, Va., the Washington Redskins have been making out like bandits. Fan traffic has been steady and, in the first week, the organization proudly noted that the average visitor (family) was spending a staggering $150 each.
That includes $10 for admission and $10 to park a car.
In doing so, the Redskins stiffed Frostburg and the state of Maryland, whose approval of $70 million in public improvements at their new Largo stadium site was based on a handshake agreement to keep the camp in Frostburg.
Frostburg was as enthusiastic and supportive as it could be in 1995 when it lured the Redskins camp from three decades at Carlisle, Pa. The town and the region profited; one estimate put the economic impact at $3 million a year.
But Frostburg seems to have adjusted without major upheaval, even holding a cookout this summer to demonstrate their sense of good humor (if not goodwill).
But back to summer camp on The Hill. There's a grand opportunity to watch the enormous talent (and size) of these athletes in action, in proportions far different from those seen on the TV screen at home and from the stands of PSINet Stadium in Baltimore.
Autograph sessions and the tests of football skills - passing, kicking and a bubble bounce tent for peewees - in the Fan Zone add to the experience. Enjoy it while it's still here (through Wednesday morning) and still for free.
Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.