Sports radio sounds a lot like the Glory Days

January 08, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

"JEFF IN Dundalk, you're on the air."

"Chris on a cell phone, you're up next."

"Patrick of Reisterstown, go ahead."

If you owned a radio yesterday afternoon, you could take the pulse of this city with just a flick of the dial.

On the sports talk shows, you could hear Baltimore - hell, the entire state, really - celebrating this magical season the Ravens are putting together, exulting in a 24-10 playoff whipping of the Tennessee Titans and marveling at this most improbable of all scenarios now staring us in the face: The Ravens are exactly 60 minutes from the Super Bowl.

The radio voices came out of the ether from all over: from Dundalk and Lutherville, from Baltimore and Reisterstown and the Eastern Shore.

In a cramped temporary studio on the third floor at WBAL-AM radio, talk show host Greg Sher opened the phone lines a few minutes after Ray Lewis wrestled an interception from Tennessee running back Eddie George and ran it 47 yards for the touchdown that put a stake though the Titans' hearts.

And what came from the callers was this great outpouring of emotion, this communal sense of joy and wonder that only a football team on a wonderful roll can give its fans.

Is this unbelievable, Greg? Am I dreaming this or what? We're playing next Sunday for the league championship!

Jeff in Dundalk, Sher's first caller, told a great story, a Baltimore story of how sports can bring a community together on a cold sunny day with the whole winter yawning before you.

He said he and his buddies were watching the Ravens game when, all of a sudden, the power went out in the entire neighborhood.

There was, of course, this instant freak-out, the raw panic that sets in with the realization that, because of the damn electric company, or maybe not because of the damn electric company, you're about to miss one of the truly momentous events of your lifetime.

Then someone gets a portable radio and someone else gets a battery-operated TV, a little 13-incher, but, hey, beggars can't be choosers, right?

And pretty soon you have Jeff and 20 other people from up and down the block sitting around this little TV in Dundalk, screaming their lungs out again for a football team that has made these last five months so special.

"When Ray Lewis ran that ball in for a touchdown," Jeff told Sher and his listeners, "people down here started honking their horns and cheering."

For all Ravens fans, of course, the 2000 season has been a hell of a ride.

Fourteen wins, nine in a row, including one-sided playoff victories over Denver and now Tennessee. And there's no reason to jump off the bandwagon now, not with it all gassed up and polished and pointed toward Oakland, where the Ravens and their punishing defense and absolutely no offense take on the Raiders Sunday for the American Football Conference championship.

So Sher, the 30-year-old Baltimore guy who's been doing talk radio at BAL for four years now, knew enough to let the fans celebrate yesterday.

Red Smith, the great sportwriter, used to say about writing: "It's easy. All you do is open a vein." Maybe there's a correlation with sports talk radio. Maybe, after all the show prep and all the knowledge you bring to the booth, it comes down to this: All you do is open a mike.

"This is a thrill," Sher said, moments before going on the air. "I get more excited doing post-game shows than anything. You get to implement everything you've learned in the business. Where else are the fans at the pinnacle of their passion than after a game?

"The fans are heated up, the phones are heating up and . . . BOOM!"

And so the calls continued to come, through the late afternoon and into early evening.

"Steve on a cell phone."

"Greg, we're going to Festivus Maximus, baby!"

"Tom in Baltimore."

"This is fantastic, Greg! It's about time we started getting some national respect."

After a while, the voices all started blending together, a happy current of white noise and celebration.

On a TV outside the studio, I watched a mini-interview with the mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley. He had watched the game from the ESPN Zone downtown, and now he was holding his little boy and saying "Go Ravens!" and that he'd be out at BWI that evening to welcome the team charter back from Tennessee.

A few minutes later, as I nosed the car down the Jones Falls Expressway and headed back to The Sun , passing honking cars full of Ravens fans, some of them even sober, I heard another caller to Sher's show, Patrick of Reisterstown.

Patrick said he had just watched the Ravens clobber the Titans and he was still savoring the exciting win.

He said he was only 18, so obviously he wasn't around in the glory days of the Colts, when Unitas and Marchetti and Berry were beloved in this city and Memorial Stadium was known as the World's Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum.

"But this must have been what it was like," Patrick said softly. "The passion, the excitement. This is really, really awesome, to see this city bond around this team."

It was awesome.

Sixty minutes from the Super Bowl. Who would have called that one?

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