Amid all the bad news, Ravens' success giving fans a needed lift

The Baltimore Sun

It was a rotten year. That 401(k) tanked quicker than the Orioles in September. The Maryland men's basketball team rallied less often than Wall Street. As for employment opportunities, at times it seemed the only jobs around Baltimore were for starting pitchers.

Sports are supposed to muster the troops, push our worries aside.

The Ravens are doing just that.

If there's a bounce in the collective steps of Marylanders these days, credit football. Reaching the NFL playoffs - the Ravens play at Miami on Sunday - has given folks a distraction from their daily fears about stock woes, downsizing and housing ills.

Suddenly, Volvos are festooned with purple flags, grown men wear Ed Reed jerseys to work and government buildings are bathed at night in purple lights.

"I called Coach [John] Harbaugh Tuesday and thanked him for giving us something to hope for," Gov. Martin O'Malley said. "So much of the economy depends on consumer confidence. Lord knows, we can use some good news."

At his barbecue joint in Hunt Valley, Andy Nelson prepared carry-out orders for Sunday's game: 10-pound trays filled with pit beef, dry ribs and pork brisket.

"The playoffs are a shot in the arm for the restaurant business," said Nelson, a former Pro Bowl safety for the Baltimore Colts. "The further this team goes, the better we do."

On each aluminum pan heaped with food he scrawled the words, "Go Ravens!"

"I can feel the energy despite the day-to-day issues that we face," Mayor Sheila Dixon said. "People have that purple fever."

Come Sunday, Nicholas Brothers will don the Ray Lewis jersey he received for Christmas, put his travails aside and root his team on. It was a tough year for Brothers, 28, of Westminster. He was spurned by his girlfriend and had two auto accidents. Last month, engine repairs cost Brothers $3,000. Meanwhile, a friend wrecked his second car.

"I am living proof that Murphy really wrote a law," Brothers said. "But watching the Ravens has helped dull the pain. That's three hours where I get to go to a place where nothing matters but football. Sunday's game will drown out everything, and I'll be happy as a clam - as long as there's a 'W' at the end of it."

Wrapping oneself in the home team's identity is generally a harmless diversion, experts say.

"What's wrong with positive escapism as long as you don't neglect the important things in your life?" said Dr. Jim McGee, retired chief of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital. "It won't cure true clinical depression, but it sure can shake the blues, brighten your day and distract you from things that might be bothering you, like the economy."

'It's contagious'

Expect the Ravens' success to have an even greater effect on the collective mind-set of the community, McGee said.

"The potency of the 'medicine' may be really enhanced by the effect it has on the group," he said. "It's a lot easier for individuals to feel positive when those around them feel positive. It's contagious."

The Ravens' quest has touched the young and the old, the well-known and the average Joe. In his flat at Charlestown Community in Catonsville, William Donald Schaefer would do cartwheels if he weren't 87.

"People are downright proud of what this team has done," said Schaefer, the former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. "The city needed something like this right now, and we got it. These Ravens have brought back the spirit of the old Colts."

A college sophomore, Paul Taylor of Forest Hill follows the Ravens religiously. A pastoral student at Martin Luther College in Minnesota, he bought a satellite radio to hear their games this year.

"When they win, it shades my view of life and helps me study better," said Taylor, 19. On Sunday, he'll put on his Joe Flacco jersey, bow his head, say a prayer for the Ravens and cheer them on.

Ditto for Cal Ripken, the Orioles Hall of Famer who plans to watch the game with his children - Rachel, 19, in her Ed Reed shirt, and Ryan, 15, a Ray Lewis fan.

"These are down times, so it's magical to be absorbed in this team," Ripken said. A regular at Ravens home games, he missed one last month to attend a bash at the Kennedy Center in Washington honoring Barbra Streisand and others. While there, Ripken had a friend send updates on the game via his BlackBerry.

"I tried to be discreet about it," he said. "When you travel and your football team is good, it's nice to stick out your chest and say, 'I'm from Baltimore.' "

Brooks Robinson agreed.

"I'm juiced up, and I'll tune in," said Robinson, Orioles Hall of Famer and star of the 1970 World Series. "What makes this [playoff run] even sweeter is the fact that nobody anticipated it."

Temporary medicine

And if the Ravens stumble? Those who envision a storybook finish shouldn't veer from reality, said Howard Nixon, a sociology professor at Towson University.

"Seasons end, and the success that has transported fans away from thoughts of lost jobs, declining income, mounting bills, eroding pensions, failing marriages, poverty, health problems or other stresses of everyday life cannot make these stresses and challenges of real life go away," Nixon said.

"Entertainment, fantasy and passion - essential elements of contemporary sports for the fans - have the capacity to distract us temporarily from the challenging elements of our lives, but they cannot fundamentally change reality for us or make the world in general safer, happier, healthier or more peaceful."

For Taylor, the preacher-in-training, a defeat Sunday wouldn't be hell.

"If we lose to Miami, I won't be upset," Taylor said. "I mean, we got to the playoffs - and, for a week at least, everything in the world looked pretty good."

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