In South Baltimore, south of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and, frankly, south of my consciousness until Sunday in the rain, they're building a football stadium to replace all those ancient memories of autumn on 33rd Street.
You get to the new football site by walking south across the last narrow remnants of the Orioles parking lot, until your shoes begin to sink into the mud. If you keep walking south, you'll see an enormous crater in the earth and lots of monstrous equipment. If you turn around and look north toward Memorial Stadium, and you can no longer conjure a vision of Unitas throwing long, then you know you've arrived at the future.
The Ravens will play at the bottom of this crater beginning in 1998 and, by then, many people might actually care. Until Sunday, a lot of us (including me) had not invested much emotion, even though a lot of people (not including me) have been packing the old ballpark on 33rd Street to watch the Ravens in their first season here.
A lot of these folks were at Memorial Stadium on Sunday, in the game that began to change things. They began to change, not merely because the Ravens won, and defied long odds, but because of a much more elemental and primitive fact.
They won in the rain. They won in a ballpark nearly filled with fans defying the various lurking pneumococci, and ignoring the damp cold going through their bones, and they exited with memories of a Sunday that they'll talk about for years, and embellish in the telling, when they say to each other, "Remember that day in the rain when ...?"
I know this, because I was sitting alone in my house, which was toasty and dry, next to a window where I could see all the rain falling, and I watched thousands of spectators in the rain on television and wondered, for the first time this autumn, if I was missing something special.
Also, not to be minimized, I have an old magazine. It's called Pro Football 1959, and it's been a treasure since I bought it for 25 cents the summer after a team called the Baltimore Colts won the fabled Sudden Death game and Memorial Stadium had already been dubbed the world's largest outdoor insane asylum.
And here's what that national magazine said, not merely about the Colts, but about the people who went every Sunday to watch them play:
"Baltimore is this kind of a football town. Last year in a cold November rain, 51,333 fans huddled miserably in Memorial Stadium. The clock showed a minute to play, and not a spectator made his way toward the exit. What was the score? Colts 56, Green Bay O."
We had a vision of our football team then and, not to be overlooked, a vision of ourselves. We wanted to be worthy of the team. In them, we saw a reflection of our perceived wonderfulness, of our notions of a professional ballclub representing an actual community instead of merely a corporate enterprise.
The day was miserable when the Colts beat the Packers 56-0? So what? This was what you prayed for all week, wasn't it -- a crushing victory, with everybody hollering themselves hoarse in the stands. And it was miserable when the Ravens beat the Steelers 31-17? So what? Bundled under a leaden sky, all those Ravens fans were making an implicit statement: This is no game for sissies. The ballclub can take it, then so can we.
In such misery, there is bonding. To survive it, and to emerge victorious as a bonus, is to remove yourself from the daily grind into that rare feeling of actually being alive.
Such emotions about pro football aren't easy anymore. The circumstances of the Ravens' arrival here haven't been forgotten, and won't be, even after poor Cleveland gets its own new franchise. The mess was a sign to communities everywhere: You're expendable. You want a ballclub, you build a pleasure palace.
And so, in South Baltimore, the future is arriving. Yesterday, three days after Sunday's messy rain, it arrived with mud, and with puddles the size of Lake Erie at the bottom of the crater that will become a field.
There were machines with big claws digging into the mud, and trucks hauling away loads of it, and the incessant pounding of machines into the earth.
There's a price to pay for everything, and those of us slow to adopt the Ravens are weighing the various balances, including the notion of entertainment vs. the robbery that brought it here.
On the other hand, a friend of mine didn't hesitate to buy four season tickets several months back. His reaction? After 10 games, he said he wouldn't renew next year. After Sunday?
"We didn't go," he said. "I wasn't going to sit in that rain."
"If it was the Colts, you would have."
"Look it up," he said. "All those years with the Colts, I bet you it never rained once on a Sunday."
I'll have to show him my old magazine from '59 to refresh his memory. Nostalgia paints everything rosy. But, for those who sat at the ballpark Sunday, the real glow wasn't that win, it was all that rain that made people huddle together like an extended family. It's a keepsake.
Pub Date: 12/05/96