City's reluctant to commit to purple passion

If sales of T-shirts are any indication, Baltimore still has a passion for purple - just not as much as last year.

Like spurned sweethearts, Ravens fans have had their hopes dashed by a so-so season. They are wary of commitment. They're reluctant to display their hearts, let alone their car flags.

"I don't want to get hurt again," said Linnea D. Johnson, an administrative coordinator for the Johns Hopkins University, who admits to pessimism about her team's postseason chances. "I've had my heart broken too many times. It was easier to be optimistic last year, when we were on a roll."

Last January, it seemed as if every second or third car sported a Ravens bumper sticker. Downtown was lit up at night in purple. Team merchandise flew off the shelves. People went to work on Fridays resembling giant plums.

But a year later, city officials are adopting a wait-and-see attitude before deciding whether to bathe the Bromo Seltzer Tower in a Ravens-tinged glow. And it's not just the city that's delaying the party.

"To be honest, I haven't gotten too many group orders so far," Paul Nelson, who handles the catering for Andy Nelson's Barbecue in Cockeysville, said Thursday. "I don't know why people aren't calling. It's kind of eerie, really."

The economy, which has caused consumers to think twice before reaching for their wallets, is likely playing a part. But so are diminished expectations, pundits say. In the 2008 regular season, the Ravens had a new coach, a new young quarterback, and racked up a surprising 11-5 record. This season, when the team was expected to be even better, the Ravens were 9-7, and several of the defeats were wrenching.

It doesn't help that oddsmakers favor the New England Patriots over the Ravens on Sunday by a margin of 3 1/2 points.

If the big birds prevail this weekend - and that's a big "if" - expect citywide enthusiasm to build. Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, said that next week, city crews will place purple gels into the floodlights illuminating one of the city's most recognizable landmarks: the Bromo Seltzer Tower.

Gilmore acknowledges that the building went purple earlier last season.

"The passion level needs to build," he said. "We're going to wait until we win on Sunday. We don't want to jinx things."

After all, there's no sense in going to the time and expense of putting up a bunch of lights only to have to take them down one week later. And throughout the Baltimore region, fans are showing a similar, pragmatic restraint.

Mood Factory, a company that sells customized light bulbs in stores such as Walmart and Ace Hardware, said sales of purple-colored bulbs are down 50 percent this year. And unlike last year, retail stores aren't displaying their bulbs prominently by their checkout counters, according to Kathryn Goetzke, president of the company, which has offices in Annapolis and Ann Arbor, Mich.

"Sales go up and down with how energized people are," Goetzke said. "Last year, they were buying them like crazy. This year, we're not experiencing the same spike."

The Greetings & Readings bookstore in Hunt Valley is known for carrying a large selection of Ravens merchandise, from T-shirts to mugs to those ubiquitous car flags. Last year, the store couldn't keep that season's commemorative shirts, "Joe the Quarterback" and "Wacko for Flacco" in stock. Store owner Steve Spund had to arrange for two deliveries a day.

This year, one daily shipment of this season's "I Believe in Purple" shirt has been enough to meet demand.

"Last year, it was a frenzy," Spund said. "This year, people are a little nervous, a little less confident that they'll go as far as they did last season," when the Ravens played for (and ultimately lost) the AFC championship to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Radio personality Nestor Aparicio, who books trips for fans to playoff games, noticed a drop-off in fans wanting to ride a bus to the greater Boston area to root for the Ravens.

"This is the wait-and-see week," said Aparicio, an avowed optimist. "Monday morning, all the negative ninnies can say, 'I told you so,' if they lose. But they'll also be the first ones on Monday trying to call and see if they can get on the bus to Indianapolis."

Both Aparicio, who runs the sports talk radio station WNST (1570 AM), and radio talk show host Damon "Bulldog" Yaffe of WHFS (105.7 FM) say that about one in five callers expects the Ravens to fall to the Patriots.

"The expectation level is much lower this time around," Aparicio said. "The purple fever is not at an acceptable level for me."

Gabrielle Dow, the Ravens' vice president of marketing, says the team hasn't noticed any drop-off in fan fervor.

"It's too cold to put lights up," she said. "I wouldn't use that as the basis for thinking that people aren't behind us."

She said the Ravens are seeing the same interest from fans as last year - and possibly are collecting even more "bandwagon fans" (or latecomers) than a year ago.

Spend time listening to talk radio or reading message forums, and it can appear that there are two kinds of Ravens fans - true believers willing to drink the purple Kool-Aid and the skeptics, who, like Johnson, are labeled "doom-and-gloomers."

Talk about a purple haze.

"I think you can be a fan and a realist," Johnson said. "Sports fans are very superstitious animals. They think that if not every fan is 100 percent believing, somehow the bad mojo will spill over and affect the game. I get ragged on all the time if I express even one little inkling of doubt."

Her fellow fan and naysayer, Vince Flava, could be considered a pessimistic optimist. Flava spars about the Ravens' fortunes on a daily basis with customers and employees at his Paca Street grocery store, Trinacria Macaroni Works. He's persuaded himself that a glass that's half-empty is infinitely preferable to one that's half-full.

"When you expect the worst," Flava says, "whatever little success you get, you're happy. I didn't expect the Ravens to beat the Steelers, so I'm happy. I didn't expect them to make the playoffs, so I'm happy. I don't expect them to win on Sunday, so any little good thing that happens during the game is a plus.

"The way I look at it, it's a win-win situation."