In this Charm City fantasy, late September means football and baseball

Could a pennant race someday cloud the thoughts of Baltimore sports fans on Ravens opening day?

September 25, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

Try to imagine it: a Sunday afternoon in late September, and not one so far away that it feels like a fantasy. Another sweltering Baltimore summer has dissipated, and in the cool autumn breeze you can smell fresh grass and meat on the grill.

You're full of nervous energy because, as is the case today back in real life, it's the day of the Ravens home opener at M&T Bank Stadium. Maybe you're even heading to the stadium, ready to tailgate. But something is distracting you. It's stirring up old feelings, emotions so dormant you almost forgot you once had them.

The Orioles are fighting for a playoff spot.

Picture it: Camden Yards packed, even on weeknights. Vibrant fans donning orange and black and outnumbering Yankee fans after Labor Day. Road games are can't-miss television. Talk radio is filled with chatter about setting up the post-season pitching rotation instead of debating back-up quarterbacks.

A Charm City fantasy? Maybe.

But the Orioles' late-season stretch of stellar baseball has been such a welcome surprise that it has allowed fans to fantasize about a scenario that hasn't occurred in more than three decades.

A good Major League Baseball team and a good NFL team? In Baltimore? There are thousands of fans eager — OK, some are desperate — to see it happen.

As one season folds into the other, it seems like an appropriate time to think about how we got here. To a place where football is the undisputed king of basements, living rooms and bars, and baseball is an afterthought. There is a generation of young fans now with no understanding of what it feels like to experience baseball in October, who must feel like baseball is just a way to pass the time until the Ravens begin training camp. There is no denying the city's heart now belongs to football. But surely Baltimore can have both, right?

"I feel like [Camden Yards] right now is like a dry sponge," said Bryan Sullivan, a local chef who nursed a beer and watched the Orioles on television recently at Sliders Bar and Grille, one of the few bars downtown that still bills itself as an Orioles hangout. "The Ravens are soaking up everyone. If we could get the Orioles back up to where they're over .500 consistently, it would be amazing for our city."

Sullivan said he believes he represents a lot of Baltimore sports fans. His love of the Ravens is on permanent display. He has a tattoo of Homer Simpson wearing a Ray Lewis jersey on his right shoulder, and one of Bart Simpson in a Jamal Lewis jersey on his left shoulder. He tailgates at every home game, and has missed only a handful of them in the last five years. He helped organize a Ravens Roost at Sliders Bar and Grille. His love of the Orioles, though strong, simmers below the surface. His basement, he says, is a mini-shrine to the Orioles and Ravens, but he has more Orioles memorabilia. He has a dog named Boog. One of his most prized possessions is a chef coat signed by Cal Ripken Jr.

"I believe the rebuilding is finally happening, and the team is finally blossoming," Sullivan said. "I feel like next year, the Orioles and Ravens are going to have to have a discussion about what games are when, because people are finally going to want to go to both. I would love to see them do a deal where they had a football game during the day, and then a Sunday night baseball game where people could tailgate all day."

Sullivan's optimism has some fuel behind it. The Orioles' record this season since manager Buck Showalter took over the team has stirred hope that the franchise might finally be building a foundation to allow them to compete in the American League East the next few seasons.

Even if the Orioles aren't quite ready to make the playoffs in 2011, just playing meaningful games in August and September would be a welcome change after 13 straight losing seasons.

"It's definitely a football town now," said Bob Haynie, who has been hosting a sports talk radio show in town for more than 10 years. "I think the fans realize that even if the Ravens are having a down year, they'll make the necessary improvements in the off-season to contend. Whereas the Orioles, unless they decide to spend a bunch of money out of nowhere and get some big-time players, they're not going to compete in the American League East."

It didn't used to be this way.

When owner Art Modell relocated the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996 and rechristened them the Ravens, the Orioles were still the toast of the town. Baltimore was still very much a baseball city, with a sports landscape dominated by baseball chatter. While the Ravens struggled to find their footing early on, going 16-31-1 over their first three seasons, the Orioles were posting back-to-back playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997. Their home-grown shortstop, Ripken, was considered one of the most beloved players in baseball.

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