I can't remember the exact circumstances now, but once, around the time the Baltimore Ravens first pulled into town in 1996, giving Maryland its own NFL team for the first time since that rat Bob Irsay packed up the Colts and moved them to Indianapolis 13 years earlier, my father, a serious baseball and football fan, said, "Dewey, it doesn't matter how well the Orioles are playing; this is a football town."
If my memory isn't failing and it was 1996 when he spoke those words to me, the Orioles would have been in the playoffs for the first time since 1983, the year they won their last World Series, the same year the Colts moved away forever. Fast forward 16 years, and yours truly is standing in line at a liquor store in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden. I have a 12-pack of beer in my hand, and the guy standing behind me, an older gentleman who was wearing grease-stained Dickies and a Carhartt mesh cap, and smelled like he'd had a couple pops directly after he clocked out of work, asked me, "you gonna drink all of those tonight, buster?"
"It depends on how the Orioles do tonight," I said, as at that point Baltimore was five games behind the first-place Yankees in the A.L. East, and hanging tough with Tampa in the wild card race (since then, the O's have cut New York's lead to 3.5 games, and through Wednesday's loss to Chicago are still in wild card contention, though Tampa is just a half game back).
"Oh yeah, them O's are doing pretty good this year," the old guy behind me said. "But, did you watch the Ravens run all over Jacksonville last night?"
"Yeah, I watched that game," I said. Before I could get anything else out, a cashier called me over and our conversation ended there, though I wanted to say, "the Orioles are in the playoff hunt for the first time in 15 years! Everyone said this was 2005 Part II, and that they'd collapse in the second half, and they haven't! The Orioles are playing great, and you want to ask me about a stupid pre-season NFL game? What is wrong with you?"
It turns out, my dad was exactly right. The Orioles are playing the best baseball they have since I was in high school, somehow winning with a musical chairs pitching rotation and one of the best bullpens in the league, and they can't draw a sell-out crowd to a home game. Meanwhile, you go to any pub, tavern, bar or what have you an hour before the Ravens play a pre-season game, and you're likely to see the purple-shirted bodies attempting to cram themselves in the door.
My good buddy, Beau, who lives in D.C. and is a Washington Nationals fan, said the same thing is going on down in his neck of the woods. The Nats are leading the N.L. East by five games, are poised to make their first playoff appearance in club history and everyone seemingly tuned out once the Redskins started their pre-season games.
My girlfriend, who is originally from San Francisco and lived there when the Giants won the World Series in 2010, said she was much more likely to see a 49ers or Raiders jersey when the baseball and football seasons were running concurrently. To put it in perspective, you have a world championship baseball team with a gorgeous ballpark right on the bay that is losing attention to a team that hasn't been to the Super Bowl in 18 years and plays in Hunter's Point, a former toxic waste dump 7 miles from downtown, and another team that hasn't had season over .500 since 2002, and that plays in the slightly less scary East Bay area.
To bring this local, let me say that I've been to a lot of high school state championship games, and the only ones that drew the same crowds as professional sporting events were the football title matchups. That isn't a dig at other sports or their fans, just an observation. During last year's 1A state title contest between the Perryville and Dunbar football teams, I seriously felt the crush and pull of a regular-season NFL game; that's how many people were there. So, my dad was right, but I think he could amend his statement to, "this is a football nation."
And, if the O's make the playoffs, I'm having a party at my apartment. Everyone who reads this column is invited.