Baltimore's bitter past makes Super Bowl victory sweeter

January 30, 2001|By Michael Olesker

THE RAVENS OF Bawlamer take their victory lap to City Hall today to bask in a community's love. And maybe they can understand the fullness of this moment and maybe they won't: We're a town celebrating not only a Super Bowl victory in front of the whole world, but a triumph over our own past.

Take that, Indianapolis.

Roll over, Robert Irsay, and tell Jack Kent Cooke the big news.

The city of Baltimore - the city left for dead 17 winters ago, the municipal widow left grieving for a treasured football team that once seemed like a blood relation, the ignored and embarrassed city left to wonder why no other mourners seemed to be gathering at the grave site - has discovered love can be glorious the second time around.

Take that, Paul Tagliabue. In gratitude for past considerations, we give to you a Ray Lewis forearm shiver.

Take that, all of you who found sympathy for poor Cleveland but shrugged off the crime that was done to Baltimore when the NFL let Indianapolis take away our team, let it take away our name and turned away every plea that we made for a replacement.

We're a community with a 17-year-old chip on our shoulder; somebody just took it away, and we're astonished by the lightness that we feel.

We're a community gathering now in the taverns of Fells Point and Federal Hill and Canton, and the club basements of Woodlawn and Highlandtown and Timonium, and stopping traffic outside The Barn on Harford Road and decorating Westminster's Main Street in purple, not only because of Baltimore 34, New York, 7 - but the end of a generation of disappointment and ridicule, and years of groveling before heartless corporate suits, and finally accepting a football team against our own best instincts as a gesture of both love and revenge.

And the moments that are happening now - the pluck of a quarterback named Dilfer, the iron will of Ray Lewis, the heart of Jermaine Lewis - will be passed down to children and grandchildren the way wondrous tales of Unitas and Spats and Artie were carried into this generation.

As they parade through downtown this morning, the Ravens won't fully understand this. They are young men on a giddy toot. They are kids whose sense of ancient history is the month before last. Ray Lewis, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, was 9 years old the night the Mayflower moving vans pulled away. Duane Starks, who returned an interception for a touchdown, was 10. Jermaine Lewis, who ran a kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown that crushed any hope of a New York Giants comeback, was 10.

These are foreign names to them. They never heard of Irsay or Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut. They never thought about a time when ballplayers settled into a single city and stayed there across their playing years and created a thing that felt like it belonged to a place.

Theirs is a gypsy existence now. But somebody should tell these Ravens, before this moment ends, that we cheer for more than a football game. They captured not only a championship but a rejuvenation, and a sense of redemption. The town had once been left for dead. Yesterday's team, the NFL tried to tell us. Buy yourself a new museum, said the league commissioner.

We were left to lavish all our untapped affection on the baseball team that had always seemed a civic afterthought in the years of the Colts. When football season rolled around, we learned to discover other Sunday pleasures. To turn on the TV was to risk seeing Indianapolis fans calling their team "our Colts," to risk witnessing the whiskey leer of Irsay, to catch ourselves jeering the uniform that had once held our hearts.

Our football team gone, our spirit shot, the pilfering of the Colts seemed part of a depressing pattern to a city never exactly full of self-confidence.

Our population was diminishing, but our crime growing. The drug traffickers controlled the street corners and the kids in the schools computed math by kilo. We studied homicide stats the way we once studied rushing stats and yards per catch. When the baseball seasons ended, and the tourists vacated Harborplace, the city seemed to close down until the next April.

When they listen to the cheering crowds today, the ballplayers should understand: This is the town that helped create the modern pro football game, and it seemed to count for nothing. It wasn't just Ameche bulling over the line in the Yankee Stadium shadows that winter of '58, either. It was 35,000 people at the airport that night; it was game after sellout game in a time when many cities were still yawning over the pros; it was a city adopting the Colts with the intimacy some towns hold for college teams.

The Colts were our kids, our big brothers, the blithe spirit buried in our dull workday world.

When they were taken away, it left a terrible void. And when the rest of the country didn't seem to care, and didn't seem to notice the humiliation in our begging for some replacement team, and didn't seem to understand that such a thing could happen to them, it added to our pain.

And it makes victory all the sweeter now.

The kid Ravens probably don't understand any of this, so somebody should tell them.

This isn't about a football game, it's about redemption, about getting off the mat with a black eye and beating the bully at his own game. It's about a community learning to love a football team, and learning to feel just wonderful about itself.

Take that, Bawlamer.

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