Poly's illuminated field puts Ravens in spotlight, leaves Orioles in dark

October 19, 2006|By DAVIS STEELE

After six weekends of high school football under the lights and on state-of-the-art turf, the new field at Poly is a rousing success.

The Ravens, who spearheaded the $1.25 million project -- and dug down for new uniforms and helmets last season -- have even more of a golden image around the city because of it, more for that than even for their 4-2 start.

And, by comparison, the poor, losing, increasingly abandoned Orioles look even worse.

It can't be put more plainly than Roger Wrenn, Poly's football coach and a longtime baseball coach in the city, puts it: "In all these years, the Orioles have never done a thing for us. Not that I know of.

"But I shouldn't disparage the Orioles. I really want to point out the wonderful things the Ravens have done."

Wrenn is far from the only person connected with the city schools willing to gush about the Ravens, while straining to speak kindly about the Orioles. The new Poly field all but mocks the local baseball franchise, because high school football was as broke as baseball has been at Baltimore public schools. Not anymore, though.

"It's so good having all these people out supporting these kids," said city schools athletic director Bob Wade. "Not just parents and students, but the local politicians are coming out, too, supporting their old schools. And on Saturdays, the youth leagues teams come to the field after their games, with their parents. It's a great way for kids to envision themselves a few years from now playing on the same field."

As he is every weekend, Wade was at Lumsden-Scott Stadium on Oct. 6 as Southside Academy, making its second appearance on the field but its first at night, handed the first loss of the season to Walbrook, playing there for the first time.

It was the coldest, wettest night of the season up to that point, and the stands weren't packed as they had been several times already. But the crowd was raucous, festive and well-behaved throughout Southside's taut 6-0 overtime win.

"It makes a big difference," Southside senior quarterback Kevin Bowie said, then pointed to the well-drained field and compared it with the one at his school. "From the 30 to the other 30, it's mud everywhere. I love this turf. I love the atmosphere, I love the crowd, I love playing under the lights."

What else do the kids love? "Being able to go down into the Jonathan Ogden locker room and the Ray Lewis locker room," Wade said of the refurbished areas named after the two Ravens favorites.

That was the environment the Ravens, led by team president Dick Cass, hoped to create with their contributions -- "to make Friday night football big again, as big as it is everywhere else in the country," Cass said earlier this season.

Fair or not, their fault or not, it all makes the Orioles look bad.

There's little doubt that the Orioles' reputation in the city is worsening just based on the nine-year stretch of losing seasons and the growing disenchantment with Peter Angelos. That could very well be eclipsing the good things the Orioles do in the community, such as their support of Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program, and clinics and appearances by players such as Brian Roberts and LaTroy Hawkins.

"Unfortunately, sometimes it does come down to wins and losses and other issues," said Kristen Schultz, the Orioles' director of community programs.

The Orioles have rebuilt fields before -- one can still make out a faint logo on a sign next to an overgrown field at Hilton Parkway and Edmondson Avenue -- but red tape entangling them and the city kept them from being maintained, and it has been a while since they have tried.

"It does present major challenges," Schultz said. "We're always looking for more ways to do that."

The Ravens, however, found a way.

Others connected to the Orioles have been generous. City officials still praise Cal and Bill Ripken's foundation for giving equipment and resources to high school baseball programs last year. But Wade echoes Wrenn's recollections on the Orioles: "Not to my knowledge ... nothing to the magnitude of what the Ravens have done."

Men like Wade and Wrenn deal constantly with high school athletes and the obstacles they face. To think they would make those comparisons if they weren't true is unfathomable -- if the Orioles were indeed pumping money and support into baseball facilities, even just one, the way the Ravens did at Poly.

Those who do reach out from the Orioles may be paying a public-relations price for the owner alienating Baltimore fans at an Irsay-esque rate.

Whatever the reason, the Ravens have the heart of the city in their hands, and the Orioles are left with their palms out.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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