Baltimore bird-watching has rarely been more fun - or more awful. The differences between ravens and orioles have become increasingly apparent: While one species is threatened, the other is threatening, particularly to the health of opposing quarterbacks.
With one week left in Major League Baseball's regular season (Baltimore fans may have forgotten, but October brings something called the "playoffs"), the Orioles appear destined for a 100-loss season and perhaps their worst finish in two decades.
The plight of a baseball fan in Baltimore is not unlike that of the beltway motorist who pauses to watch the aftermath of some dreadful collision. The chief difference is that Orioles ticket-holders and cable television subscribers paid to see the unhappy spectacle.
Last weekend's sweep by the Cleveland Indians, a team for whom winning is usually a rarity on par with affordable health insurance and ethical Wall Street financiers, may have produced the most exquisite pain to date. One hesitates to call it a "new low" chiefly because such lows are nothing new: A Google search of the terms "new low" and "Baltimore Orioles" produces 257,000 hits, which is only slightly more than the team's starting pitchers have surrendered to opposing players.
What makes the experience truly bizarre, however, is that the Ravens are simultaneously dominating opponents as badly as the Orioles are being humiliated. Some sportswriters have ventured so far as to rank them at the top of the National Football League, an honor that carries no weight but is a comfort to local sports fans just the same.
On the same day Cleveland's baseball team was pounding the Orioles, its football team was getting stuffed by Baltimore's. On Sunday, the Ravens beat the Browns 34-3 to remain one of only seven undefeated NFL teams, with one of the league's most talented franchises (particularly with a video camera), the New England Patriots, next up in the pounding order.
The dichotomy is not unlike winning the lottery while getting your home repossessed. Is Baltimore the envy of the sports nation or the laughingstock? Clearly not the latter, as the Washington Redskins' loss to the Detroit Lions, the team that went 0-for-2008, combined with the worst-in-baseball record of the Washington Nationals gives the nation's capital undisputed claim to that title.
The Ravens season has just begun, but if they continue to be successful, credit must be given not only to the players, coaches and owner but to an NFL establishment that embraced revenue sharing and a salary cap. Football teams compete on a fairly even playing field as a result.
With a long-standing antitrust exemption to hide behind, baseball owners are unlikely to pursue the same strategy, as it would mean ruffling too many feathers in their big-market nests. That makes it tough for small- and medium-market franchises like the Orioles to soar. Some exceptional teams no doubt will (the Detroit Tigers being this year's example), but the payroll differential makes it virtually impossible to do so with big-name free agents.
In the meantime, Baltimoreans can simply be happy that Ravens victories dull the pain of another lost baseball season. The quickest relief for a summer at the bottom of the pecking order is an autumn at the top.