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Schmuck: Looking back on the 10 most compelling Baltimore sports stories of 2019

Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is asked about wanting to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Here we are at the end of another year, which can mean only one thing. Somebody has got to pick the Top 10 local sports stories of 2019 and, as you can see, I lost the coin flip at midfield and was not allowed to defer.

So here, in no particular order, are the stories that captured my imagination over the past 12 months and, I’m guessing, also got your attention. There was some debate whether I should expand the list to 15, since there were probably were some big soccer and UFC moments, but I didn’t want to look indecisive:

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The rise of ‘Action Jackson’

Second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson has been such a revelation that it’s hard to imagine what more he could do for an encore next year. His record-shattering performance during his first full season as an NFL starter has carried the Ravens to the No. 1 AFC playoff seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

So sure, you’d expect everyone in Baltimore to have a fan-crush on him, but it seems like the entire country has been stricken with a case of Lamar-mania. His jersey was one of this year’s hottest holiday gifts, and not just here in the Mid-Atlantic region. He led all vote-getters in balloting for the Pro Bowl and his popularity with his teammates is off the charts.

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He has been, quite simply, the feel-good sports story of 2019.

Baltimore Orioles' 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick Adley Rutschman, left, poses for pictures with Mike Elias during a news conference at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Baltimore Orioles' 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick Adley Rutschman, left, poses for pictures with Mike Elias during a news conference at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Rutschman and the Orioles rebuild

The new Orioles brain trust has made it clear that the first several years of the team’s drastic rebuilding program are going to be painful, and who’s going to argue after the 2019 club piled 108 losses on top of last year’s franchise record 115 defeats?

New baseball operations chief Mike Elias said from the start that the early emphasis would be on creating an “elite talent pipeline” and took the first major step in that direction when the Orioles drafted and moved quickly to sign top overall pick Adley Rutschman.

Rutschman is at least a couple years away from the major leagues, but he gives Orioles fans something to dream about while they wait for Elias and his staff to take advantage of prime draft positions the next couple of years. The Orioles have the second overall choice in 2020 and should be in line for the top pick in 2021 if the team’s offseason moves are any indication.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) throws to a receiver in the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Baltimore.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) throws to a receiver in the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Baltimore. (Gail Burton / AP)

Time to go, Joe

No one denies that Joe Flacco — to this point — is the greatest quarterback in the history of the Ravens franchise, but when an injury opened the door for rookie Lamar Jackson at midseason last year, it was obvious to all that Flacco’s days in Baltimore were numbered.

So, it came as a surprise to no one when “Joe Cool” was traded to the Denver Broncos in March for a fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft. The Ravens used that pick to draft speedy running back Justice Hill, who is expected to help pick up the slack with injured feature back Mark Ingram II unavailable for Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Orioles first baseman Chris Davis broke the record for consecutive hitless at-bats of 47 set by Eugenio Vélez in the 2010-2011 season.
Orioles first baseman Chris Davis broke the record for consecutive hitless at-bats of 47 set by Eugenio Vélez in the 2010-2011 season. (Will Newton / AP)

The Chris Davis debacle

The Orioles were hoping this was the year that $161 million slugger Chris Davis would pull himself out of a multi-year slump and deliver a return on his huge salary, but it was not to be. Quite the contrary, Davis made history — and not in a good way — when he went without a hit in his first 12 games of 2019 and extended a hitless streak that began last September to a major league record 54 at-bats.

Davis ended the streak with a three-hit performance and batted .343 over an 11-game stretch, but his struggles resumed and his frustration boiled over in August, when he had to be restrained by teammates during a nasty verbal altercation with manager Brandon Hyde. The two quickly made up and both Hyde and Elias have said the team is hopeful to get Davis back on track this spring.

Former Baltimore Oriole players participate in a ceremony for Frank Robinson, who died in February, before the Orioles' baseball game against the New York Yankees, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Former Baltimore Oriole players participate in a ceremony for Frank Robinson, who died in February, before the Orioles' baseball game against the New York Yankees, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton) (Gail Burton/AP)

A legend leaves us

Barrier-breaking Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who led the Orioles to their first World Series in 1966, managed the team for parts of four seasons (1988-91) and also served as assistant general manager during the early 1990s, died in February of bone cancer. He was 83.

Robinson, of course, was a two-time MVP and became Major League Baseball’s first African-American manager when the Cleveland Indians hired him to be their player-manager in 1975. He became the first African-American manager in the National League when he was hired by the San Francisco Giants in 1981.

Though he only played for the Orioles for six seasons and lived most of his life in Los Angeles, he was a beloved figure in Baltimore and always claimed the city as his second home.

Jockey John Velazquez (red, yellow) fails to get a clean start as Bodexpress throws the jockey off during the 114th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course Sat., May 18, 2019.
Jockey John Velazquez (red, yellow) fails to get a clean start as Bodexpress throws the jockey off during the 114th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course Sat., May 18, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

A plan finally emerges for Pimlico

The fate of dilapidated Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness Stakes had been debated for years, but the popularity of horse racing in Maryland was buoyed when American Pharoah passed through town on the way to becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed (1978) and Justified turned the trick again just three years later.

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Still, it was widely believed that the Preakness would be moved to Laurel Park until a tentative deal was struck in October to rebuild Old Hilltop and keep the second jewel of the Triple Crown in Baltimore City in perpetuity.

John Angelos, the Orioles executive vice president.
John Angelos, the Orioles executive vice president. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

John Angelos stuffs relocation rumors

Depending on which cocktail parties you attend, you probably know somebody who knows somebody who has heard that the Orioles are planning to blow town and relocate to Nashville or Las Vegas or Montreal.

Well, those rumors have been debunked more than once and Orioles executive vice president John Angelos finally addressed them publicly during a panel discussion with local business leaders at M&T Bank Stadium in September.

The Orioles, he said, would stay in Baltimore “as long as Fort McHenry is standing watch over the Inner Harbor.”

That sounds pretty definitive, unless the National Parks Department is secretly planning to more Fort McHenry to Indianapolis.

Maryland head coach Mike Locksley watches his team against Ohio State during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State beat Maryland 73-14. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Maryland head coach Mike Locksley watches his team against Ohio State during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State beat Maryland 73-14. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete) (Jay LaPrete/AP)

Tough times in Tortoiseville

In the aftermath of the Jordan McNair tragedy, University of Maryland football fans were hoping that new head coach Mike Locksley would be able to get the beleaguered Terps program moving in the right direction this past season, but that wasn’t to be.

The Terps got off to a strong start with a huge blowout victory over Howard and a 63-point performance against No. 21 Syracuse, but the season quickly unraveled and devolved into a long string of ugly losses that called into question whether Maryland football might ever be a force in the Big Ten.

St. Frances Panthers senior basketball player Angel Reese during the team's Midnight Madness rally, where she announces her commitment to sign with the Maryland Terrapins Fri., Nov. 1, 2019.
St. Frances Panthers senior basketball player Angel Reese during the team's Midnight Madness rally, where she announces her commitment to sign with the Maryland Terrapins Fri., Nov. 1, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland jumping through hoops

Or course, there is more to Maryland athletics than football, and thank goodness for that. The Terps continue to be very competitive nationally in both men’s and women’s basketball and both programs have produced some major highlights recently.

The men’s team opened the season with 10 straight victories and climbed as high as No. 3 in the AP rankings, but recently dropped out of the Top 10 with back-to-back losses. The women’s team also has spent much of the season in the Top 10 and coach Brenda Frese scored a major coup in early November when five-star prospect Angel Reese announced that she was committing to Maryland.

Reese, considered the No. 2 overall prospect nationally, is the highest-ranked recruit every to commit to the Terps.

National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Mike Mussina, former Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees pitcher, speaks during an induction ceremony at the Clark Sports Center on Sunday, July 21, 2019, in Cooperstown, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)
National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Mike Mussina, former Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees pitcher, speaks during an induction ceremony at the Clark Sports Center on Sunday, July 21, 2019, in Cooperstown, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink) (Hans Pennink/AP)

Decking the Halls

Baltimore was well-represented during both the baseball and football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 2019, with O’s (and Yankees) pitcher Mike Mussina gaining induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Ravens safety Ed Reed joining previous Ravens inductees Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Mussina was one of three players with Orioles ties to get their plaques hung in Cooperstown. Eastern Shore native Harold Baines and reliever Lee Smith also gained induction and were honored alongside Mussina and unanimous choice Mariano Rivera.

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