We all remember how genuinely painful moving his football team from Cleveland was for Art Modell. When Parris
Glendening stood at the podium and gloated about this coup for Baltimore and his State of Maryland, Modell sighed and had the tortured look of a man who had no alternative but to accept the offer from The Maryland Stadium Authority. Unlike Irsay who gleefully ran off in the night with our beloved Colts, Modell was tormented by his choice. He knew that when he left Cleveland, there was no going back. Modell would later say, "The bridge is down, burned, disappeared," "There's not even a canoe there (Cleveland) for me."
On the other hand in Baltimore, we threw out the red carpet, built a stadium and had he asked, we would have given Modell a yacht. Forget that canoe! Our town was starving for football and Art was our deliverer. Let the honeymoon begin!
Meanwhile down in Camden Yards, the Orioles were coming off a strike-shortened season in 1995. Under Phil Regan, they finished 71-73 good enough for 3rd place in the division. During that off-season, the Orioles hired Davey Johnson to replace Regan and brought in marquee players like Roberto Alomar. Pat Gillick and Kevin Malone were brought in to lead a stout front office. Old Pete didn't want to play second fiddle to the new birds in town. Money talks and you know what walks.
The money poured in….as did the fans in 1996. The Orioles finished second in the AL East that season and drew nearly 3.7 Million fans. They made it to the ALCS and eventually fell to the Yankees and Jeffrey Maier. But something happened in 1996 that has changed the Orioles ever since – something really bad. A cancerous tumor was discovered – and they called it Peter Angelos, General Manager.
You see in 1996, Angelos made the call NOT to trade David Wells and Bobby Bonilla late in the year because old Pete believed that the team still had a chance to make the playoffs. To his credit, he was right. The Orioles kept the team in tact, made a valiant comeback and made it to the ALCS. But from that point forward, all decisions regarding the Orioles became Angelos' decisions, rendering the very capable Pat Gillick meaningless as well as any succeeding GM's. Yes it's true that they had a very successful 1997. But that's because Gillick and Johnson stayed around for another season. Their departures and Angelos' mounting dominance of the organization marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the Orioles that even today, has no end in sight. Gillick and Johnson couldn't get out of town fast enough.
The cancer was spreading.
Now, back to the Raven Nation. During this period from 1996-1998, the Ravens enjoyed the honeymoon. Any football, regardless of whether it was good or bad was good by most accounts. Why? Because it beat the alternative which for 13 seasons, was NO FOOTBALL. When the honeymoon ended right around the time of Marchibroda's exit, the Ravens responded by hiring Brian Billick. Billick brought something the organization desperately needed – leadership on the sidelines, an ambassador and spokesperson for the team and a motivator of men.
Billick's personality meshed well with Ozzie Newsome's and his staff and their success can be measured in simple terms – one world championship, three playoff appearances and a winning percentage north of 60%.
The Ravens have become a blueprint for success in the NFL. They combine great coaching, great personnel scouting, efficient cap management and a hands-off ownership that trusts and believes in the football people they've hired to run the organization. As fans, we've been asked several times during Billick's tenure to take a leap of faith. Initially, we may have been a bit hesitant to even put a toe in the water. But over the past few years, we've taken the leap without question. WE BELIEVE, WE BELIEVE.
Since Billick's arrival, the Ravens are 53-35 with only one losing season and even then, the team remained in the playoff hunt until Week 16. The Orioles over that same period of time are performing at a .442 clip. Let's face it, winning cures a lot but in the case of the Orioles, the healing will require more than winning. The cancer is deep.
Angelos has alienated baseball professionals – both on and off the field. In no particular order the list includes names like Robby Alomar, Raffy Palmeiro, Mike Mussina, Frank Wren, Pat Gillick, Arn Tellem, Scott Boras, John Miller, John Lowenstein and Davey Johnson. Former gopher Syd Thrift once commented that the Orioles must have been offering "confederate money" because no one seems to want to take Pete's cash. Players at one time were lining up to play in Camden Yards. When a free agent considered his alternatives, all things being equal, the deciding factor was the jewel of a ballpark on Eutaw Street and the fans that filled it. Now Pete has added the fans to his extensive list of alienations. And that may be the most costly of all.
Since 1998, attendance has fallen by nearly 1 Million fans. That's officially. In other words paid attendance. Unofficially, it's much worse. Ask any concession stand employee. Baseball has its own set of problems outside of those unique to the Orioles. But you must admit, that if the Orioles will trade proof of payment for a Wendy's Combo Meal for an upper reserved ticket, there are problems down at the warehouse. This fallout in attendance is a byproduct of not just losing. It can't be. After 4 consecutive losing seasons, the Orioles still drew 3.1 Million fans. The fallout is a combination of several factors that point back to one thing – the cancer.
Look, in any relationship there are ups and downs, ebbs and flows. She loves me, she loves me not. There's love, there's hate, there's emotion. Emotion says you still care. Without emotion, there's apathy. That says you don't care and that's a dangerous thing. Apathy is what the fans feel about the O's.
Then how do you explain so many empty seats for a Yankees' series. How do you explain the Wendy's promo? Why do more people cheer for Barry Bonds than for Miguel Tejada? The Orioles are trying their best to win a game and part of their strategy is not to let Bonds beat them if they can help it. That's not an innovative strategy but it does make sense. Yet the fans are more interested in seeing Bonds take aim at the warehouse than they are in the O's winning the game. So when the O's pitch around Bonds, the move is met with a cascade of boos.
How about a Happy Meal?
Angelos has had a few opportunities to mend fences with the fans. One huge opportunity came and went on Opening Day in 2001. What if Brian Billick or Ray Lewis or both, threw out the first pitch on that Opening Day. Think about it. There's no announcement, these two recognizable faces walk towards the pitcher's mound…..the buzz in the crowd is growing…..their pictures are then shown on the JumboTron….there's a close up of the World Championship rings on their hands….they are then announced. The crowd goes nuts. It's all over the news that night…..win or lose the Opening Day game, the Orioles would have won by winning over the fans.
Unfortunately it never happened.
To a lesser extent, Tarik Walker of the World Champion Baltimore Blast was set to throw out the first pitch before a game last season. Enter Pete…..he reminds everyone that he's feuding with Blast owner Ed Hale. Exit Tarik.
The Orioles and Angelos did attempt to get back to a winning formula by bringing in Lee Mazzilli, Tejada, Javy Lopez and fan favorite Rafael Palmeiro. They've refocused their attention upon developing the farm system and even Angelos has seemingly backed off by allowing Mike Beattie and Mike Flanagan to operate as traditional GM's. Yet the only difference between this season and last season and the one before and the one before that and the one before that, is that we held hope for this team until June of this year. In all of those previous years, we were bailing in May.
As fans we want good news and our hopes turn to the men in purple. And we believe they will deliver. We believe in them when they set their collective sights on The Super Bowl. They have a plan and they work the plan. "It's simple. . . . Our goal is Jacksonville. If we speak about anything other than Jacksonville, we're shorting ourselves right now. Our span is that we probably have about a three-year span left, to keep this core together, so why not do it now? Everybody knows it. That's the exciting part of it."
Does anyone out there doubt these words of Ray Lewis?
We are enveloped in an economic climate that is at best tepid. We are caught in the crossfire of bipartisan political mudslinging. We live in a world characterized by geopolitical upheaval and bloated fuel prices. We look to sports for an escape and for good news and the Ravens deliver. We want to feel hope. We find hope in the Ravens. We need leadership that can navigate through difficult times. We look to Ozzie, Billick, Savage and company and they come through in the clutch.
For several years, this football town did become a baseball town. But the landscape has changed and we are part of a Raven Nation. It's the Ravens' town now. That's not to say we can't have it both ways. All of us would love for the Orioles to be managed as efficiently and as effectively as the Ravens. Can it happen? Time will tell but at this point, it doesn't look promising. How can it when your so-called ace is 3-8 with a 6.60 E.R.A.?
Only 45 days until the start of training camp!
Lombardi is a manager and writer for Ravens24x7.com (another fine locally run Ravens site) and Host of "GAMETIME" on Sundays from 8-10 AM on Ravens Radio AM 1300 The Jock