As Orioles drift away, Ravens will rush in

The Baltimore Sun

It's a digital world, but I still run out to the mailbox every day with the anticipation of a schoolboy awaiting some amazing offer from the back of a cereal box.

So, you can imagine how excited I was over the weekend when the postman dropped off my Ravens training camp credential and matching lanyard.

That means we are officially into that magical time of the year known to hardcore Baltimore sports fans as "almost football season" (AFS) - the transitional period in midsummer that begins when all hope of a successful Orioles season has been abandoned and ends when the Ravens start sweating in Westminster.

Now, before you get all indignant with me for not acknowledging some of the positive developments that have taken place at Oriole Park over the past several weeks, let's put some things into their proper perspective. The Orioles are doing much better, but their chances of getting back to .500 this year remain slim because - in case you haven't noticed - they are still pretty much the same team that fired Sam Perlozzo, minus Miguel Tejada and Melvin Mora.

The fact that a lot of people are viewing the Orioles' 12-11 run under spunky interim manager Dave Trembley as some kind of watershed juncture in the club's recent history is more illustrative of the diminished expectations that have resulted from nine straight losing seasons than any real competitive renaissance. In other words, enjoy it while it lasts.

And if it lasts for a couple of more weeks, this could be the best AFS in years.

We're already way ahead of the curve. Local sports fans generally spend July arguing over who will be the lone Orioles representative at the All-Star Game and look forward to July 31 - baseball's most important trading deadline - as if it were a gift-exchange holiday. This year, the Orioles have generated some unexpected midseason excitement, and they need to keep it going only a little while longer to carry us right into Cal Ripken Jr. Hall of Fame Weekend.

Ripken will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 29, which is also the day the Ravens report to their training camp headquarters and the Orioles complete a three-game home series against the New York Yankees. The first Ravens workout is the next day and the aforementioned baseball trading deadline is the day after that.

The last time there was that level of sporting intrigue packed into a five-day period around here, Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro was suspended for steroid abuse, manager Lee Mazzilli was fired and top Ravens draft pick Mark Clayton held out for the first few days of camp during the first week of August 2005.

I'm guessing that the final days of July will be a tad more uplifting, though I'm wondering along with everyone else why Major League Baseball scheduled the Yankees in Baltimore on Hall of Fame weekend, unless it was to make sure there will be even more good seats than usual available for the Yankees fans who take over Camden Yards nine times a summer.

Who knows what will be going on at Ravens camp? The Terrell Suggs contract situation will be an open issue, though it doesn't figure to be settled until next winter. Local fans will get their first up-close look at new running back Willis McGahee, whose ability to add a new dimension to the Ravens' offense could be the key to defending the AFC North title and making a stronger playoff run than last season.

There doesn't figure to be a lot of suspense at the baseball trading deadline, since the likelihood of any major deal diminished when Tejada fractured his wrist in June. There will be some wishful speculation about Texas Rangers star Mark Teixeira, but the only player valuable enough to bring him to Baltimore in a trade is pitching ace Erik Bedard. Not going to happen.

I'm guessing we'll have to wait until the opening of the free-agent market to see whether the Orioles really intend to engineer any dynamic improvements in the team for the 2008 season.

In the meantime, it's almost football season.

Spread the word.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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