cities that love their sports teams too much

soul guide

If ever a city needed a self-help book, it was Baltimore: Towns That Love Sports Teams Too Much, and the Greedy Team Owners Who Use Them. — Laura Lippman, Charm City

I grew up in a town without a football team. The Colts were still in Baltimore for the first few years of my life, but just shy of two weeks after my 4th birthday, Bob Irsay packed the team into Mayflower moving vans and snuck them out of Baltimore in the middle of the night.

I grew up in a town where the baseball team was not a laughing stock. Sure, in 1988, the Orioles opened 0-21, which remains an MLB record, but in 1983, they won a World Series; in 1989, they produced the remarkable ‘Why Not?’ team; in 1996 and 1997 they could have and should have won two more World Series. In 1997, the last full calendar year I resided in Baltimore, Maryland, the Orioles went wire to wire in first place in the American League East. The losing didn’t start until I left.

I spent the last of my teenage years in a town who stole their football team. Just a few years earlier, the city had watched Paul Tagliabue scorn them on national television for an expansion team that was desperately, passionately craved, and then the city did the only thing they knew how to do: they stole someone else’s beloved team, to fill a spot in their hearts that was still empty, and still angry.

For the last fifteen years, I have been sheepish about the Orioles. I have said that you have to dance with the one what brung you; I have joked about how bad they were. I have loved them anyway, but I have been defensive about them, the way you are defensive when you love someone you shouldn’t love. I was unbearably proud of their 2012 season. It was more than I had ever, ever hoped for, honestly; more than I had ever hoped for again, ever, but before this year, they were a laughingstock for a long time, and I let them be that. I loved them deeply, but I did not defend them, not always.

I have never been sheepish or defensive about the Ravens. Never. I freely own that Baltimore stole their team, just like Indianapolis did to us, and there’s no excuse for that stealing, other than we wanted it. We wanted that football team more than Cleveland did, in that moment. There are excuses that get made: they kept their name, their colors, their history; Tagliabue promised them a new team as soon as Modell announced but scorned us for years. Johnny Unitas is not an Indianapolis Colt, and his name should never, ever be mentioned in the same sentence as Peyton Manning’s, except to say that they shouldn’t be mentioned together. But Baltimore is not sheepish about the Ravens, or that we stole them, or that our flagship, our most beloved player: well, yeah, he did try to help cover up a murder. But have you seen him sack Roethlisberger? Even when they have been bad, I have always been proud of the Ravens.

Ray Lewis announced his retirement last week. He has played his entire career with the Ravens. He has played for, he has lead, the Ravens for more than half my life. I cried at my desk when I watched the press conferences, when I watched Ray Rice cry over Ray Lewis retiring. When Ray Lewis was drafted, the city of Baltimore did not know that the Orioles were coming up on a fifteen year drought of winning seasons. But they were, and Ray Lewis started to take the Ravens to the playoffs. Ray Lewis was the heart, the joy, the pride of Baltimore for 17 years. He still is. He always will be.

I grew up in a town without a football team. I never thought that I would get to eventually say that I was from a town with a football team, and one of the greatest middle linebackers ever to play the game. There are three players in the three big leagues that are not currently locked out who all debuted in 1996 and have played their entire careers with a single team: Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant, and Ray Lewis. That’s good company for Kobe and the Captain, you guys.

2012 is the first year that the Ravens and the Orioles have been to the playoffs in their respective leagues in the same year. 2012 is definitely the first year that the Ravens and the Orioles have both won playoff games in the same year. The Orioles are young; the Ravens are, too, in their way. But the Orioles are looking forward, and the Ravens are looking to Ray Lewis.

Yesterday his entrance, his goofy dance and over-the-top theatrics, made me cry. I cried again when John (asdkjhasd, I had the wrong brother here) Harbaugh let him line up in the last offensive play, the kneeldown, because if anyone in Baltimore deserves an on-field ovation with their retirement, deserves a moment to groove for the hometown crowd one last time, it is Ray Lewis. He took a victory lap, too, around the field to connect with the fans; he said he’d watched Cal Ripken do it, to see how you should do it. That’s the summary of Baltimore right there: Ray Lewis watched Cal Ripken’s victory lap, he filed it away, so he would know how to do it right when the time came.

Cal Ripken. Ray Lewis. Two faces that changed Baltimore sports. I grew up in a town without a football team, but the most recognizable face of Baltimore sports will be Ray Lewis, forever. I grew up in a town without a football team, and our star changed the game of inner linebacker.

You can talk about Ray Lewis’s football career without talking about this legal troubles; you shouldn’t, maybe, but you can. And when you do, Ray Lewis had a football career that was unmatched. I cannot speak to what he has done as a human being, but as a football player, as a Raven, he saved the city of Baltimore. He saved the city of Baltimore from another decade of anger, of heartbreak, of fury, of unrestrained frustration and sadness and longing. He gave Baltimore something to root for again.

I grew up in a football town without a football team. I grew up in a football town with a beloved baseball team who didn’t always give us something to root for.

I grew up in a football town who sent off a favored son, #52, Ray Lewis, in exactly the way that he deserved yesterday.

I grew up in a football town.

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