There's nothing like Ravens camp to take your mind off woes of O's


I JUST ARRIVED in Westminster and I have only one thing to say: It sure was nice of the Ravens to time the opening of training camp so that it coincides perfectly with the end of the baseball season.

The Mid-Atlantic Baseball Meltdown (which sounds suspiciously like the title of one of those weird W.P. Kinsella novels) appears to be complete, with the Orioles falling harder than Ben Affleck at an Alias cast party and the slumping Washington Nationals coming up with the best argument yet for keeping their games off local TV.

So, count your blessings. The Ravens, who open workouts at McDaniel College today, are considered a strong playoff contender, while the Orioles close out an eight-day homestand in such a deep funk that George Clinton wouldn't even recognize them as the same team that was 14 games above .500 a couple months ago.

Coach Brian Billick didn't waste any time setting the agenda for the new season.

"This team is going to have a new identity," he said yesterday.

Maybe that's why he's has been traveling incognito the past few weeks - retiring his razor to get into character. Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli, meanwhile, remains clean-shaven, but the way things are going I don't know how much longer he can be trusted around sharp objects.

Billick, whose new beard has been the talk of the town and subject of a couple of Web site polls, showed up at camp in a Jeep Wrangler, taking his transition from Compu Coach to Grizzly Adams perhaps a bit too far (I'll have to check on that with Mike Preston if he ever gets back from vacation). But he clearly is enjoying the attention.

"One person told me that I looked like Sean Connery," Billick said. "Somebody else said Hemingway. Somebody even said I looked like the guy in Harry and the Hendersons."

"John Lithgow?" I asked.

"No, Sasquatch."

Glasnost update: The new openness apparently will continue. The Ravens allowed HBO behind closed doors to film Hard Knocks a couple of years ago and gave author John Feinstein full access to write a behind-the-scenes book last season.

Earlier this year, they opened their playbook to the media to give fans a better understanding of what they are going to do this season, and now Billick has begun keeping a diary on the Ravens Web site.

"Any time you open yourself up, when you make Hard Knocks and you let somebody into your meetings to write a book, you make yourself vulnerable," Billick said, "but we've got great fans, and they deserve that."

Count your blessings, Part Deux: The decline of the Orioles is discouraging, but put yourselves in the shoes of Nationals fans, many of whom will have to turn to the Redskins after the Nats fall out of the wild-card race.

The Orioles allowed the non-waiver trading deadline to pass without incident yesterday, which is a pretty good indication that the front office is beginning to look beyond this season.

I think that's a mistake, but I'm not the least bit surprised. The Orioles could have acquired A.J. Burnett if they had been willing to take on the contract of struggling Mike Lowell, but that would have required owner Peter Angelos to gamble on another expensive star who might not have anything left.

Sorry, but after Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa, Angelos isn't going to be in a gambling mood for a long time, which should tell you something about the long-term playoff outlook for his team.

It's true that the yesterday's deadline was largely irrelevant for teams trying to dump under-performing, big-money players, so the Orioles still could deal Sidney Ponson in August.

Nobody is going to claim him off waivers and pay the remaining $13 million on his contract.

I got all puffed up recently when a fan came up to the press box at Camden Yards and asked me to sign a baseball, but, as they say, this game will humble you.

"You want my autograph?" I asked.

"Sure," the guy replied. "You're Jim Hunter, aren't you?"

Now, I didn't take that as an insult or anything. Jim is a good friend. I just don't see how you can make that mistake. I don't even own a cheerleading outfit.

Hunter, curled up in the fetal position in a bunker in Jimmyville, was unavailable for comment.

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