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Preston: In reopening training camp to more fans, Ravens trying to rekindle the old and new

Dan Szuba was one of nearly 2,000 fans who attended the first day of training camp Thursday as the Ravens reopened practices to the public.

Szuba had also been a regular before 2012, when the team practiced at McDaniel College in Westminster. Like a lot of fans Thursday, he agreed that the Owings Mills facility doesn’t have the nostalgia or the intimacy of those days in Westminster, but he was glad to be able to watch training camp practices again.

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“I loved McDaniel because it was the full fan experience,” said Szuba, 31, of Pasadena. “It was up close and personal. You could walk right up to Chris McAlister or Steve McNair, throw them the ball and they’d sign it.”

“But this is great. I remember sitting out here three years ago frying in the sun,” said Szuba, then part of a select group. “Now, they got shade for people. You used to have to park across the street and then catch a shuttle. That was a pain. … Not anymore. Traffic wasn’t bad, so everything has been good for the most part.”

Because of construction last year in Owings Mills, the Ravens could accommodate only a couple of hundred fans. This year, they have the ability to host nearly 2,000 a day; passes for the 15 sessions open to the public have sold out.

The Ravens are trying to reconnect with fans and put some energy back into training camp after the big mistake they made in leaving McDaniel. The move saved them time and energy as far as preparation and logistics, but also cost them as far as developing an identity among their base of supporters, especially young fans.

“It was a great day. I enjoyed it, especially the covered seats because we weren’t in the sun,” said Cathy Drumgoole of Bel Air, who used to be a Baltimore Colts fan. “I got here about an hour early and I would absolutely recommend for people to come out. It was great on a fan level. I came here to watch the game, the players, but you could see the kids were having a great time.”

This camp is certainly more kid-friendly than the ones in Westminster. There is a moon-bounce slide, a skill center to test your throwing arm, virtual reality games, food vendors, a small picnic area, free popsicles and several places to buy Ravens gear.

Deonte Solese, 17, is a counselor’s aide at the Goodnow Community Center in Baltimore, and his group will be bringing kids to the facility throughout training camp.

“This is a nice situation for the kids. They have a lot of games for them,” said Solese, a senior at Mervo.

“I’m having fun,” said Trevor Vardy, 7, of Laurel, whose favorite player is Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams.

Vardy said he expects to attend four games this season. His prediction for the Ravens in 2018?

“I think they are going to win them all,” he said.

Of course, this training camp is more commercialized than the ones in Westminster. Corporate signage is visible throughout. Verizon, M&T Bank, MedStar Health, Dunkin’ Donuts, Merritt Athletic Club and Hightopps Backstage Grille have advertised.

There is also the sign of the times. State troopers and guard dogs patrol the outsides of the practice fields, and their cars are visible in the parking lots.

In Westminster fans were on top of players, at times within reach. That’s a near impossibility until the end of practices when the Ravens make players available for autographs.

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“These camps are more commercialized, more sponsors,” Szuba said. “But that’s to be expected. Times change; this is now 2018.”

Ravens fans didn’t seem to care. There is a new generation of them coming and some of them had never been to Westminster.

Others had but they seemed more concerned about the present.

“There has been a vast improvement over what it has been like the last couple of years,” said Mike Naused, 59, of Eldersburg. “They have an impressive venue and the additions have made it more enjoyable. It’s nice to see how they have expanded the facility and made it more fan-friendly.”

Fans started chants and cheers at Thursday’s practice, and Naused believes the key is for the Ravens to build an offense to complement the defense. Like most Ravens fans, he is excited about rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson but is expecting starter Joe Flacco to have a good year.

So does Jack Levy, 21, a senior at Towson University. He says he’d like to see outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, cornerback Jimmy Smith, Williams and Flacco make the Pro Bowl. He expects the Ravens to win 10 games this season, which is the magic number to make the playoffs in most cases.

But that’s down the road.

On Thursday, he was glad to be one of several thousand to watch the opening of training camp.

“I really liked the facility and being this close to the players,” Levy said. “It was like a community thing.”

“Great day! Wouldn’t you agree?,” asked Ravens coach John Harbaugh after practice. “It’s great being out here! The weather couldn’t have been any better. The fans were into it — had the cheering section going over there for a while, right? And the kids — seeing all the kids over there signing autographs. It’s the start of training camp in the National Football League and in Baltimore.”

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