Go ahead -- live in the glory of city's sports past

January 09, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Everyone who moves here eventually hears the same refrain. I bet even the passengers on the Ark and the Dove, the first English settlers in what would become Maryland, heard it when they disembarked on the shores of the Chesapeake in 1634:

"It used to be better."

What is "it?" Well, just about everything - from the city when William Donald Schaefer was mayor to the Wellesley fudge cake that Hutzler's used to sell - that once was and no longer is.

You quickly get used to this defining quality of life in these parts - this terminally nostalgic, hopeless devotion to the way things used to be. Yoknapatawpha County may have been where the past isn't even past, but even Faulkner's invention has nothing on us when it comes to not just looking backward but living there.

FOR THE RECORD - A column by Jean Marbella in the Maryland section yesterday incorrectly stated the years when Cal Ripken Jr. was named American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. The correct years are 1982 and 1983, respectively. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

It's an endearing, even charming characteristic, except when it's obsessive and slightly creepy. But most of all, it's just the way it is, afflicting every aspect of life here but finding its fullest flower, its grandest manifestation, when it comes to sports.

So I say to Baltimore: Knock yourself out this week, just go to town. Put on those rose-colored glasses, adjust your personal rearview mirror - the one that says, "Objects in the past are closer than they seem." Unearth your dusty programs and faded ticket stubs and know that you'll be forgiven if you find yourself breaking into song: MEMMMRIES light the corners of my miiiiind. Misty water-colored MEMMMRIES ...

This may be the one week when living in the glory that once was Baltimore is actually justified.

Today - and I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb here - Cal Ripken's phone will ring, and it will be destiny calling, or at least someone informing him that he's been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Suddenly, it will be 1995 again, that starry, starry night when flashbulbs in the stands illuminated Cal's every move, when the 2,131 sign unfurled from the Warehouse, when a life- and team-long Baltimorean made the leap into baseball immortality. Or it will be 1983, when Cal dazzled as Rookie of the Year, or 1984, the MVP year, or any of those other magical seasons to which Cal is our living link.

We can ride that baby for a day or two, but then give it a rest until July, when Cal is inducted into Cooperstown.

Because, after all, we have to return our full attention to the coming weekend and the return of the prodigal Colts.

Has any city ever gotten such an opportunity for payback? In a single game, all sorts of demons can be exorcised, wrongs righted and honor avenged. Closure? It's become a cliche to say there's no such thing as closure, but this Saturday may provide just that.

I wasn't here for the Great Escape by Mayflower, nor were many current Ravens fans or, for that matter, probably any players on either team. But it doesn't matter. You can be post-Colts and post-'83 Orioles and still get drawn into this week's vortex.

When you live in a city, when you really sink your roots into it, you live not just in its present but in its collective past. You breathe the same air, inhabit the same space as Baltimoreans before and after you, just at a different point in time. You live with ghosts.

One of the delights of sports is that connection, not just with the current team, but previous and future ones. Even now, when rosters are ever in flux, and the Ripkens and Brooks Robinsons and Johnny Unitases and Lenny Moores who play all or most of their careers on a single team are increasingly rare, they seem even more precious.

So this week, we all get a pass. We get to wear our hearts on our sleeves and indulge our tendency to let history haunt us. It'll be bittersweet at times - Cal's shining achievements stand in contrast to the team's years-long fade, and cheering against the blue horseshoe still seems slightly blasphemous.

And yet, this week presents us with a wonderful bit of civic symmetry. It seems right that Cal and the Colts return to the forefront in the same week. After all, as the Colts were breaking a city's heart by leaving town, homegrown Cal was emerging and coming into his own. Then, as the Orioles began to lose their luster, the Ravens came along.

It's only the second week into a new year, but 2007 could be one of those years that future Baltimoreans obsess about and relive to the amusement of newcomers.


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