Bart Scott, the Ravens' 27-year-old, loquacious linebacker, was sitting on a stool recently inside Della Rose's Avenue Tavern in Canton, nibbling at a plate of nachos, when something made him visibly annoyed.
An e-mail written by a fan.
"Your defense" - the note read, in part - "is a disgrace right now."
"A disgrace?" Scott said, twinges of anger and disgust building in his voice. "That's going a bit too far. Do I show up at that guy's job and call him a disgrace? I don't appreciate that."
Scott, whose personality is typically polite and playful, managed to laugh it off. But he couldn't resist adding one last comment.
"Tell that guy to call into the show," he said. "Tell him I want to talk to him."
As annoyed as Scott was, he also wanted to make something clear: On my radio show, I'm not afraid to say what I think and stand by it.
Scott isn't the only one. Athletes are taking to the airwaves with increasing frequency these days, connecting with fans, voicing their opinions and polishing their people skills while angling for future jobs in media after their careers are over. Radio stations are paying players big bucks (some rumored to be six-figure deals) for their appearances, hoping to build an audience and break news at the same time.
The airwaves have been especially crowded in Baltimore. Scott is one of five Ravens players with his own weekly radio show this season, a substantial increase from a year ago when just one player, former Raven Adalius Thomas, got behind the mike each week.
Before this season, ESPN Radio 1300, which stopped broadcasting Ravens games after 2005, signed deals with Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Willis McGahee and Scott to offer up their own takes on the state of the team. Derrick Mason has a program on the Ravens' AM flagship station, WBAL (1090).
Want to know what's going on with the Ravens? Call Scott's show, The Hot Sauce, and he says you'll get the answers, straight from the linebacker's mouth. No filter.
"I didn't want to do it at first," Scott said, referring to his weekly radio show, broadcast from Della Rose's with co-host Tony Lombardi. "But then I saw it as an opportunity to get my message out, get who I am out. It gives me an opportunity to brand myself and to position myself for life after football."
The full-scale media blitz hasn't gone unnoticed either, thanks to some recent controversy. Lewis, who has been with the franchise since its inception, didn't voice his frustration over the team's recent offensive play-calling in a news conference or a post-game interview with reporters. Instead, he avoided the typical channels a superstar has to publicly air his complaints and saved them for his own radio show, broadcast each Monday from his own restaurant, Full Moon Bar-B-Que in Canton.
It was, calculated or not, an impressive bit of synergy.
"You can't make oranges be peaches," Lewis said, his raspy voice dripping with frustration when asked about coach Brian Billick's short-yardage play-calling in the Ravens' 19-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills. "It doesn't change. It will never change. That's what Billick has to ask himself: why we keep putting ourselves in those situations.
"In the Cincinnati game, that cost us with those same decisions. My frustration is very simple. If you only need 1 yard, and you give their defense an opportunity by throwing the ball three straight times - if someone came into Baltimore and did that, we would say, 'Thank you.' "
Billick chose to respond to Lewis' comments on The Brian Billick Show on WBAL, saying he didn't mind that Lewis had expressed his opinion and that he even agreed with him on some of his points. But he also said no one was exempt from criticism, again pointing to the Ravens' 11 penalties (including five offside infractions) and various blown assignments.
It made for an interesting week, with no shortage of ego and opinion to go around. Even as the controversy over Lewis' comments about Billick started to die down, things heated up again when Thomas, now a member of the New England Patriots, shot back at Lewis for calling him a coward later during that same show. Lewis' original comments about Thomas were in response to something Thomas said in Sports Illustrated about the Ravens' egocentric style of celebrating.
The sniping didn't exactly remind anyone of the Algonquin Round Table. (By the end of the week, Lewis' and Thomas' carping would have fit in nicely on any number of MTV reality shows about gossipy rich teenage socialites in Malibu.) But the radio shows, and the controversy they occasionally bring, are likely here to stay. The 24-hour media cycle is a beast, and it must constantly be fed. The teams, for the most part, like the exposure. For now.
"I'm sure it makes Brian nervous," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens senior vice president of public and community relations. "The players don't have the same filter [on radio], and they don't have PR people around them to say, 'You might not want to go in that direction today, Willis.' But, on the other side, it's really flattering that we've become so embedded in this community that radio stations feel compelled to get some attachment with the Ravens. It's a graduation for us that we didn't have, even when we were the Super Bowl winners."
Byrne said it's rare for him to get a call about something that happened on a player's radio show, although this year he did pull one of the players aside (he wouldn't say which one) and tell him he was volunteering a bit more information about injuries than the Ravens would like.
Not every show stirs emotions. Some, when filled with too many cliches and too little insight, can be as dull as they are unfocused. Players do, however, get a chance to show a different side of themselves, discussing everything from their favorite movies to fantasy football to their plans for Halloween. Most players sign autographs during commercial breaks, and their presence helps draw a larger weeknight crowd to Damon's Grill in Hunt Valley, Michael's Pub in Columbia, Della Rose's and the Full Moon Bar-B-Que. Most fans, many who bring their families, sit down for a meal and a beer as they listen to the show.
"It gives them a chance to showcase the fact that they are college-educated, bright people," Byrne said. "It shows fans they're much more than the guy who tackles the running back or knocks down the guy in front of them."
But it is the insider's perspective most players feel they have to offer.
"I like to give the fans another perspective, either on the upcoming game or the season," said Mason, who also had his own radio show in Nashville when he played for the Tennessee Titans. "A lot of people are just looking at it from the outside in, but when they can talk to someone who actually played the previous week in the game, I think it gives you a better understanding."
It's also an opportunity to go around the typical media channels and appeal directly to the masses if a player feels he's being treated unfairly.
"One story can be told from that person's perspective, and sometimes when it reaches the fans, it's not really what it seems," Mason said. "Reporters don't get the whole scoop of everything, and sometimes we make it that way. But as a player, maybe you can give a perspective that maybe that reporter wasn't able to get."
It's also more evidence that the appetite for NFL news is insatiable. And it's a chance for the fan, however angry, to have his or her say.
"People keep it real," Scott said. "They ask hard questions, and it's our right to either answer them or not answer them. I mean, the president does it all the time, right? ... I have fun with it. I'm a natural storyteller because I've been lying all my life."