Ravens give fans a happy ending to 2006

Commentary

December 31, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

How to describe the local year in sports? If it had been a TV show, you would have turned it off early. If it had been a movie, you would have gotten up in the dark and left.

And you would have regretted it.

A premature departure would have caused you to miss the fabulous finale that came out of nowhere with trumpets blaring - the still-in-progress ending so rousing it seems to have come from a Sousa march.

Yes, 2006 was bad for a long time. Ishtar bad. "Honey, what is that smell in the trash?" bad.

But the year ultimately served as proof that breaks and luck and all those things do even out.

This was a year that patience was, indeed, the virtue to possess.

The Ravens conclude their regular season today with a division title and 12 wins already pocketed, a trip to the playoffs looming and the city increasingly buzzing as it did when the team was rolling toward the Super Bowl six years ago.

There's no telling how the story will end, but it has already been a season to remember, a great ride no one saw coming, the ultimate holiday gift - a dose of success that, let's face it, was increasingly overdue for local sports fans.

The Orioles didn't help one bit in 2006. They foisted their ninth straight losing season on their frustrated public. Some fans staged a walkout at a late-season game. Enough said.

Sadly, the once-proud Orioles are now like a book people are putting down until something drastic shakes up the narrative - like, say, a change in ownership.

The men's basketball Terps (the city's third-most popular sports institution behind the Ravens and Orioles) also struggled in 2006, failing to make the NCAA tournament for the second straight year after 11 invitations in a row.

In a sense (and admittedly twisting the math to make the point), local fans had endured 13 straight disappointing seasons between the Terps' two clunkers, the Orioles' nine and the Ravens' failure to make the playoffs in either 2004 or 2005.

The local karma was so bad for much of 2006 that it seeped into other areas on the sports landscape. The Preakness turned nightmarish when Barbaro's right hind ankle shattered in 27 places. Rightly or not, the entire college lacrosse season was overshadowed by a rape scandal. None of the area's other Division I men's basketball teams made the Big Dance.

Every day wasn't tragic or crummy. There were occasional triumphs. Maryland's women's basketball team won a national title in April, beating Duke in the championship game. And of course, there was, well, surely there was another triumph somewhere. It'll come to me in a minute.

Local sports fans were reduced to getting their thrills by rooting for hated rivals such as the Yankees, Redskins and Duke to lose in the playoffs - a pathetic state of affairs. And even that proved unsatisfying when the Pittsburgh Steelers rolled to a Super Bowl victory in February.

Things were bad. And no one, not even the Ravens themselves, expected a drastic change when the NFL season opened in September. The Ravens had gone 6-10 the season before.

But the local karma changed momentously as the ball spun through the air on the opening kickoff of that first Ravens game in Tampa, Fla. Suddenly, things were good. Very good.

Any fans who left early, fed up with being disappointed, missed a satisfying payback.

The Ravens beat the Buccaneers in Tampa, 27-0. Then they won their home opener over the Oakland Raiders, 28-6. A better season clearly was in the offing. The Ravens kept winning and ran away with the AFC North title when the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals faltered.

The last months of 2006 have been marked by roaring crowds, timely plays and enough glorious moments to satisfy anyone. Completing their first season sweep of the Steelers with a 31-7 road victory on Christmas Eve was just one.

As it did earlier in the year, the vibe has extended to other teams - this time positively. The football Terps rebounded from consecutive losing seasons to earn their first bowl bid since the 2003 season, beating Purdue on Friday night. Navy's football team also went bowling again, but lost to Boston College yesterday.

Meanwhile, the men's basketball Terps seem to be improved enough to make them likely qualifiers for the 2007 NCAA tournament. The women's team is the nation's best, now looking for back-to-back titles.

The Orioles haven't made enough changes in the offseason to dissuade anyone from believing that a 10th straight losing season looms, but they did spend a lot of money to bolster their bullpen, so at least they'll hold more leads. Whatever.

But baseball season isn't on many minds around here. All eyes are on the Ravens, whose 2006 accomplishments include saving a year that had gone bad, and in the end, making it pretty darn good.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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