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Both with winning seasons, Ravens and Orioles offer rare celebration for city fans

When the Ravens rolled to their second Super Bowl victory, fending off the San Francisco 49ers in the final seconds of the game, the storylines that defined an improbable season all found happy endings.

Ray Lewis carried the Lombardi Trophy into the sunset of his long career. Coach John Harbaugh beat his brash little brother Jim. Quarterback and MVP Joe Flacco eliminated any remaining doubts about his big-game talents, and a team whose first owner, Art Modell, died in September won with his memorial patch on their uniforms.

As fans continue to celebrate, and the Orioles prepare for the start of spring training on Tuesday, another storyline is worth noting: Baltimore has taken on a winning aura it hasn't enjoyed in decades.

The Orioles defied the odds last season, seizing a playoff spot after a decade and a half of losing, and revived the city's love of baseball. It marked the first time in 42 years that Baltimore has had more than one pro team in the playoffs — a streak that dates all the way back to the days of Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson. Add that to Michael Phelps' six-medal performance in London, securing his status as the greatest Olympian ever, and Loyola University Maryland's NCAA Division I lacrosse championship.

The success of the Orioles and Ravens alone has left fans rubbing their eyes.

"I can't even describe it — it's such an amazing feeling," said Antoine Pollard, 30, of Reisterstown, a lifelong baseball and football fan. "The O's had been so mediocre for so long. The Ravens had fallen just short of reaching the pinnacle so many times. To see both break through within a few months — it's crazy. I wouldn't trade this for anything in the world."

When a metropolitan area enjoys a dominant streak in multiple sports, it's usually a region with a top-10 population and teams in three or more major leagues.

Think early-2000s New York, where baseball's Mets and Yankees, football's Giants and hockey's New Jersey Devils all had title runs. Tops in size with more than 19 million people, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the region boasts eight major league teams in baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

Midsized Baltimore ranks 20th in population, right between St. Louis (19) and Denver (21), but its has fewer major league teams than either of those two cities.

"We have two. That makes this year all the more remarkable," said Jim Henneman, longtime sportswriter for the Baltimore News-American, The Evening Sun and other publications.

For some fans, especially younger ones, it might be hard to believe, but playoff powerhouses were once commonplace in Baltimore. Between 1964 and 1980 alone, the roster of icons included John Unitas, Jim Parker, Raymond Berry, John Mackey and Don Shula of the Colts; Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Earl Weaver of the Orioles. And in basketball, before the Bullets left town in 1973, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe and Wes Unseld.

Each of them is a Hall of Famer, and fans took their deeds to heart.

"Things could get pretty crazy [among fans]. They didn't call Memorial Stadium 'the outdoor insane asylum' for nothing," said Rosemary Baldwin of Baltimore, a Colts cheerleader from 1956 through 1969. "We had it so good I'm not sure we realized the kind of history being made."

The O's made the playoffs seven times during that span, the Colts nine times, and the Bullets finished first in their division four times.

Even with such potent franchises, it was rare for more the Colts and Orioles to make the playoffs in the same year. It only happened twice: in the 1970 season, when Weaver's O's won the World Series and Johhny U's Colts took Super Bowl V, and the following year, when the O's lost in the World Series and Colts fell in the second round of the playoffs. (The Bullets also reached the playoffs in those years.)

The local press took to calling Baltimore "Titletown, U.S.A.," downtown parades and block parties were frequent, and few local residents hesitated to crow.

"There's no room in this town for anything but champions," stripper Blaze Starr told the Associated Press at the time. "We have the Orioles, the Colts — and me."

The city never had concurrent playoff teams again — until this past season.

"Lots of times, one club or the other did well," said Ted Patterson, author of four books on Baltimore sports history. "It was just that [playoff] teams coincided so rarely. It's something to cherish."

In more recent years, as the teams moved into new stadiums downtown, overlapping success was rare. Anchored by Cal Ripken Jr., the 1996 and 1997 Orioles made the postseason as the Ravens struggled with birth pains. The Ravens won the 2001 Super Bowl and made the playoffs nine times as the O's stumbled through 14 straight losing seasons.

Baseball fans stung by years of failure were especially tough to win back in 2012, but as manager Buck Showalter's O's piled win upon win en route to a wild-card berth, pennant fever took hold. The Ravens' playoff run three months later only added to the magic.

"The Orioles had been down for so long, and they just seemed to come out of nowhere," Henneman said. "That got the town revved up. We were all sitting pretty for what happened in football."

The two-sport frenzy came to a head in September as the O's stalked a pennant, the Ravens raced to a 3-1 start, and the teams played meaningful games on the same day three times.

"It was almost — confusing. I couldn't believe I'd be watching an Oriole game with playoff implications by day, then a meaningful Ravens game at night," said Pollard, who took to sporting a Ravens shirt under an O's jacket during his many visits to Camden Yards.

A senior accountant with Legg Mason, Pollard went to 20 Oriole games and two Ravens games this year, including Flacco and Co.'s 38-35 playoff win in Denver. (He won the trip in a lottery at work.)

Some say the fan response of the 1970s could be surprisingly muted. The Orioles drew only about 13,000 fans per game even as they won 100 games a year three straight times (1969-1971).

That was about average for the American League — the Yankees drew about 14,000 a game during the span — but paltry by today's standards. Even as AL East doormats between 2008 and 2010, the O's drew about 23,000 per game.

In the Titletown days, Henneman said, fans could take their success for granted. Many saw superstars like Unitas and Brooks Robinson as ordinary guys, and it would have seemed odd to deify them.

Henneman, who grew up a few blocks from Memorial Stadium in Ednor Gardens, remembers the day a young man with a brush cut picked up his little brother and gave him a ride home.

It was Johnny U. himself.

"The fact that it seemed like no big deal should tell you something," Henneman said.

Recently, though, things have been far from run-of-the-mill.

Maybe it was the 42-year lapse. Maybe it was the way Ravens such as Ed Reed and Ray Rice started showing up at Camden Yards sporting O's hats — or Orioles like Adam Jones came to M&T Bank Stadium for Ravens games. Maybe it was the way both teams rode jaw-dropping hot streaks to end their seasons.

But this year, sports has been a very big deal in Baltimore.

"The celebrations downtown, the packed stadiums — things were exciting years ago, but I think this has been an all-time high," said retired sportscaster Vince Bagli, who covered the Colts and Orioles on WBAL-TV for years.

Is it premature to reach for the "Titletown" mantle again? Probably. In an era of free agency and salary caps, it's harder than ever to sustain a winner. And some fans are downright suspicious of their good fortune.

"We're the center of the sports world now," said Betty Loomis, 83, of Ellicott City, who watches every Orioles and Ravens game on TV. "Next year, you watch, it'll probably be New York again."

Even that wouldn't bother Baldwin. Now in her 70s, the ex-cheerleader and current fan says life has taught her that winners come and winners go, but the more important things don't change.

Baldwin, who lives in Federal Hill, saw thousands celebrate outside her window after the Ravens won it all last weekend. She has no clue when it will happen again. And she's not complaining.

"Happiness is a fleeting thing," she said. "It's not really in human nature to be on a high every day of your life. If you can have a few moments of happiness, God bless. Enjoy them while you can."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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