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Ravens give Baltimore reason to cheer

FootballBaseballIndianapolis ColtsBaltimore RavensCleveland Browns

Carl Sagan observed: "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." And if you wish to comprehend the palpable dynamic that operates between Baltimore fans and their professional football team, you first have to understand the chemical stew of events that long preceded today's NFL playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium.

It is axiomatic that the home team enjoys some very real advantages in every NFL game. Local players are able to maintain their preparatory routines without the need to add travel to their agenda, and they enjoy familiarity with their surroundings and the game-day environment. And a vocal home crowd can actually impact the game by making it difficult for the visitors to communicate amid the noise, and by providing the home team with a steady diet of emotional invigoration upon which to feed.

But it is no stretch of parochial ego to declare that home field advantage for the Ravens is something considerably beyond what a host team typically enjoys. In fact, it is nothing less than evidence of an indelible bond that has been forged by history. Allow me to explain.

Baltimore is a city with identity issues. It sits inland from the East Coast, but is far too eastern to be part of the Midwest. It resides hemmed in between the economic and social power of its large northern neighbors, and the political clout and sophistication of Washington immediately to its south. Northerners regard it as Southern and Southerners consider it Northern, but in reality, it is something in between and unique unto itself. It was part of a slave state that did not join the Confederacy; to ensure that it stayed that way, both martial law and military occupation were imposed during the Civil War, producing an isolation that resulted in lost economic opportunities. And so it is a city that tends to look inward and see itself somewhat from an "us against the world" point of view.

But in the1890s, it possessed something of its own in which it truly reveled. It had the best baseball team in the world. The Baltimore Orioles of the then 12-team National League posted a .687 winning percentage while taking three straight pennants, and did so while displaying one of most supreme collections of talent ever assembled in any sport. No fewer than six players from those teams would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. They were the toast of the town. But the business of baseball would not permit this excellence to continue. The team's best players were sold off, and the franchise was eliminated when the league contracted after the 1899 season. A brief two-year stay in the new American League ended when the team was sold to New York interests and moved north to eventually become the Yankees. For the next half-century, Baltimore would be a minor league branch office town with a chip on its shoulder.

When the Dallas Texans NFL franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Colts in 1953, and baseball's St. Louis Browns came to town to revive the Orioles a year later, the city was finally back in the majors. The Colts were the first to reach excellence, and with them a football-mad town was born. The sudden-death victory over the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in the 1958 championship game was a seminal moment in American sports and television, and nothing less then a religious experience in Baltimore. Barry Levinson offered an honest portrayal of the relationship between the town and the team in the movie "Diner," when he had the character Eddie insist that his fiancée pass a premarital Baltimore Colts test. Such was the reverence for the Colts.

The '58 and '59 Colts championship teams were a tonic for a city hungering for recognition, and the players became an integral part of the fabric of the community. Nothing could better illustrate this than the 1962 pregame ceremony at which the team retired the number of four-time All-Pro defensive tackle Art Donovan. Eloquently, he expressed the spiritual bond among the faithful congregation that attended and followed the Colts' Sunday services: "There's a lady up in Heaven," he said, "who wants to thank all the people of Baltimore for being so good to her boy." Then Mr. Donovan, a World War II combat Marine, and 12-year veteran of the NFL trenches, wept, as did many of the 54,000 in attendance, and countless more listening on radio. This was a moment depicting a community bond through which we had adopted Mrs. Donovan's son as our own.

In this context, it is understandable how difficult it was to witness the 1980s version of the team as it was mismanaged to the point of being winless during the strike-shortened 1982 season, and then suffered the ignominy of being publicly rejected by top draft pick John Elway. When the team, its name, colors, logo and history, covertly and in the dark of night, moved to Indianapolis in March 1984, a community identity was lost. Then came the decade-long and painfully humbling experience of having to grovel for an expansion team. Our history of passion for the Colts, a sold-out exhibition game, and a plan for a new, publicly financed downtown stadium, ultimately rejected in favor of Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.; the commissioner famously suggesting that we "build a museum" instead.

And so, we had to take another town's team — to do what had been done to us. The euphoria over our return to the NFL was noticeably tempered by the uneasiness with how it had to be accomplished. The wilderness years without a team had been wrenching, and we had developed a cynical hardness, which would not allow us to give our hearts easily. But the hostility of the national media to the move of the historic Cleveland Browns franchise acted as something of a rallying call, and served as the foundation for our embrace of the Ravens. It was "us against the world" again. After all, we had been robbed of the Colts and had no football for 12 seasons. We had been denied an expansion team despite having offered the best package. The Browns had not been moved secretly. And Cleveland was getting a new team and stadium in just three years while keeping the colors and history we had lost with the Colts. We shook off any sense of guilt and became Ravens fans. To its great credit, the team earned our endearment by sending players into the community, and a record-setting defense that produced a Super Bowl championship solidified our betrothal.

That bond can be witnessed in ubiquitous purple flags, lights and flamingos. And nowhere is it more evident than on game day. It is no coincidence that the Ravens' playoff seeding this year has been significantly enabled by an unblemished home record. They have an extraordinary home field advantage. It has been built, bit-by-bit, over the course of a long history. It is a product of geography and war. It is an expression of having shared the experiences of ultimate victory and devastating loss. Of knowing what it is like to feel belittled and rising up to claim a title from the belittlers.

It is because the stadium is where a town can come together and publicly announce its call for recognition. Where we are a community with a common identity. And where we carry on the honorable tradition of standing firm with the shared determination of knowing that it is "us against the world."

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is rdburke@ober.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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