Thursday, February 7, 2013

800 Words: What Winning the Super Bowl Feels Like

The first year I was aware of sports was 1988. It was the year the Orioles lost 107 games. Let’s repeat that number, 107 games. 107 games out of 162. In the Post World War II era, the only teams that have done worse are the 1962 New York Mets and the 2003 Detroit Tigers. And yet by the end of the season I was a baseball fanatic. 107 lost games was, in its way, far easier to endure than eight years later when the Orioles made it to the 1996 League Championship, only for its chances to be deflected by a twelve-year-old named Jeffrey Maier who snatched the ball into the stands. When I was two years old, the Baltimore Colts left Baltimore in the middle of the night, with the barest imaginable warning. We were a town of irredeemable sports losers, and there was no consolation in sight.

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s murder rate soared, as did its drug problem. There were years in which Baltimore assumed the mantle of the murder capital of America, the crack capital, the heroin capital, the venereal disease capital, the teen pregnancy capital, and the child illiteracy capital. The Baltimore which existed ten minutes from my childhood home was a town of despair, and while statistics don’t lie, they also don’t tell the whole truth. Why did this happen to Baltimore at exactly the time when it did? Why not Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Hartford or St. Louis or Kansas City or Oakland or Gary or Minneapolis or Nashville or Memphis or Louisville or Cincinnati or Flint or Camden or Newark or Providence or Detroit or New Orleans or Jacksonville or Birmingham or Jackson or Little Rock or Phoenix or Las Vegas? Was the departure of the Colts and Bullets and the decline of the Orioles unrelated to Baltimore’s larger problems, was it symptomatic, or was it the cause? How many people in Baltimore would not have become addicted to crack or heroin had they a hobby to pursue like following professional sports? How many people in Baltimore would have had better community organization or mentorship that could have been spearheaded by a better sports environment? How many teen boys would have had a better outlet for physical activity than gang violence? How many teen girls would have avoided early pregnancy because the boys were playing and watching more sports?

These are all intangible questions to which answers can never be measured. Very few arguments can be made that a lack of sports is related to the decline of American city that is not counterfactual, yet the speculation remains tantalizingly present. Baltimore is the only city in America that lost two of its three major sports teams and simultaneously saw a heartbreaking decline in the third, and for a small amount of time afterward, it became the Worst City in America. Can the two things be entirely unrelated?

Sports, more than art or politics, is the direct standin for the hopes and fears of our own lives. If the teams we love blow their leads and choke, what hope is there for little people like us? If the teams we love can deliver when required, what is not possible in the quest to make ourselves bigger people? Communities of friends with like-minded political opinions or cultural consumers are very poor replacements for a community of people who love the same sports team. Short of religion and love, there is nothing in people’s DNA more significant than their sport loyalties, and nothing except for religion and love which binds people closer together.  

Baltimore was once a great sports town. Johnny Unitas had his Colts, Wes Unseld had his Bullets, and Brooks Robinson had his Orioles. Baltimore was a town enjoying the fruits of  the mid-century American Pastoral as much as any other, and toward its end, Baltimore perhaps flourished as no other city did.

The Colts-Jets Super Bowl III Immortalized by The Simpsons

In 1953, a Baltimore-based clothing manufacturer named Caroll Rosenbloom won the rights to a new NFL franchise. By 1958, the Baltimore Colts were unquestionably the best team in football and won the NFL championship in both 1958 and ‘59. Many people still consider the ‘58 championship to be the ‘Greatest Game Ever Played’ as it was the very first game to utilize either overtime or sudden death. The 1968 Colts were known as the ‘Greatest Pro-Football Team of All Time” until they were defeated by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III (an upset that would in some ways repeat itself with the 1969 World Series which pitted the 109-win Orioles against the New York Mets). In their Baltimore years, the Colts produced no less than 11 Hall of Fame players and coaches (Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Artie Donovan, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Ted Hendricks, John Mackey, Jim Parker, Joe Perry, Weeb Ewbank, and Don Shula), they appeared in 10 playoffs, won five conference championships, and three NFL championships. Until they began a losing streak in 1978, it was arguable that the Colts were the greatest franchise in the history of football. And yet after Robert Irsay packed up the Colts in the middle of the night and sent them to Indianapolis with barely a moment’s notice and not even so much as an apology. It was an extraction of a city’s heart that put nothing in its place.

In 1954, Bill Veeck moved the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore, and shortly thereafter was forced out as majority owner by his partners, who named Jerry Hoffberger chairman. By 1965, the New York Yankees’ nearly unbroken 45 year reign as the American League’s dominant team was definitively over, for six seasons the Orioles unquestionably took their place and even after the Yankees returned to dominance in the late 70’s, the Orioles remained strong contenders every year from 1966 until what is still their last World Championship in 1983. Brooks Robinson was their archetypal player, but the teams of those years included other national legends like Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, and Eddie Murray, and also local legends like Boog Powell, Paul Blair, Mark Belanger, Davey Johnson, Elrod Hendricks, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor; in the booth we had Chuck “Ain’t the beer cold!” Thompson calling the games, on the bench we had Earl “@#$^#$ @$#^#$%&” Weaver managing. Between 1964 and 1983, the Orioles won seven division championships, six pennants, and three World Series. Their players won four MVP awards (Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and a very young Cal Ripken), six Cy Young Awards (Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone, and three for Jim Palmer), three Rookies of the Year (Al Bumbry, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken), eighteen consecutive winning seasons, and fourteen consecutive seasons with pitchers who won more than twenty games (including four pitchers who won more than 20 in 1971). But by 1979, Washington trial attorney Edward Bennett Williams bought the team from Jerry Hoffberger, who then began a long-held process of using the team as a cash cow. He threatened repeatedly to move the team to Washington as a way to extract more money from the City of Baltimore (particularly for a new stadium), yet he was unwilling to pay the money to keep teams competitive in the era of free agency - a practice which was continued by the next owner, the clearly corrupt Eli Jacobs. When local personal injury lawyer, Peter Angelos, bought the Orioles, he was hailed as the team savior who would restore the Orioles’s former glory. His financial commitment to restoration was unquestionable, but his incompetence was equally so. Angelos believed his judgement to be better than the most proven baseball managers and general managers in the game which he hired at top dollar. By 1999, Angelos was reputed so difficult to work with that no experienced professional would come to Baltimore if they had any chance of a better job.

For a few years, Baltimore even had a wonderful basketball team. In 1963, the Chicago Zephyrs moved to Baltimore and became the Baltimore Bullets, and bn the late 60’s, we were the town of Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld who reached the conference finals twice in five years and appeared in the postseason nearly every year.

But by 1984 that Golden Age of Baltimore Sports was definitively over, and the decline was all too swift. First came heroin, then AIDS, then guns, then crack, and urban flight all throughout. The Baltimore of the postwar era was but a memory, and compared to what Baltimore once was, the Baltimore of the late 80’s and 90’s was an above ground sewer.

This new Baltimore needed Cal Ripken as its idol. During what is perhaps the darkest chapter in Baltimore history, the city needed a symbol that would be there every day for them through the very worst of days and show an iron commitment to charity, to pedagogy, to work-ethic, to loyalty, and to family. Cal was the ‘Last Oriole’ of the Golden Age and a reminder of a better era for a city that needed to hold onto memories with all the care of a family heirloom. The very concept of the ‘Oriole Way’ came from Ripken’s dad, a longtime Orioles coach and minor-league manager. The Oriole Way is the most fundamental blue-collar values transferred to baseball; hard work, professionalism, dependability, and a fanatical focus on the most basic skills. In the mid-20th century, hard work was rewarded. But there was something insultingly tragic about how the ‘Oriole Way’ reached its way into baseball consciousness. In 1987, Cal Ripken Sr. was named manager of the Orioles, a capstone to a thirty-year career spent in service for his team, with his oldest son the star shortstop, and his youngest son about to be called up to become the starting second baseman. Together they made an instructional video for little leaguers to be released in 1988 on how to play baseball the ‘Oriole Way.’ By the seventh game of 1988, Cal Ripken Sr. was fired as manager, and the Orioles would lose 107 games. By the time the Orioles were ready to share their secret with the world, the Oriole Way was a colossal failure.

Cal was there to protect us in all our darkest days, but he couldn’t show us how to win. For that, we needed to wait for the football to return. Though the manner in which football came back was hardly a surprise, there was certainly an irony in robbing Cleveland of their Browns after we’d been robbed so brutally. But football returned to Cleveland in two years, and unlike Bob Irsay, Art Modell apologized for what he’d done. After four undistinguished seasons, there was positively no indication of the spontaneous flowering that would happen in 2000.

The Orioles were a team defined by two things: dependability and mediocrity, and one fed the other. But the Ravens were defined by their volatility. We were the Baltimore of the Ripkens, but we’d become the Baltimore of the Lewises. In the Age of Ripken, the Orioles were sometimes respected, but never feared, and when the steroids scandals happened, they were no longer even respected. But in the Age of Ray Lewis, Baltimore housed the most feared, and perhaps the most hated team in America.

The Ravens were a new team for a new era of Baltimore. Violent crime rates, while not as high as they were, were still high, and test scores were low, but there was a definite sense that the tide had turned. Martin O’Malley brought in the first budget surplus in Baltimore’s recent history and brought new ideas to crime prevention. Rather than dwell in nostalgia for a lost Baltimore, the problems of the city were confronted honestly to the public and aired to an international audience through television shows like The Wire and The Corner. We’d not only gone from the Baltimore of Cal Ripken to the Baltimore of Ray Lewis, we’d also gone from the Baltimore of Barry Levinson to the Baltimore of David Simon.

Even in a sport in which it was once estimated that 1 in 4 professional players are involved in serious crimes, Ravens were notorious for being a violent team of thugs and criminals. You could make something resembling a Pro Bowl all-star team the list of current and former Ravens with arrest records: Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Germane Lewis, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, Steve McNair, Chris McAlister, Gerome Sapp, BJ Sams, Corey Fuller, Leon Searcy (I’m sure I’ve left out a few...).

The Ravens were not only the new Baltimore,  in some ways they were the new urban America - made desperate and hungry by decades of poverty and violence, and determined to improve their lot by any means necessary. The symbol of the new Baltimore was Ray Lewis, and he was as perfectly reflective of what the city needed as Cal Ripken had been fifteen years before. If ‘The Oriole Way’ was perhaps the catchphrase of Ripken’s Orioles, then ‘Protect This House’ was the catchphrase of Ray Lewis’s Ravens. It isn’t even a Ravens’ catchphrase, it’s a slogan from an Under Armour commercial (itself a Baltimore-based company) which hundreds of athletes chanted over the years for the camera, and yet after Ray Lewis used it, it became a Baltimore chant.

Cal’s charisma came from that he seemed to be born a good man and retained his overwhelming decency even through the most adverse of circumstances. No matter how badly the Orioles did, he never lost heart, and showed up ready to play every game as though it were a championship. But Ray’s charisma came from that he seemed to be born anything but a good man, yet strove with all his might to become one. Even if you don’t think Ray Lewis murdered those kids, it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t in some way involved. But like so many in Baltimore, Ray needed a second chance to prove his worth to life. Cal Ripken’s charisma came from his devotion, Ray Lewis’s career came from his redemption. Ray Lewis knew that past events would make him spend his entire career being one of the most hated players in the NFL, but he acted with integrity anyway - mentoring other football players and college students, setting up financial foundations for veterans and the unemployed, and preaching the gospel ad nauseum to every person and camera which he meets. He was as loathed by football fans around America as Cal was beloved by baseball fans, but Ray made us win. Cal didn’t.

The Orioles played a gentile, old fashioned, offence-driven, slow-moving baseball (seriously, we've often been timed as having the longest game of any baseball franchise in America) that got the job done with efficiency and self-effacement. For nearly fifteen years, the Ravens have played an action-packed, vicious, defense-oriented, brutally violent game in which the most health-threatening injuries to other players and to themselves are considered mere collateral damage. Much was made of Bernard Pollard’s industrious ability to put members of the New England Patriots on the Disabled List. But what wasn’t as well known was that at the time when he gave Stephen Ridley a concussion in this year’s AFC championship, he was suffering from six cracked ribs.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that in this era of free agency, the great sports dynasties happen in America’s most thriving metropolises: New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami. Declining industrial cities seem unable to form the same dynasties, occasionally we have champions from Baltimore or Detroit or Cleveland, but they are exceptions which prove the rule. It seems that every time a ‘Rust Belt’ city makes it to a championship, they’re considered the ‘underdogs.’ Their owners don’t have the fiscal ability to compete with more thriving cities, and therefore must make do with better results from less talent. And their fans, from 90 years old to 9 months, suffer a spiritual blow with every defeat which makes them believe a bit more plausibly that their greatest hopes are unattainable. It is a cycle of decline and despair that feeds on itself. In sports, as in life, the more defeated we’ve been, the more opportunities there are to be defeated in the future. There are, unfortunately, winners and losers at life. Gore Vidal got it all too right when he declared “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Life is a contest; we can’t help the truth of that, if it isn’t ‘always’ a contest. With very few exceptions if any, every good thing which happens to you is a bad thing that happens to someone else. Someone else did not get your job, someone else was rejected from the school to which you got accepted, someone else is not dating your girlfriend, and someone else is not the parent to your children.

Some losers are only so in their own mind, but no one is a bigger loser than those who are the victims of society that can’t properly provide for them and no one is quicker to take from others what should be theirs as a fundamental right. A society that cannot keep its people well-fed, employed, well-educated, and community-minded is a society headed for disaster. And an important part of a society’s proper function is for its locales to have excellent sports teams – be they professional, college, amateur, or recreational. Without it, the human need for physical activity becomes misdirected – the thrill of competition turns all too easily into a taste for violence and domination.

But as Baltimore finished its first decade of climbing back from its nadir, a new era is lurking on the horizon. The era of Ray Lewis is over, but the era of Joe Flacco (and perhaps of Buck Showalter) is clearly in ascendance - in which Ripken-and-Unitas like taciturn, bland, dependable men who do nothing except play the game dominate the statistics and the press coverage. The lid of the id was taken off by Ray Lewis in a town that values quiet grit and would never turn to such flash unless it were direly necessary. But Joe Flacco’s own father called him ‘dull.’ Perhaps this is a sign that Baltimore’s old identity is coming back, and Ray Lewis made it possible.

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