It's only a game, until it isn't

I guess it will happen at some point. A kid in Baltimore will come across a faded black-and-white picture, or notice all those blue #19 jerseys, and he won't quite believe it: "We had a football team before the Ravens?"

Maybe it's already happened, given how thoroughly the Ravens have worked their way into our lives in the 16 years since they came to town.


In sports franchise years, that's almost yesterday. And yet sometimes I have to stop and think a bit to remember when they weren't here, when fall turned into winter rather than season into postseason, when I didn't have to resist a charmingly insistent lady's request to print her recipe for a purple playoff cake. (Oh, all right: angel food cake mix plus canned blueberries.)

Baltimore has a pretty well-deserved reputation for keeping newcomers at arm's length. We want to take stock, figure out who you are, where you went to school, where your parents went to school even, before, you know, actually talking to you.


And yet somehow, the shiny new Ravens quickly became our team. Maybe not overnight quickly — this is still Baltimore, after all — but quickly by our normally glacial welcoming standards.

There is, of course, as much anguish as joy in fandom, and sometimes you just wish you could watch it from a distance, dispassionately. But teams get under your skin, and sometimes, that's exactly where you want and need them.

I was thinking about all this after talking to Lynne Davis the other day. Davis, a government contractor who lives in Annapolis, lost her husband, Edward C. Davis, on Jan. 4. Or, as we worked out the timeline, he lived long enough to know the Ravens were headed to the wild-card round of the playoffs, but not to actually see the game.

"When the Ravens won," she said, "it became clear how we were going to handle the reception."

Lynne already knew she wanted the memorial service for Ed, who turned 51 on New Year's Day, to be a celebration of his life. The retired CIA analyst had been ailing for a while, his recovery from a heart attack and bypass surgery last summer complicated by the muscular dystrophy he had been diagnosed with about 10 years ago.

She scheduled the service for Saturday to give out-of-town family time to get here, but kept thinking how sad it would be to return afterward with their 15- and 9-year-old daughters to a quiet house.

Enter the Ravens, who would play the Broncos that afternoon. "Ed would have been planted on the couch," Lynne said.

Instead, she invited family and friends to put on their Ravens gear and come over for pizza, beer and Ed's mom's macaroni salad, to watch the AFC divisional playoff game. Lynne thinks Ed would be delighted by the company — "he wasn't very big on tradition" — given how avidly the Bowie native and Redskins fan had adopted the Ravens as his team after moving to Annapolis.

Lynne herself is something of an unlikely Ravens fan. She grew up outside Cleveland, home of the Browns team that moved here to become the Ravens.

"It took a while for me to come around," she said. "But Ray Lewis, and the whole team, they make it hard to resist them."

So true. There is something about this particular team that seems familiar, a part of town. Nothing has come easily for them this year, as nothing ever seems to come easily for Baltimore. There were messy losses, less-than-resounding victories, a string of injuries and, of course, the final season of Lewis, our bruising and bruised gladiator, our career-long Raven.

I missed the Colts' glory years, but I totally get it when Baltimoreans tell me that they die a little when they see that blue horseshoe on that Indianapolis team's helmet. They think of their dads, they think of Memorial Stadium, they think of all that once was and no longer is.


But everyone and every city deserves a second chance, and that's what the Ravens gave us.

I sort of cringe whenever I hear people say they think of the players as part of their family. I'm not sure what that says about your definition of family, but personally I go with Robert Frost on that one — or at least his line about home as that place where when you have to go there they have to take you in.

So, no, I don't think I'll be knocking on Joe Flacco's door in the middle a bad night. But if our teams aren't family, that's part of why we love them — they come without the personal baggage, and we come to them without our own. That one of them always leaves the toothpaste cap off, or ruined Christmas dinner that one time, is someone else's never-forgiven annoyance.

But the Ravens and the Orioles are surely a part of family lore, the memories we look back on, the traditions we pass forward. I love seeing kids celebrate birthdays at a game, bachelorette parties in the row in front of me at Camden Yards, or wedding pictures taken on the M&T field.

I've met a couple at ballpark who named their baby Calvin Dempsey, after Ripken and Rick, of course, and a son who took his terminally ill father to one last game and, on the way out, the dad died.

It's only a game, until it isn't.


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