Ravens fans relish chance to watch team practice at M&T Bank Stadium

There are still plenty of Ravens fans who wax nostalgic for those halcyon training camp days at McDaniel College in Westminster, but Derek Murray of Dundalk isn't one of them.

He's just fine with the shorter drive to M&T Bank Stadium and a bonus opportunity to spend a little quality tailgate time with his purple-clad friends and family.

"I like the free practices at the stadium,'' Murray said. "It's a chance for the fans to get to know the team and it's training camp for fans who like to drink."

Well, if you're a Ravens fan, you probably don't need much of an excuse to fill up an ice chest and hang around the parking lots at Camden Yards, especially when the first regular-season home game is still more than a month away.

There are only a handful of opportunities for the general public to watch an open practice, and the chance to sit in the best seats and maybe catch a free t-shirt from one of the Ravens cheerleaders was too much to resist for a crowd estimated by team officials to be close to 25,000.

"What makes it more special,'' said Nick Borozzi of Perry Hall, "is that we're the reigning Super Bowl champions. We're the best team until somebody proves we're not."

Each of the open practices is something of a summer football festival. There are giant blow-up slides outside the stadium for the kids and a special post-practice session for young autograph seekers inside the bowl.

Many casual fans come out because ticket availability is very tight for the regular season. The hardcore football junkies focus on the field, where the Ravens go through their regular practice routine, which includes all manner of drills and light scrimmaging.

"It's exciting to be able to come down and see the team,'' said John Santoro of Baltimore, who doesn't get a lot of opportunities to bring his very young son Thaddeus to M&T. "It's free and I can bring my kid and it's not so much of a [financial] commitment. It's more of a family atmosphere."

Though the players don't change the way they go about their business because there is a large fan presence, they say they do feel the positive energy and they're happy that there is an opportunity for more fans to see them up close.

"It's definitely really cool,'' said kicker Justin Tucker, "to get out here for this practice in the stadium that a lot of fans who might not be able to make it to games, they can come see the team live and in person and show their support for the team and we can show our appreciation for their support."

Tucker gave them a thrill when he drilled a 60-yard field goal midway during the special teams scrimmage.

The front office gave them a couple of thrills over the course of the day, signing veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley and reaching an agreement in principle with tight end Dallas Clark. Stokley is coming back to the Ravens after starting his NFL career in Baltimore in 1999. Both Stokley and Clark have played previously under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.

The news that the team had gotten some help at wide receiver was well-received in the parking lot, even though Stokley is 37 and will be playing in his 15th season.

"Doesn't matter… [Stokley] has these,'' said Joe Stritch of Dundalk, holding out his hands. "He can catch."

Time will tell, and there is plenty of it left before the Ravens open the regular season in Denver on Sept. 5. In the meantime, Ravens fans will have to get their football fix where they can find it. There are three more preseason games and one more fan/practice event at Stevenson University next Sunday.

"We have good memories of when they practiced in Western Maryland,'' said Sam Borozzi of Perry Hall, who was tailgating with his new wife, his brother and several other family members. "They stopped going up there, but this is the next best thing."

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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