Try to imagine it: a Sunday afternoon in late September, and not one so far away that it feels like a fantasy. Another sweltering Baltimore summer has dissipated, and in the cool autumn breeze you can smell fresh grass and meat on the grill.
You're full of nervous energy because, as is the case today back in real life, it's the day of the Ravens home opener at M&T Bank Stadium. Maybe you're even heading to the stadium, ready to tailgate. But something is distracting you. It's stirring up old feelings, emotions so dormant you almost forgot you once had them.
The Orioles are fighting for a playoff spot.
Picture it: Camden Yards packed, even on weeknights. Vibrant fans donning orange and black and outnumbering Yankee fans after Labor Day. Road games are can't-miss television. Talk radio is filled with chatter about setting up the post-season pitching rotation instead of debating back-up quarterbacks.
A Charm City fantasy? Maybe.
But the Orioles' late-season stretch of stellar baseball has been such a welcome surprise that it has allowed fans to fantasize about a scenario that hasn't occurred in more than three decades.
As one season folds into the other, it seems like an appropriate time to think about how we got here. To a place where football is the undisputed king of basements, living rooms and bars, and baseball is an afterthought. There is a generation of young fans now with no understanding of what it feels like to experience baseball in October, who must feel like baseball is just a way to pass the time until the Ravens begin training camp. There is no denying the city's heart now belongs to football. But surely Baltimore can have both, right?
"I feel like [Camden Yards] right now is like a dry sponge," said Bryan Sullivan, a local chef who nursed a beer and watched the Orioles on television recently at Sliders Bar and Grille, one of the few bars downtown that still bills itself as an Orioles hangout. "The Ravens are soaking up everyone. If we could get the Orioles back up to where they're over .500 consistently, it would be amazing for our city."
Sullivan said he believes he represents a lot of Baltimore sports fans. His love of the Ravens is on permanent display. He has a tattoo of Homer Simpson wearing a Ray Lewis jersey on his right shoulder, and one of Bart Simpson in a Jamal Lewis jersey on his left shoulder. He tailgates at every home game, and has missed only a handful of them in the last five years. He helped organize a Ravens Roost at Sliders Bar and Grille. His love of the Orioles, though strong, simmers below the surface. His basement, he says, is a mini-shrine to the Orioles and Ravens, but he has more Orioles memorabilia. He has a dog named Boog. One of his most prized possessions is a chef coat signed by Cal Ripken Jr.
"I believe the rebuilding is finally happening, and the team is finally blossoming," Sullivan said. "I feel like next year, the Orioles and Ravens are going to have to have a discussion about what games are when, because people are finally going to want to go to both. I would love to see them do a deal where they had a football game during the day, and then a Sunday night baseball game where people could tailgate all day."
Sullivan's optimism has some fuel behind it. The Orioles' record this season since manager Buck Showalter took over the team has stirred hope that the franchise might finally be building a foundation to allow them to compete in the American League East the next few seasons.
Even if the Orioles aren't quite ready to make the playoffs in 2011, just playing meaningful games in August and September would be a welcome change after 13 straight losing seasons.
"It's definitely a football town now," said Bob Haynie, who has been hosting a sports talk radio show in town for more than 10 years. "I think the fans realize that even if the Ravens are having a down year, they'll make the necessary improvements in the off-season to contend. Whereas the Orioles, unless they decide to spend a bunch of money out of nowhere and get some big-time players, they're not going to compete in the American League East."
It didn't used to be this way.
When owner Art Modell relocated the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996 and rechristened them the Ravens, the Orioles were still the toast of the town. Baltimore was still very much a baseball city, with a sports landscape dominated by baseball chatter. While the Ravens struggled to find their footing early on, going 16-31-1 over their first three seasons, the Orioles were posting back-to-back playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997. Their home-grown shortstop, Ripken, was considered one of the most beloved players in baseball.
We know what happened next. The Ravens evolved into one of the NFL's model franchises, winning a Super Bowl in 2000 and qualifying for the playoffs six times in 10 years. Games at M&T Bank Stadium sell out within hours, the team's purple and black apparel practically flies off the racks, and their best player, Ray Lewis, is one of the most famous people in the state.
Over the same time period, the Orioles have deteriorated into a punch line. Though their winning percentage under Showalter has been one of the best in baseball, they're still likely to finish more than 30 games behind the first-place Yankees. Ripken has now been retired for nine full seasons. Owner Peter Angelos is widely-disliked, and Camden Yards, once seen as the crown jewel of ballparks, sits half empty many nights. Despite the team's recent success, some of the Orioles' most dedicated fans feel their patience growing thin.
"I feel really conflicted about the [late-season success under Showalter]," said Stacey Long, editor of Camden Chat, a popular Orioles fan site. "On one hand, it seems like they're really playing better and that something has changed. It's not just a few games. It's 30 percent of the season that they've been playing this well. It's not just a hot streak. But at the same time, I've never really believed a manager could do that much. The team has a lot of holes. I worry we're all going to be in for a big wake-up call next year. I do feel hope, but it's very tenuous."
Fans have been frustrated for so long, you almost can't help but wonder: If the Orioles somehow proved they were ready to contend again, could they instantly regain credibility with locals?
"It has become pretty common in Baltimore to say that the Ravens will forever own this town, but I do not believe that to be true," said Chris Stoner, an Orioles and Ravens fan who is the author of the sports blog Baltimore Sports And Life. "People have grown attached to the Ravens because they have been largely competitive and played in a lot of games that have 'mattered.' [But] Oriole fans will come back when this team shows they can be competitive over a full-season."
Stoner said it's important to point out that the Ravens and Orioles are a bit of an unfair comparison. It's a lot easier to rebuild in the NFL, where there is a salary cap and television revenues are shared equally among the teams. There is also a weekly build-up to each football game, whereas baseball is a 162-game marathon.
"It's easier to fill a stadium eight times a year than 81," Stoner said.
Joe Wandishin, a life-long Orioles fan who has worked as a bartender at Sliders across from Camden Yards the past three years, said there has been a noticeable drop in patrons as the Orioles have gotten worse. It used to be, on the night of a home game, Sliders would need two bartenders to handle customers pouring into the bar before and after each game. Now, that's almost never necessary unless the Yankees are in town.
"We've had a little more traffic since Buck took over and they started winning," Wandishin said. "But when you're only getting 10,000 people a night, you can't expect to get much of a crowd. I have a lot of friends in the [bar] industry, and we talk all the time about how good it would be for business in this city if the Orioles were competitive again."
The last time Baltimore could boast a competitive baseball team and a playoff caliber NFL team was 1977, the year Bert Jones led the Colts to a 10-4 record and third straight AFC East title, and the Orioles won 97 games, contending through the final week of the season before finishing 2.5 games behind the Yankees.
"I've thought a lot about whether this is a football town or baseball town," said Matt Taylor, who grew up an Orioles fan and started a blog, The Roar From 34, in 2006 so he could vent. "I think what I've I settled on is that it's a sports town. The fans are willing to get behind any team as long as it's competitive. If one team struggles as badly as the Orioles have, people are going to lose interest. I think it wouldn't take much, just a .500 record, and people would still be talking about the team even when Ravens training camp started. The passion is there, but it's hard not be a little cynical."