Good luck wrapping this Baltimore sports year with a tidy bow.
The Orioles collapsed down the stretch in a disquieting reminder of the pre-Buck Showalter years. The Ravens tried to climb out of mediocrity as fans questioned the team’s long-term direction and argued about the possibility of signing Colin Kaepernick. Neither Maryland basketball team made a sustained March push, and the football team staggered to a disappointing 4-8 record. Talk of the Preakness’ future location might have overshadowed the actual race.
Where was the joy, 2017?
Well, you had to look a bit to the side. The Maryland men’s lacrosse team exorcised 42 years’ worth of title-game demons, and the women reclaimed their dominance. Juan Dixon returned home to take his first head coaching job at Coppin State. The Blast won another championship and opened a new era in Towson.
It wasn’t all bad, but it sure wasn’t great. So here they are, the 10 Baltimore-area sports stories that defined the year:
No one was terribly surprised when the Blast won another Major Arena Soccer League title last spring. Championships are the norm for a franchise that has remained remarkably stable amid stormy economic times for the indoor sport.
The real twist came when the talent-packed Blast announced that they would defend their title not at Royal Farms Arena but at SECU Arena at Towson University.
The Blast had been a downtown staple since they began playing at the then-Civic Center in 1980. They drew a loyal audience and charmed generations of Baltimore fans with their catchy theme songs and striking red-and-orange uniforms.
They made the move to Towson in search of a more raucous atmosphere at the more intimate college arena. And they began their new life much as they left their old, with an exciting 8-7 victory before a near-sellout crowd.
Ravens’ interest in Kaepernick spurs fierce debate
Ravens coach John Harbaugh poured oil on one of the most combustible stories in sports in late July when he said, almost matter-of-factly, that the Ravens were considering signing Kaepernick as a backup quarterback.
Kaepernick earned many fans and just as many detractors in 2016 when he began sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice.
With Joe Flacco sidelined by a back injury at the start of training camp, the Ravens seemed to need an experienced quarterback. And Kaepernick had maintained a warm relationship with Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, his onetime coach with the San Francisco 49ers.
The Kaepernick story raged on the city’s editorial pages and talk-radio stations for more than a week, with some fans calling for the Ravens to make a bold signing and others saying they’d renounce their season tickets if Kaepernick donned a purple-and-black uniform. The controversy eventually swept in team owner Steve Bisciotti and the franchise’s most famous former player, Ray Lewis.
The Ravens hoped to begin 2017 with a run of playoff games. Instead, they had to sit home for a third time in four years as fans grumbled about a growing malaise surrounding the team.
Owner Steve Bisciotti, however, resisted calls for sweeping change. Instead, he expressed absolute faith that general manager Ozzie Newsome, coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco could right the ship for 2017.
Beyond retaining their longtime power structure, the Ravens doubled down on their identity as a defense-first franchise, using their first four draft picks on defensive players and spending tens of millions of dollars to sign defensive tackle Brandon Williams and defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr.
The resulting defense delivered three shutouts in the team’s first 10 games. But the Ravens remained an uneven team, held back by one of the league’s worst offenses. Patches of empty seats began to pop up at home games, and it was unclear how well fans might tolerate another offseason with no franchise overhaul.
For six years, the Orioles and manager Showalter had defied predictions that they’d slip back into sub-.500 mediocrity.
But the analysts were finally correct in 2017 as horrid starting pitching and dreadful seasons from pricey sluggers Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo doomed the Orioles to the dregs of the American League.
They began September on the fringe of wild-card contention but went just 4-19 down the stretch to fall to last place in the AL East. It was a swoon reminiscent of the bad old days when the Orioles went 14 straight seasons without a winning record.
The diminutive Davis began 2017 with a big bang when he stopped undefeated José Pedraza in the seventh round to win the International Boxing Federation jjunior lightweight title in January. At age 22, with mentor Floyd Mayweather lauding him as the next big thing, the Baltimore-raised champion seemed on the verge of stardom.
He went to England to knock out another undefeated fighter, Liam Walsh, in his first title defense. And he planned to show off his skills before a giant pay-per-view audience on the undercard of the Mayweather-Conor McGregor superfight in August.
That plan was spoiled when Davis failed to make the 130-pound weight limit and thus lost his title despite beating Francisco Fonseca in an underwhelming performance. Later in the year, he faced assault charges, which since have been dropped, in connection with an alleged fracas at the West Baltimore gym where he’s trained since childhood.
Davis flashes spectacular hand speed and packs a wallop that belies his 5-foot-5 frame. He yearns to be a hero to the Upton neighborhood from which he came.
But 2018 will be a pivotal year as he fights to regain his title and resume his career ascent.
Nine times since 1975, the Maryland men’s lacrosse team had made it all the way to the NCAA final. Nine times, it had lost.
Surely, coach John Tillman and his players were tired of being derided as the Buffalo Bills of lacrosse. Led by senior attackman Matt Rambo, the Terps finally put decades of big-game disappointment to bed with a 9-6 win over Ohio State in the national championship game in Foxborough, Mass.
“A weight is definitely lifted off my chest,” said Rambo, winner of the Tewaaraton Award as the nation’s best player.
Cathy Reese’s women’s team also looked to shake some unpleasant history in the form of a 2016 title-game loss that marred an otherwise perfect season.
This time, they stuck to their flawless script until the last exclamation point, beating Boston College in the championship game to go 23-0 and claim a third NCAA crown in four years.
Reese’s Terps are the unquestioned queens of the sport. As Boston College coach Acacia Walker said, “Taking down Maryland is like taking down the dragon.”
You couldn’t miss the billboards around town: “Welcome Coach Juan Dixon/Coppin Takes Big Shots.”
They weren’t wrong. The West Baltimore university made its biggest sporting splash in years when it named the hometown hero as its men’s basketball coach.
Dixon, who starred at Calvert Hall and led Maryland to a national championship before playing seven seasons in the NBA, said he’d rely on his deep connections in Baltimore and Washington (he also worked as a special assistant to Mark Turgeon at Maryland) to build a better talent base.
He gives the program an identity it has not possessed since Fang Mitchell’s heyday.
But as the Eagles showed with an 0-6 start to Dixon’s first season, progress won’t be immediate.
Baltimore native enjoys Preakness victory as questions about Pimlico loom
The Triple Crown was a muddle this year with a different winner in each race. Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming faltered before a record crowd of 140,327 at the142nd Preakness, clearing the way for an upset victory by Cloud Computing.
Cloud Computing’s co-owner, hedge-fund wizard Seth Klarman, grew up three blocks from Pimlico Race Course. He watched Secretariat win the 1973 Preakness. So the victory was “incredibly special” for him, even if it left the wider racing world unsure what to make of an erratic 3-year-old class.
Meanwhile, the fate of Pimlico loomed larger than any individual race. In late February, the Maryland Stadium Authority released the first phase of a study saying an extensive rehabilitation of the dilapidated track would cost about $300 million.
Maryland Jockey Club officials said an even more costly rebuild was likely necessary and continued talking about Laurel Park as a possible destination for the Preakness.
The discussion stood in limbo at year’s end, with the stadium authority awaiting funding and approval for a more detailed second phase of the study.
More than any other person, even coach Mark Turgeon, Melo Trimble was the face of Maryland basketball’s resurgence over the past three years.
Trimble burst onto the scene as a freshman with his uncanny feel for finding gaps in a defense, and he pulled the Terps to a startling 28-7 record in their first season in the Big Ten. Perhaps he never grew into the national Player of the Year candidate some fans envisioned, but he still led Maryland to a 79-25 record and three NCAA tournament appearances in three seasons.
When Trimble entered the NBA draft after the 2016-2017 season, Turgeon said he “helped change the face of our program.”
On the women’s side, Brenda Frese’s Terps were plenty good before Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones showed up.
But that made it all the more impressive that the pair became two of Frese’s greatest players, with Walker-Kimbrough finishing as the fourth-leading scorer in school history and Jones sixth. They complemented each other perfectly — Walker-Kimbrough the willowy sharpshooter and Jones the immovable post presence.
Their senior run ended before they wanted it to with a loss in the Sweet 16. But Maryland went 125-17 and made two Final Fours during their careers. And they saw their jerseys unveiled in the rafters at the Xfinity Center.