It is a testament to the popularity of football in Baltimore that the Ravens — on any given Saturday morning in August — could open M&T Bank Stadium for three hours of training camp drills and draw nearly 25,000 fans.
Okay, so there were a couple of other factors. Saturday's open house was this year's only chance for fans to attend training camp, which pumped up attendance by about 7,000 over last year's public workout. You could also make the case that the lockout that threatened to delay or wipe out the 2011 season intensified their hunger for football.
Whatever the reason, it was a win-win for the Ravens organization and the fans, many of whom stuck around after the lengthy workout to collect autographs and exchange pleasantries with their favorite players.
"It was cool,'' quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's always cool to be in front of these guys, especially when you only do it one time throughout camp because we're not in Westminster. It was a lot of fun. They seemed really enthused about the upcoming year, and they should be."
There was some question before the workout whether it would be practical to hold a mass autograph session around the perimeter of the field. The Ravens held out the possibility of cancelling it if the crowd was too large to be manageable, but the long workout and muggy weather took care of that. About half the fans had cleared out by the end of the final drill.
The Ravens did everything they could to spice up an otherwise perfunctory practice session. Play-by-play man Jerry Sandusky conducted interviews and analyzed the action on the giant RavensVision videoboards with the help of fellow broadcasters Stan White and Qadry Ismail, while WBAL-TV's Jennifer Franciotti worked the stands.
The in-progress sideline interviews and scoreboard review of close plays created a rare interaction between the public relations wing of the team and head coach John Harbaugh's normally buttoned-down practice regimen, and everyone seemed pleased with the result.
"It was a lot of fun,'' Harbaugh said. "It was a great environment. Over 24,000 fans … they were loud and they were excited. Guys were excited. It's one of the better things we do as an organization."
Though the public workout clearly served as a post-lockout olive branch to the Ravens faithful, Harbaugh didn't just send the players through the motions. Since he had to put up with the entertainment-related intrusions into his practice routine, he tried to use them to the team's advantage.
"We had a lot of distractions by design,'' Harbaugh said. "It wasn't just for the fans to have the interviews and the music and all that. It was also a great distraction for our players to overcome the noise level. I thought at times we handled it OK, and at times we didn't. That's part of the process in getting ready to play a game. Hopefully that will help us."
The fans arrived early, most of them decked out in Ravens gear, and a surprising number of them wearing the jerseys of well-known Ravens who are no longer with the team. Frank Short of Brooklyn Park sported a new-looking No. 86, and not just because he spent all that money on the expensive Todd Heap jersey with the numbers sewn on.
"I've got lots of jerseys,'' Short said. "The reason why I'm wearing it is, 10 years is a long time for a tight end to stay on one team. It's to honor him. I'll also be wearing it to the opening game."
It was definitely a family affair, with the Ravens mascot roaming the concourses and plenty of attractions running for young children in the Ravens Rookie Kids Area. Jenny and Jared Reef of Timonium decided on the spur of the moment to gather up their kids and head to M&T first thing Saturday morning.
"It was just a nice thing where my husband can indulge his Ravens addiction,'' Jenny Reef said, "and I can bring the kids here in a family friendly environment."
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal com.