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The once and future baseball city?

By on March 21

Just before 5:00 PM on Friday, March 11, the NFL players union officially decertified, legally reinventing itself as a professional trade association in preparation for an NFL lockout.

Having enjoyed relative labor peace since its last lockout ended in 1987, the NFL has prospered greatly over the past two decades, generating huge profit margins and effectively supplanting baseball as the new national pastime.

But as the millionaires and billionaires of the NFL prepare to face off in a court of law, I’m left wondering if football’s loss might not be baseball’s gain.  Could the seemingly unstoppable profit machine of the NFL inadvertently buoy its direct competition through an extended labor strike?

I think the question is particularly interesting if framed in the context of Baltimore, where an entire generation of sports fans have foresworn Orioles baseball in favor of Ravens football.  So much so, that at this particular point in time, it’s almost hard to imagine the Orioles laying legitimate claim to an equal share of the city’s affection.

While the meaning and purpose of the NFL lockout will be debated by fans, players, and management in the weeks (and likely months) to come, the longer it goes on, I believe the greater the chance it might induce interest in baseball and other sports.  Could an extended NFL work stoppage open the door, if only slightly, for the Orioles to regain some of their downtrodden fan base?

I think it actually could.

Important:  my purpose is not to argue that a mutual exclusivity exists between the Ravens and the Orioles (or football and baseball in general) that leaves no room for the possibility that many people are Ravens fans and Orioles fans, or that those who aren’t simply don’t like baseball, or vice-versa.  I would argue, however,  that Baltimore has an abiding passion for baseball, though long dormant, that could be rekindled.  It isn’t so much the possible rise of the Orioles franchise at the expense of the Ravens that I’m suggesting, but rather, a reclamation of the city’s baseball tradition, sparked by the unrivaled attention that comes from being the only show in town.

Considering the issue historically, I think the case can be made that true sports identity of the city has shifted over time.  Ask anyone today whether Baltimore is a football city or a baseball city, and you’ll get a quick response.  It’s a football city.  But ask those same people whether Baltimore used to be a football city or a baseball city, and the answers will probably become more nuanced and varied.

Time was, Baltimore could fairly be thought of as a legitimate two sport town.  With the Colts capturing the NFL championship in 1958 (the “greatest game ever played” by some accounts), winning another title in 1959, and bringing home a victory in Super Bowl V, they helped to put Baltimore on the professional sports map.

The Orioles cemented their own legacy by winning titles in 1966, 1970, and 1983, appearing in six World Series in the same span, and winning more games than any team in the American League along the way.

While it would be tempting to draw the conclusion that these facts alone are enough to establish the city’s sports identity, I don’t think winning alone can make a city a sports town.  If it did, then Miami might be considered a great baseball city, which it definitely isn’t.  It’s how a community embraces greatness and weaves it into its unique culture that counts.  To that end, I think two examples that best demonstrate the period of historical parity between baseball and football in Baltimore revolve around fan response rather than team performance.

For the Colts, I think one of the best documented testaments to Baltimore’s football tradition, came in a recent Barry Levinson documentary The Band That Wouldn’t Die which tells the story of the Colts marching band that refused to stop performing even a decade after the Colts departure.

On the Orioles side, I think the distinction from winning is further made clear, as the most definitive evidence of the city’s support for the team came after the golden age of Orioles baseball ended. When the 1988 Orioles set an MLB record for consecutive losses to begin a season at an almost unbelievable 21 games, they came home from a road trip with an overall record of 1–23.  Yet, as the Orioles faced off against the Texas Rangers, in search of only their second win of the season, the attendance at the game, dubbed “Fantastic Fans Night”, was 50,402.

It was a sellout.

Jon Miller has referred to it as the most memorable game he ever called.  I call it definitive proof that Baltimore, at least at one point, was a baseball city, and not simply by default.

While you could make the argument that Baltimore’s support of the Orioles in this instance was borne out of necessity, given that the city had no other professional sports representation at the time, I think that would be an oversimplification. Fifty thousand people showing up to cheer the worst Orioles team in history, after they had set an infamous record for consecutive losses to begin a season is not a casual or commonplace display of fandom.

Sadly, however, the indomitable affection demonstrated by the fans that night has not endured.  Though Baltimore once again has two sports teams, it isn’t really a two sport city the way it once was.  These days, Baltimore is synonymous with football, and football alone.

But just as I don’t think a city’s relationship with its sports teams can strictly be measured by wins and losses, I don’t think those bonds can be entirely dissolved only by losing.  What, then, can account for the change?

Is it simply because of a fan preference for football? Or is it because of the Ravens’ perennial success, especially when contrasted with the Orioles perpetual failures?

I think there is a bit of truth to each of those reasons.  Whether because of a salary cap that creates league parity, the physical nature of the sport, or the rise of fantasy football, there is no question that the NFL is generally preferred over MLB. Taking Baltimore as a microcosm of the country, the clear preference for football is not difficult to reconcile.

There’s also no overlooking the fact that the Ravens have served as an almost perfect foil for the Orioles over the past decade.  Looking past just wins and losses, every strategic decision the Ravens front office has made has turned to gold (look no further than the franchise’s first two draft selections, Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis, both of whom will be enshrined in the football hall of fame) while every decision the Orioles front office has made has seemed to underscore their ineptitude.

The newly established football dominance in Baltimore, however, is exactly why the Orioles stand to be the benefactors of any protracted labor dispute in the NFL.  Even if a city can’t become a baseball town by default, perhaps a brief period of exclusivity could help fans to remember what was once good about the Orioles, or at least incentivize them to pay attention for a bit longer than they ordinarily might.

Usually, when the Orioles struggle out of the gate, there’s the Ravens draft for Baltimore sports fans to turn to, or OTAs, or mini camps.  As the provisions of the lockout make clear, however, no team activities will be taking place (with the possible exception of the draft, assuming it isn’t successfully boycotted by players) until the labor dispute is resolved.  Nor will coaches be allowed to have any contact whatsoever with their players.  That means no gearing up for another exciting season.  No tracking the new WR corps, no monitoring the progress of Joe Flacco.  Nothing.  Though all the players in the league are taking an implicit monetary gamble, I don’t think many players have as much on the line as the Ravens players do, who stand an excellent chance to compete for a title if the season ever takes place.

Also, although the fan response to the 2011 NFL lockout may be more muted than the baseball strike of 1994, my guess is that after several months of two very rich parties bickering over who should inherit the largest share of more money than common people will make in several lifetimes, baseball could possibly come to be seen as a welcome respite from avarice.

Whether a consequence of being the only sport in town, or a comparatively more functional one, I think the Orioles stand to gain the attention of some fans, if only briefly.

And with a new no-nonsense manager, some talented free agent additions, and a few young pitchers perhaps ready to take the next step, it seems to me that the 2011 Orioles stand better prepared to capitalize on that extra moment of notice than the previous ten iterations of the team would have been.

As fate would have it, the Orioles are about to gifted with the city’s undivided attention.  Whether they can begin to reclaim Baltimore’s once proud baseball tradition just depends on what they do with it.

One Response to “The once and future baseball city?”

  1. Sports and Football says:

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