Both with winning seasons, Ravens and Orioles offer rare celebration for city fans

February 09, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

When the Ravens rolled to their second Super Bowl victory, fending off the San Francisco 49ers in the final seconds of the game, the storylines that defined an improbable season all found happy endings.

Ray Lewis carried the Lombardi Trophy into the sunset of his long career. Coach John Harbaugh beat his brash little brother Jim. Quarterback and MVP Joe Flacco eliminated any remaining doubts about his big-game talents, and a team whose first owner, Art Modell, died in September won with his memorial patch on their uniforms.

As fans continue to celebrate, and the Orioles prepare for the start of spring training on Tuesday, another storyline is worth noting: Baltimore has taken on a winning aura it hasn't enjoyed in decades.

The Orioles defied the odds last season, seizing a playoff spot after a decade and a half of losing, and revived the city's love of baseball. It marked the first time in 42 years that Baltimore has had more than one pro team in the playoffs — a streak that dates all the way back to the days of Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson. Add that to Michael Phelps' six-medal performance in London, securing his status as the greatest Olympian ever, and Loyola University Maryland's NCAA Division I lacrosse championship.

The success of the Orioles and Ravens alone has left fans rubbing their eyes.

"I can't even describe it — it's such an amazing feeling," said Antoine Pollard, 30, of Reisterstown, a lifelong baseball and football fan. "The O's had been so mediocre for so long. The Ravens had fallen just short of reaching the pinnacle so many times. To see both break through within a few months — it's crazy. I wouldn't trade this for anything in the world."

When a metropolitan area enjoys a dominant streak in multiple sports, it's usually a region with a top-10 population and teams in three or more major leagues.

Think early-2000s New York, where baseball's Mets and Yankees, football's Giants and hockey's New Jersey Devils all had title runs. Tops in size with more than 19 million people, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the region boasts eight major league teams in baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

Midsized Baltimore ranks 20th in population, right between St. Louis (19) and Denver (21), but its has fewer major league teams than either of those two cities.

"We have two. That makes this year all the more remarkable," said Jim Henneman, longtime sportswriter for the Baltimore News-American, The Evening Sun and other publications.

For some fans, especially younger ones, it might be hard to believe, but playoff powerhouses were once commonplace in Baltimore. Between 1964 and 1980 alone, the roster of icons included John Unitas, Jim Parker, Raymond Berry, John Mackey and Don Shula of the Colts; Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Earl Weaver of the Orioles. And in basketball, before the Bullets left town in 1973, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe and Wes Unseld.

Each of them is a Hall of Famer, and fans took their deeds to heart.

"Things could get pretty crazy [among fans]. They didn't call Memorial Stadium 'the outdoor insane asylum' for nothing," said Rosemary Baldwin of Baltimore, a Colts cheerleader from 1956 through 1969. "We had it so good I'm not sure we realized the kind of history being made."

The O's made the playoffs seven times during that span, the Colts nine times, and the Bullets finished first in their division four times.

Even with such potent franchises, it was rare for more the Colts and Orioles to make the playoffs in the same year. It only happened twice: in the 1970 season, when Weaver's O's won the World Series and Johhny U's Colts took Super Bowl V, and the following year, when the O's lost in the World Series and Colts fell in the second round of the playoffs. (The Bullets also reached the playoffs in those years.)

The local press took to calling Baltimore "Titletown, U.S.A.," downtown parades and block parties were frequent, and few local residents hesitated to crow.

"There's no room in this town for anything but champions," stripper Blaze Starr told the Associated Press at the time. "We have the Orioles, the Colts — and me."

The city never had concurrent playoff teams again — until this past season.

"Lots of times, one club or the other did well," said Ted Patterson, author of four books on Baltimore sports history. "It was just that [playoff] teams coincided so rarely. It's something to cherish."

In more recent years, as the teams moved into new stadiums downtown, overlapping success was rare. Anchored by Cal Ripken Jr., the 1996 and 1997 Orioles made the postseason as the Ravens struggled with birth pains. The Ravens won the 2001 Super Bowl and made the playoffs nine times as the O's stumbled through 14 straight losing seasons.

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