A forgettable year in the life of the Ravens

Football

October 30, 2005|By ANDREW RATNER | ANDREW RATNER,SUN REPORTER

Next Man Up: A Year behind the Lines in Today's NFL

John Feinstein

Little Brown / 502 pages

Baltimore Colts fans liked to say the former Memorial Stadium was "the world's largest outdoor insane asylum." M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens, might best be described then as the asylum let out for Mardi Gras.

Decked out in grape feather boas, masks and beads, the crowd at Ravens games is festive, feisty and profane. Every time an opponent's name is announced, the raucous fans chant that he "sucks."

By the time the star linebacker Ray Lewis emerges from the player tunnel with his signature, herky-jerky voodoo dance, the crowd erupts in a deafening, purple orgy of emotion. Even the most dedicated baseball fan has to acknowledge that the energy fomented by one Ravens home game equals about 82 Orioles home games. Perhaps it's why many people described Baltimore as a football town even during the dark decade after the Colts left and before the Ravens arrived from Cleveland in 1996.

Even the most impassioned, however, is likely to struggle to be riveted by Next Man Up, John Feinstein's meticulous chronicle of a year in the life of the Ravens.

An NPR commentator and author of more than a dozen sports books, Feinstein is among the most probing and insightful sportswriters of the day.

His acclaimed 1986 account of a year spent with the Indiana University basketball team did for the maniacal coach Bobby Knight what ABC's hidden camera did for the meat department of Food Lion. Knight called granting Feinstein a year's access "one of my biggest mistakes."

Next Man Up isn't likely to cause such a fuss. It is nowhere near the real-life version of Playmakers, the ESPN drama about the drug and sex cravings of a fictional football team that horrified the NFL.

In recounting a year in the life of someone or something, it helps to have something worth recounting. It may have been convenient for Feinstein to do interviews within a commute of his home in Potomac, but there wasn't reason for anyone to want to retell the tale of the lackluster 2004 Ravens. (A tell-all about the 2005 Orioles - now that would be worth fly-on-the-wall treatment.)

The author acknowledges that the 2004 season lacked "feeling," even though the jacket cover promises the "near life-or-death drama of professional football as it's never been revealed before."

Of course, the writer can't know how the year is going to turn out when he begins a project like this. Feinstein was stuck with the year he chose and, thus, often was forced to describe paint drying.

The potential market for this book is hard to discern, too. Presumably, the folks who turn the Ravens' stadium parking lots into tailgate performance art on Sundays would provide an audience, although I doubt many care to read about and ponder the personal tribulations of, say, Matt Cavanaugh, the former Ravens assistant coach and play-caller they loved to hate.

It's hard to imagine a national audience would be greatly entertained either. As Coach Brian Billick points out, network executives have rarely viewed the Ravens as a top draw. The national print media also has regarded the team with derision, as evidenced by the nastiest Sports Illustrated cover that ever greeted a new Super Bowl champion: "Baltimore Bullies." (And that was before the recent penalty-laden game that dismayed even die-hard fans.) An early advertisement for the book didn't even mention the team by name.

Such disdain is a difficult turn of events for Baltimoreans. For a long time, the city's sporting heroes - Johnny Unitas, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Wes Unseld, Cal Ripken Jr. - were the epitome of quiet, humble warriors for fans far beyond Maryland. Baltimore reveled not just in the success of its teams but in the way its heroes represented the city.

Role models seem harder to come by now. Yet - and perhaps this is why Feinstein approaches his sports books as he does - the author's cerebral treatment of the Ravens made me wonder whether players and head coaches today are all that different from their predecessors so admired long ago.

Yes, of course they have many more zeroes in their bank accounts, but even more transforming than the money is the media environment that surrounds them. Around-the-clock cable TV highlights, talk-radio blather and fan blogs create an unrelenting focus. It's a 24/7 smorgasbord where sports fans eat and eat and eat, but taste nothing. It's fitting that the Ravens arranged for two top comic-book artists to sketch the players for the game program covers this season, because comic-book characters are what the athletes have become.

Perhaps that is the saving grace of Next Man Up, its parts being greater than the sum. In spite of all the coverage the Ravens receive in this newspaper and in many other media, Feinstein was able to reveal deep insights about the egos, relationships and personalities on the Ravens. His narrative, for example, about the initial meeting between the new, youthful owner, Stephen Bisciotti, and the intelligent but indefatigably arrogant coach Billick is jaw-dropping.

The author might have picked the wrong team, at least for many outside Baltimore, and he certainly picked the wrong year. But at least he managed to turn a surgical lamp on players and coaches who are often only viewed in the floodlights of a stadium.

andrew.ratner@baltsun.com

Andrew Ratner is deputy business editor of The Sun.

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