New birds shove O's out of nest

Fans: Feathered creatures of a different hue (purple) have turned the heads of Baltimore's baseball diehards.

January 28, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Consider the Ravens, landing in a town that for years had only one love, the Orioles. The Ravens were a different breed entirely - big, loud and slightly scary compared with the low-key if not downright lackluster Orioles, bad in a town of unrelenting niceness.

But after just five years, the Ravens have stolen the hearts of the seemingly mated-for-life Baltimore fans, whisking them on a whirlwind post-season affair that culminates today in the ultimate out-of-town assignation, the Super Bowl.

O's who?

Can you blame Baltimore for abandoning, at least temporarily, the old bird for the new? For repainting the faded orange town a brazen purple? For just this once, dropping its civic habit of obsessing on past glories to revel in a right-here, right-now moment in time?

"Nature abhors a vacuum," said Stan "The Fan" Charles, host of a sports talk show on WJFK (1300) radio. "When there hasn't been something meaningful to root for at Camden Yards for a couple of years; when you're 20 games out of first place, all the passion gets sucked out to the other team."

The stunning success of the Ravens comes on the heels of several dreary and contentious years for Orioles fans. The once-proud franchise hasn't been in the post-season since 1997 or in the World Series since 1983.

The O's have tested the legendary loyalty of Baltimore fans. These, after all, are fans who carried the torch - not to mention the marching band - of the Baltimore Colts long after they slipped away to Indianapolis. These are fans who bled orange through the 0-and-21 start of the 1988 Orioles season, and bled a little more with each passing year.

But there are limits, even for the stout-hearted Baltimore fan: emotional limits (how many teams can you lose your heart and soul to?), and fiscal ones (can you afford tickets to both Camden Yards and PSINet?).

"We call it `share of mind,'" said Andy Bernstein, marketing editor of Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal. "What people are thinking about, which ultimately drives their spending. If everyone in Baltimore is talking about football and not baseball, then football is winning the share of mind."

Teams that share a city also share a fan base, Bernstein said, and one's success can crowd out another's.

Witness New York City, he said, where you'd never guess the local team is going to the Super Bowl. In contrast with Baltimore, no buildings are lighted up in the Giants' colors, and hardly anyone on the street is sporting a team hat or jacket, Bernstein said.

In fact, he has seen only one banner flying the Giants' name - and it's a temporary store selling team merchandise that is already advertising a half-off sale.

"It's because of the Yankees," Bernstein said. "The Yankees have had so much success, and they've added so many new fans, it takes away from the Giants being in the Super Bowl.

"And I always thought of this as a Giants town, historically," he said. "But now, it's like, `OK, we're in the finals again, so what?'"

Mike Lurz, a one-time season-ticket holder for both the Orioles and the Ravens, is the kind of sports fan who accepts that you ride out the lows with your team to earn the highs.

But after the 1999 season, he'd had it with the Orioles and what he considered a series of bad hirings and firings. He dropped his O's season tickets but kept his Ravens tickets.

"I wasn't real happy with the way the Orioles were being run, and yet the ticket prices kept going up," said Lurz, who lives in Westminster and is president of the Council of Ravens Roosts, a fan club of more than 4,000 members. "It's hard to connect with a team when you never know who's going to be there from year to year. The Ravens gave the fan base some place to go."

Fans such as Lurz can recite the litany of moves that chipped away at their support of the Orioles. Getting rid of the erudite radio announcer Jon Miller in 1996. Pushing out Davey Johnson the day he was named American League manager of the year in 1997. The lost players: Raffy, Robbie, B. J. and, finally, this winter, the ace pitcher who had been an Oriole his entire career, Mike Mussina.

"Especially with [Mussina] going to the Yankees," said Ted Patterson, a former sports broadcaster and author of several books about local baseball and football history. "That could be the coup de grace.

"Certainly the Orioles are taking a back seat to the Ravens now because of what they've done to themselves - the bad moves, the bad public relations," said Patterson, whose most recent book is "Football in Baltimore: History and Memorabilia."

"I think there will be a lot of empty seats [at Camden Yards] this year," he said.

Orioles executive Joe Foss bristles at the suggestion that the Ravens' success will steal fans from the O's.

"Teams go through cycles," said Foss, who is attending the Super Bowl. "Obviously, the attention is focused on the Ravens now, and that's appropriate. But people in Baltimore love both teams."

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