There's no place like Westminster, but Ravens come close

August 19, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

The Ravens wrapped up their final open practice of training camp Sunday and it was the PR equivalent of an 80-yard scoring strike from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith.

The weather was football-cool and damp. (Seventy-five degrees in August? Which Raven sold his soul for that one?) The fans at Stevenson University were engaged and boisterous. The players and coaches seemed energized after that dreary scrum with the Detroit Lions on Friday night that felt like it would never end.

This was the Ravens' third open practice. And by any measure you use, all three have to be considered a big hit.

The first drew 20,000-plus to M&T Bank Stadium on a July night with a cheery weather forecast that called for everything from thunder and lightning to hail the size of softballs.

The second drew 21,000 to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, when the Ravens wondered if anyone would show because Kenny Chesney was playing not far away at FedEx Field.

For this last practice, 30,000 fans applied for the 3,000 tickets available for Stevenson's Mustang Stadium. And 2,800 fans showed up, even with light rain splattering car windshields an hour beforehand.

The point is, each time the Ravens threw open the doors this summer, the fans turned out in droves. It was this great bonding between a football team and its fan base. And maybe what these practices did most of all was ease the bruised feelings a lot of fans have for the way the Ravens ditched their old training site at McDaniel College.

No, the open practices this year weren't as intimate as the ones at Westminster, where the Ravens trained for 15 years and where hundreds of cars snaked long Rte. 140 each morning on a pilgrimmage to a football Woodstock.

Not as many fans could watch these open practices, for one thing. And these practices didn't turbo-charge local businesses as they did in Westminster, where they still mourn all the revenue lost because of the Ravens' move.

"From a fan's perspective, this does not duplicate" McDaniel, team president Dick Cass said. "McDaniel was a situation where the fans could get up-close and personal every day of the week. And there was an informality to it that was much appreciated by the fans. So it's not the same."

But when they left Westminster, the Ravens knew it was important not to isolate themselves out at their swanky digs at the Under Armour Performance Center.

They needed to reach out to their fans and keep the connection strong during training camp. And if you were out at Stevenson on Sunday, you saw how much life the fans can breathe into this team as it gets ready for a new season.

"We've gotten a lot out of the practices we've taken off-campus, so to speak," John Harbaugh said. "You get the fans out here, it puts a little pressure on the guys to perform.

"It's a little bit game-like. It's still practice, but it kind of gives you that feel. So it's been good for us."

Give Steve Bisciotti most of the credit for these open practices.

It was the Ravens' owner who seemed absolutely stricken in the spring of last year when Cass proposed moving training camp from McDaniel to The Castle.

After the lockout ended, Cass became convinced it was better for the team to train at Owings Mills. The facilities were superior. It was easier for the coaches and players to do their jobs. Easier for the IT and video people, too, and easier on all the support staff.

One day at lunch with Bisciotti and Kevin Byrne, the team's PR guru, Cass asked the Ravens' owner if he'd consider such a move.

Bisciotti looked as if he'd just been whacked with a broomstick.

"He was really concerned about Westminster and the economy up there," Byrne recalled. And Bisciotti spoke glowingly of his own trips as a boy to what was then Western Maryland College to watch the Colts train each summer.

When general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh joined the table, the Ravens owner asked each man for his thoughts. Newsome agreed with Cass: the Ravens should move. Harbaugh said he'd be fine with the team training at either place.

Bisciotti doesn't rush into decisions. It's a big reason why he's gotten so far in life. He knew a lot of fans would be devastated if the Ravens left McDaniel. So he asked for a couple of weeks to think it over.

When he finally signed off on training camp at The Castle, it was with the provision that the Ravens find some way to make it up to the fans with open practices.

And if the scene at Stevenson and Navy-Marine Corps Stadium and the Bank this summer is any indication, Ravens fans have appreciated Bisciotti's efforts.

"I haven't heard as many complaints as we did last spring," Cass said as Mustang Stadium slowly emptied. "But that doesn't mean [the fans] are over it. They have a long memory, as they should.

"I think the fans appreciate tradition and rituals, and we took one away that was very important to them. So it'll take a while for the fans to get over this. We understand that."

But days like Sunday go a long way to help.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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