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Firefighters turn up the heat on Ravens game days

Today, armies of tailgaters and food vendors will encircle M&T; Bank Stadium as the Ravens take on the Colts in an AFC playoff game. In games gone by, I have participated in this pre-game feeding frenzy. It is quite a scene. Nowhere else on earth can you see so many once mild-mannered souls don Ray Lewis jerseys and purple camouflage pants and sport a yee-haw attitude.

One spot in this carnival that offers a taste of city history, as well as cold brews and pit beef, is the old Engine 37 firehouse that sits almost in the shadow of the stadium. I visited it one day last week, before the game-day hordes invaded. The brick building commands the corner of Ridgely and West streets and serves as a union hall for Baltimore Firefighters Local 734.

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The firehouse was on the scene long before the Ravens or even the Colts were around. Built in 1910 and renovated in 1991, the building has retained its tin ceiling and its brass fire pole. On the ceramic tile walls of the first floor, you can see the vestiges of harness racks, evidence of the fire horses that were quartered there.

The horses, I am told, could climb ordinary steps. So to prevent them from meandering up to the second floor and bothering the men, the builders put in a spiral staircase. The staircase, a metal beauty, is still there.

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Another architectural highlight is an add-on. It is a piece of the Section 28 grandstand from Memorial Stadium where the Orioles and the Colts, and even the Ravens, used to play. How the large metal structure got from Memorial Stadium to its perch above the bar in a former firehouse, nobody is saying.

Rick Schluderberg used to go to the Colts games when he was a boy, riding the bus from his family home in Pigtown to Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street. His father, Gordon, a police officer in the Northern District who worked the football games, would let his son stand near him on the sidelines. Now Schluderberg is the president of the city firefighters union.

On Tuesday night of this week, he presided over a union meeting in the hall. On Wednesday morning, he was lugging some 400 pounds of ham and turkey into the walk-in refrigerator, in a spot in the back of the hall where the old cotton fire hoses were hung to dry.

Schluderberg is one of a group of about 35 men and women, some of them retired firefighters, most of them veterans of the force, who, along with members of their families, puts on these pre-game feeds. Schluderberg said he came up with the idea some years ago.

The coffers of the union's fund for widows and orphans, once funded by a 50-50 raffle, were shrinking, and the firefighters were looking for a way to replenish them. Then a new football stadium sprouted on the hall's eastern horizon, about a half-dozen blocks away, bringing thousands of fans into the neighborhood on fall weekends. One thing led to another, and then to the firefighters' first pit-beef smoker.

It was a converted fuel drum, and with it they cooked up about 400 pounds of meat and stuffed it into sandwiches. Word soon spread among football fans about the firehouse fare, and the firefighters needed a bigger cooker. So in June 1999, a delegation drove a pickup truck down to Summerville, S.C., the hometown of Billy Martin, one of their members, and the headquarters of Carter's Cookers, a barbecue-rig-building outfit. A few days later, the firefighters rolled back into Baltimore with their truck pulling a giant, stainless-steel, three-grill propane cooker made for them by the South Carolina crew.

On game days, such as today, a crew, often composed of Bill Gray, Dave Zepp and Charlie Cieslak, fire up this cooker in the wee hours of the morning. The beef, 6-pound cuts called eye rolls, is sprinkled with black pepper and garlic, then sprayed with a mixture of vinegar and water as it cooks for several hours at 325 degrees. Once off the fire, it rests in insulated coolers.

Next, the slicers -- a group usually consisting of Bob Sledgeski, Martin and Schluderberg -- go to work transforming the 700 pounds of pit beef, as well as some 400 pounds of turkey and ham, into sandwiches that fetch $6.

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Huge pots of firehouse chili and pans of Italian sausage and peppers, prepared earlier in the week by Cieslak, are reheated and spooned out at $4 a serving. They join a beef stew, sold in $4 portions, whipped up by the mother of Lenore Festerman, a paramedic and member of the firehouse crew. All this is washed down with rivers of $2 domestic canned beer.

The doors open about four hours before kickoff, and the main hall quickly fills up and the crowd spills over onto tables set up under tents on the sides and rear of the building. The Bay, a radio station at 100.7 on the FM dial, broadcasts from the site. The place is loud and crowded. Schluderberg estimated that about 1,500 people will visit the hall and the adjoining tents during the four hours leading up to today's game.

The pit beef always sells out, he said, and that is part of the plan. The firefighters, you see, want to go to the game. They have season tickets. So about a half-hour before the game begins, they start to herd the masses out the firehouse doors and down West Street toward the stadium. In the past, patrons who couldn't negotiate the art of traveling east on West Street have been sent home in a cab.

Often, closing up the hall takes longer than expected. In the past 10 years, Schluderberg has seen only one kickoff, he said.

This brings us to the topic of what some of these hard-working firefighters are hoping will happen in the football playoffs. They, of course, are rooting for the Ravens to crush the Colts. But some are also quietly rooting for the San Diego Chargers to defeat the New England Patriots.

If the Chargers win, the Ravens would travel to San Diego next week and the firefighters would be finished cooking for the season. If the Patriots win, the firefighters will have to go back to work next weekend for the next game in Baltimore.

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The firefighters, who for 11 previous weekends have risen before dawn to tend slabs of smoky beef, admit that after a victory today, they would be happy to put out their fires. Next weekend, they wouldn't mind sitting in easy chairs and watching the Ravens and Chargers on television.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com


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