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A troubling week for Baltimore sports fans

A troubling week for Baltimore sports fans
Baltimore Orioles' Chris Davis is congratulated after scoring against the Boston Red Sox. (David Butler II / USA Today Sports)

Just seven days ago, Baltimore's sports fans, the faithful clad in orange and purple, were brimming with optimism.

The Ravens were set to open what they hoped would be a bounce-back season with star running back Ray Rice due to return at the end of the week from a two-game suspension for a domestic violence incident — a penalty roundly criticized as too light. The Orioles, meanwhile, were rolling toward a division title, leading their nearest rivals by a margin they hadn't enjoyed in decades.

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But fans awoke to a nightmare Monday morning when TMZ posted video footage of Rice, a player once cherished for his civic conscience, felling his then-fiancee with a vicious punch; he was released by the team later in the day. On Friday, fans took an unexpected jolt from a different direction when Major League Baseball announced a 25-game suspension of Orioles infielder Chris Davis for amphetamine use.

The roller-coaster week left fans deeply disappointed in both stars. Scenes of Rice's action triggered widespread disgust. Davis' suspension sparked concern that he violated league rules, will miss much of the playoffs and might jeopardize the team's chances of winning in baseball's postseason.

"Not a good week for Baltimore," said Pat Powderly, 23, of Baltimore, who watched the Orioles play the New York Yankees on Friday afternoon from the center-field bar at Camden Yards.

That darkened mood spread quickly among Baltimore fans and players. The Rice video had an even broader impact, triggering a storm of criticism and thrusting the city into the midst of a nationwide debate about the NFL's priorities and cultural attitudes regarding violence against women.

The Ravens gave loyalists a moment to exhale with a victory Thursday night over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. But even as fans happily parsed the particulars the next morning, they found out that their baseball team would be without Davis until deep in the playoffs — should the team advance that far.

Like Rice, Davis is a magnetic figure whose jersey, No. 19, is a frequent sight around the city. He had exceeded modest expectations, hitting a franchise-record 53 home runs last season and delivering staunch words against drug use in baseball when critics expressed suspicions that he might be using steroids.

Now, he's the latest face of baseball's seemingly never-ending drug saga, and talk of the Orioles' impending title in the American League East seems an afterthought, at least for the moment.

The assessment of Lou Zachman, a 40-year-old banker from Baltimore, was typical among fans watching the Orioles on Friday. "All you heard was Ray Rice. Now all you'll hear is Chris Davis."

Losing their luster

For the Ravens, the road to a painful week began many months ago.

As confetti rained on the field in New Orleans in the waning hours of Feb. 3, 2013, life seemed nearly perfect for anyone who cared about the team.

The Ravens had just won their second Super Bowl in the final game for the franchise's signature star, Ray Lewis. The day before, the team's first Baltimore draft pick, Jonathan Ogden, had been selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Ozzie Newsome, the architect of this model football operation, said it was a scenario so grand that no one would have dared write the script.

Rice was a key part of that championship team, and he represented everything the Ravens wanted from a player. The second-round draft pick had blossomed into the NFL's total yardage leader and embraced his role as a community role model through his anti-bullying activism.

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That all began to change after Rice was charged with assault in an incident last February; authorities said he knocked his then-fiancee unconscious in the elevator of the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City.

Team officials stood by Rice for six months after TMZ posted initial footage of him dragging Janay Palmer, who is now his wife, from the elevator. But that steadfastness, a trait many admired in the Ravens, turned against them. In an apologetic letter sent Tuesday to suite owners, seat license holders and sponsors, owner Steve Bisciotti wrote that his organization had not done enough to investigate the incident and that "no amount of explanation can remedy that."

The letter punctuated one of the lowest periods in the history of a team beloved by Baltimore fans and previously admired around the NFL for its stability and savvy.

Rice's actions and the team's reluctant response overshadowed all else. But the Ravens also endured a frustrating season on the field last season, failing to make the playoffs for the first time under coach John Harbaugh. After signing a $120 million contract, quarterback Joe Flacco had the worst season of his career.

Off the field, Rice was among the five Ravens players arrested in the offseason, the most on any NFL team. The Ravens also squabbled with the Orioles over conflicting game dates.

Such struggles have translated into reduced merchandise sales, according to Matt Powell of Princeton Retail Analysis. In 2013, the Ravens parlayed their Super Bowl victory into a 14.1 percent share of U.S. retail spending on the NFL, Powell said. That share is down to 2.2 percent in 2014.

Powell said that is likely due to a decline in on-field performance, though it's hard to pinpoint the causes.

The Ravens, whose sponsors have stood by them this week, are unlikely to experience much of a financial hit, if any, said Bob Dorfman, creative director for San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising.

"The TV money is massive, the ratings continue to grow and unless the Rice story turns into a massive cover-up tale with [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell and the Ravens organization taking the fall, the sponsors aren't going away," Dorfman said. "As ugly as this situation has become, it hasn't affected the action on the field, and that's what keeps the fan interest high and the money flowing in."

As the players attempted to maintain focus, they didn't much want to talk about Rice or the other issues swirling around them.

"I don't know. It's tough for me to say, 'under siege,'" Flacco said. "It is what it is."

Despite widespread anger at the NFL and the Ravens, others outside the organization argued that Rice's actions should not tarnish an entire team.

"Ray put a lot of people in tough spots," said former Ravens tight end and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. "We can blame and say, 'Well, the Ravens didn't dig deep enough or the NFL didn't.' But if Ray Rice doesn't put himself in that position, that's all moot."

Ravens fans turned out in force Thursday, cheering their team to an important victory over the Steelers. But that belied the reality that fans have spent the past seven months wrestling with complex emotions about a player they once adored and a team they love almost unconditionally.

Lila Shapiro-Cyr, a Baltimore attorney and mother of two, was proud when one of her sons told her in July that he no longer wanted to wear his Rice jersey. She watched the casino video with both boys Monday.

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"My 10-year-old looked at me in disbelief and said, 'Why would he do that?'" she said.

Shapiro-Cyr contemplated how hard it would be to root for the team if Rice remained, and was relieved when the Ravens cut ties to her boys' former hero.

She and her family plan to continue rooting for the Ravens. "They're still our football team, right?" the Mount Washington resident said. "For all the things that don't sit well with you in professional sports, you think about being there watching with your family or your neighbors, and there's real value there."

'Timing is never good'

The Orioles, meanwhile, are more used to deep-seated doubts directed at their top decision-makers. They didn't have a single winning season from 1998 to 2011. During that span, they coped with drug scandals involving star players, late-season collapses, overmatched managers and frequent fan complaints about meddling from owner Peter G. Angelos.

Yet the Orioles have been reborn over the past three seasons behind manager Buck Showalter's clever maneuvers and a wave of young, personable stars that includes Davis. They returned to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years in 2012, posted another winning record last year and are on their way to an improbable runaway in a division once dominated by the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

Davis' 25-game suspension, which he blamed on unapproved use of Adderall, seemed to come out of nowhere, with the slugger informing Showalter of the news by phone Thursday night.

It is Davis' second positive test for an amphetamine in his career. According to the sport's collective bargaining agreement, there is no penalty for a first failed test. The player is warned and subjected to additional unannounced tests, but the first offense isn't made public or disclosed to the team.

The punishment for his second offense will keep Davis out for the last 17 games of the regular season and at least the first eight of the postseason, if the Orioles make it that far.

Suddenly, a team with the second-best record in baseball seems more vulnerable.

It is not clear precisely how much his absence will hurt the Orioles. His performance this season has fallen well short of his 2013 standard. And the Orioles have survived the loss of two All-Stars — catcher Matt Wieters to an elbow injury and third baseman Manny Machado to a knee injury.

Davis' suspension will have little impact on the team's brand, said Bob Dorfman, creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.

"Unless this proves to be the tip of the iceberg — the first of many drug suspensions by Oriole players, or if it comes out that management knew and covered up Davis' misdeed, which is highly unlikely — the Oriole brand, their attendance, and their sponsor support will not suffer," he said. "And, given the current state of affairs in the NFL, right now the Davis story seems like small potatoes."

Though outfielder Nick Markakis said the club was shocked by the news, Showalter quickly brushed aside any notion that the pennant push would be derailed. In fact, on Friday afternoon, the Orioles beat the Yankees in extra innings in their first game without Davis and followed with another win that night. (They went on to lose Saturday.)

"I think it's disappointing. I'm disappointed. I know Chris is, too," Showalter said. "We're going to try to deal with it and move on. Timing is never good, but it's one of those challenges."

The news certainly wasn't what Baltimore fans wanted to hear, especially when they were still reeling from the Rice fiasco and preparing to celebrate their baseball team without reservation.

But Baltimore fans have historically rallied behind teams and players who attract the glare of national disapproval, most notably when they backed Lewis as he faced murder charges, which were later dropped, and became one of the NFL's most divisive figures.

The Ravens honored Lewis last week with a statue unveiled outside M&T Bank Stadium.

That's not to say that most will rally behind Rice or Davis. But if the crowd of more than 71,000 at Thursday's Ravens game and the nearly 120,000 who showed up for the Orioles' games Friday and Saturday are any indication, the fans won't abandon their teams.

Michael Brody, a Potomac psychiatrist, said the loyalty of Baltimore fans is hard to diminish.

"It's 'us against them' to somebody living in Baltimore."

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Pamela Wood and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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