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A Super Bowl victory that was Baltimore to the bone

Game offers city a chance to bask in accomplishments

Dan Rodricks

5:26 PM EST, February 4, 2013

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With a parade on Tuesday, the city will celebrate a world championship that was Baltimore to the bone — perfectly imperfect, an overachievement by an underdog and a surprise to sneering outsiders.

"I tell you what, we don't make it easy," said an uncharacteristically eloquent Joe Flacco as the Ravens quarterback held the Lombardi Trophy, savored his selection as the Super Bowl's most valuable player and, in this town, elevation to Johnny Unitas status. "But that's the way the city of Baltimore is, that's the way we are. We did this for them back home."

Though it started out that way, there was nothing easy about the Ravens' win in the Big Easy. Even the lights went out in the Superdome.

"Never perfect, never pretty," was how the winning head coach, John Harbaugh described his team. He could have been describing any of a number of ways post-industrial Baltimore scrapes and scratches its way along, fighting (and maybe finally overcoming) a homegrown inferiority complex and an international reputation for being "the city of 'The Wire' " as much as anything else.

But it has always been like this, from the successful but unglamorous workaday baseball of the Oriole Way that years ago produced pennant winners and world championships — and might again soon after a three-decades hiatus — to the blue-collar glory of the long-gone Unitas Colts. That team's fight song could be heard emanating from New Orleans on Sunday night after a Ravens touchdown, a lovely echo of the past and evidence of the presence of Baltimore fans in the Superdome.

When the Ravens last won the big one, in 2001, the quarterback was Trent Dilfer and not considered great. It was hardcore defense, led by Ray Lewis, that won the day. Not pretty, not glamorous, but a winner.

This time it was Flacco — effective, not glamorous — and a group of excellent receivers who performed beautifully on the biggest of stages, while Lewis, in the last game of his career, and the defense allowed the San Francisco 49ers to close a 22-point gap.

In the end, however, the hard-knock defense from Mobtown stopped the 49ers, a nice paean to the long line of Lewis-led defenses that kept the Ravens in contention for so many seasons.

It was almost surreal to see Baltimore on the big stage again, and our guys winning professional football's top prize. We are one of those medium-size cities — one of the nation's biggest small towns. We are not New York, not Washington, not Los Angeles. We don't even get our own spot on the Weather Channel's national map.

But look where we are today, top of the heap because of what seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago — a courageous, rough-and-tumble march through the playoffs that the pundits in New York did not predict. They were all fooled by the Ravens' grim finish to the regular season.

But it's always better that way, isn't it? Being the underdog — and not one of those teams that awes the football nation with big numbers and flashy players — turned out to be a fine status for the Ravens.

And Flacco is right — it wasn't easy. And maybe we like it that way; that's the beauty of the underdog role — the team, like the city it represents, fights for every good thing it gets, and it ends up meaning something much larger.

I think it's OK today, of all days, to think of ourselves as that proud underdog city, on the long road back from its long decline as a bustling industrial port. A new kind of Baltimore is emerging now, reflected in our two major sports teams — the Ravens, built with brains and brawn, and the Orioles, finally coming back from the long spell of losing to, perhaps, bring the city a World Series again.

You feel it. You sense it. The Ravens' long run of contending teams, season after season, is capped with a second Super Bowl victory that marks the transition.

I like this Tweet I recorded Sunday night, from @JohnsHopkins, minutes after the Ravens sealed the deal in New Orleans: "great city, great football team, and home to the best university in the world."

And some of the best hospitals. And a reinvigorated downtown, and an emerging arts scene, and a great symphony orchestra, and a great pubic library system, slowly improving public schools in a state with a stellar education system, an expanding port, and city neighborhoods scratching and scraping back from decades in the doldrums.

From the suburbs and the exurbs throughout Central Maryland, there's a sense of pride not only for the Ravens accomplishment but for the great lift in self-esteem it provides for our region, especially following the Great Recession and its aftermath.

I know: We're not supposed to make too much of a world championship in sports. But I think it's OK to do that today because it makes all of us consider who we are, how we work, what we produce and what we contribute to this community — our extended hometown.

Around Baltimore, it has always been this way — nothing comes easy, and nothing is perfect. There's always a rough edge here and there. But like the Ravens, we're better than the world thinks were are — and even better than we think we are.

Victory in the Super Bowl gets more of us thinking that way, and that's worth celebrating.

drodricks@baltsun.com