Cincinnati-- --The Ravens headed to Cincinnati yesterday, the luggage compartment of their charter plane bulging with the emotional baggage of a dispirited sports town.
I doubt anybody in the traveling party noticed anything unusual. The players are too focused on tonight's season opener against the Bengals to worry about the greater meaning of the game to the Baltimore sports fans who have suffered through another frustrating baseball summer.
There's pressure enough just going on the road to face a division rival, and then there's the national television audience and the special excitement associated with the first game of a new season.
Whatever additional significance that has been layered onto it because of the Orioles' latest collapse is, thankfully, lost on the Ravens, but not on the rest of our damaged psyches.
The Orioles are mired in a 3-16 slump that started with a 30-3 defeat and featured a few other football scores as well as a no-hitter by a Boston Red Sox pitcher (Clay Buchholz) who wasn't exactly a household name. They also find themselves back in the middle of baseball's performance-enhancement scandal with yesterday's SI.com report that Jay Gibbons allegedly received shipments of banned supplements.
The fact that all this has come on the heels of a fairly uplifting two-month run under new manager Dave Trembley only magnified the impact of the collapse on the team's already beleaguered fan base.
And so, Steve McNair and Co., a broken sports town turns its lonely eyes to you.
If that's a lot of responsibility, it's almost entirely in the minds of the fans. The players already have enough to worry about as the offense tries to hit the ground running (and passing) and the defense prepares for Carson Palmer and one of the NFL's most potent attacks.
The Ravens are aware that the other team in Baltimore is struggling and the fans are hurting, but this is a football town now.
"When you live in Baltimore, you sense the buzz around the Baltimore Ravens," tight end Todd Heap said. "It's been that way since I've been here. The Orioles have not put themselves in the top echelon of teams and, obviously, when that becomes a continuing theme, the fans lose hope and start to wonder if they are ever going to have a team they can root for."
Heap is aware of the Orioles' storied history and knows how good it feels to have a winning baseball team. He grew up in Arizona and lights up when he talks about the the Diamondbacks' World Series title.
"That was my first year here and we had just moved into a townhome," he said. "We didn't have anything, just a little TV with rabbit ears. The Diamondbacks were in the World Series and we were going nuts. My wife and I were jumping up and down in the kitchen.
"That's what fans are waiting for with the Orioles ... for the team to get in position to get everybody excited."
Orioles fans would happily settle for just the possibility of a late-season run in the next couple of years, but many feel their only hope is to refocus their passion each fall on their other major professional sports team. Though the Ravens have had ups and downs over the past few seasons, they generally have been competitive enough to rescue September at the Camden Yards sports complex.
This year is no exception. The Ravens are widely considered to be among the top five teams in the NFL. They don't have to win tonight to validate their status as a Super Bowl contender, but it's still an important game on a lot of levels.
"The one thing you want to sell is hope," Ravens senior vice president Kevin Byrne said. "After a 13-3 season, there's a lot of hope here and you want that to continue. Hope creates enthusiasm and energy. So what you want to do is feed that hope and energy [tonight].
"It becomes more significant in that way. Our fans aren't going to give up on us if we lose, but it makes that fire hotter if we win."
Maybe more important, it would warm the hearts of the suffering Orioles multitudes after another summer of disenchantment.
That's probably the last thing anybody was thinking about when the Ravens boarded their charter flight yesterday, but make no mistake. They definitely carried some extra baggage to Cincinnati.