Sunday, January 14, 2007

Divisional Playoffs – The Party’s Over

Baltimore, MD -- January 13th, 2007.

That hurt. Not like a punch in the mouth, but like watching your best friend get punched in the mouth. Then again in the stomach.

As most of the country watched on Saturday, the Ravens storybook season came to an ugly end against, gulp, the Colts. It was a bitter pill to swallow as the city’s purple passion surged over the last two weeks, peaking in the parking lots prior to the game.

When we arrived at the stadium, nearly four hours before kickoff, the lots were full. These weren’t just the diehard fans that like to get to the game early; this was every ticket holder and their extended family. It didn’t matter if you had a ticket to the game, this was the biggest party in Baltimore in more than twenty years and the city was ready to celebrate. Even the tollbooths on the way downtown were decorated in Ravens gear, with a team logo pasted on the wall right before you entered the Harbor Tunnel.

Up in the press box, or should I say ‘press box 1’ since they had to double the number of seats for the media this week, the national attention the game was receiving was clear. Michael Wilbon of PTI fame and Peter King, who appears in print and on screen for just about every NFL news outlet, joined the local beat writers in the cafeteria. Speaking of which, the food on display also received a post-season upgrade as we were treated to prime rib and roast turkey in place of Cheerios and lasagna-like egg squares.

The cafeteria also provided good working space for those in charge of the in-stadium entertainment. This week they were planning the traditional fighter jet flyover and guess who was in on the meeting – the fighter jet pilots! Of course their stay was brief as they still had to drive out to the airfield, but it was pretty cool to hear Larry, the team’s Senior Director of Broadcasting, give orders to the Air Force. Civilians probably don’t get that chance too often.

The best part of all was since the game would be broadcast on CBS, all the TV’s were already set to WJZ and the 2:00 timeslot was filled with Big East basketball – Syracuse vs. Villanova. As an Orange alumna, I couldn’t have picked a better pre-game show. Although I should have noticed an omen posted on screen as they showed that the Colts featured four former Syracuse graduates while the Ravens roster included just one. Two hours before the game, the Colts already had a 4-1 lead.

On the field before kickoff was the only Baltimore sports icon to make it through the week on top, Cal Ripken, who was on hand as the team’s honorary captain. Cal is much taller than you might imagine, and a little older, but he looked good in his purple fleece. He was on the field with his whole family and for those who watch the O’s each night, his wife and daughter are just as familiar faces as Cal. He obliged many fans’ requests for photos and had a perma-grin for at least an hour as I think even Ripken was enjoying the magic of the Ravens.

As you can probably tell, I’ve spent a good portion of my posting on the pre-game because replaying the big moments of the actual game still gives me heartburn.

As opposed to our weekly wiring, the RaveTV crew split in two this week, one to cover the offense, one for the defense. Lauryn, Jeff, Terry and I were assigned to Ray Lewis and his band of brothers and we were treated to a chess match that would make Gary Kasparov proud. Ray vs. Peyton was special, but Reed vs. Manning became the main event as Ed snatched two interceptions and had a third tipped away. The defense continued to overwhelm the great Colts O and forced them into five field goal attempts. Unfortunately, Indy signed the greatest post-season kicker in history this past off-season and he made them all, including a 51-yard boot that bounced over the cross bar right to the left of Jeff and I. This is an easy pun, but things just seemed to be bouncing their way all day.

Holding the Colts to field goals kept the game within reach. But that’s just it; it was always within reach, but never in our grasp. That’s what made it so hard. The fans felt the same way we did on the sidelines. Swings of excitement would shake the stands every time the defense would get a stop, but the offense couldn’t overcome four turnovers. Credit to Ravens Nation, some of the signage in the stadium should receive Emmy consideration. Their were slogans that referenced the distant past - “19 Will Always Be Greater Than 18”; as well as those that referenced more recent history – an empty TV screen cut-out that read, “Pittsburgh’s view of the playoffs”.

When it was over, the game, our season, and my fairytale came to a sooner than expected finale. Once the pain wears off, I’m sure I will look back on the excitement of a once in a lifetime experience with joy. But there is no joy in Mudville, or at the top of Brewer’s Hill, so I now have to head back to my office at the Natty Boh Tower. It’s time to turn out the lights.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Playoffs Eve - Move On

Baltimore, MD - 1/12/07.

I confess.

On March 28th, 1984 I was three years old, lived in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey, and was still about three years away from laying eyes on my first football game (Super Bowl XXI from what I can remember). Clearly the Colts move in the middle of the night missed my sports radar but the local media and fans over the age of forty have been sure to fill me in on over the last few days.

I can’t imagine the pain. The suffering. The size of the pit in the collective stomachs of Baltimore football fans. I had my best friend move to Florida when I was in High School, which I think might have felt the same way, but only if the rest of New Jersey also considered him their best friend. Of course we didn’t even have our drivers licenses yet so I doubt he was able to meet that many people. Long story, well long, I suppose I can’t relate, which is why I have to advocate a new slogan for the next 24 hours, Move On.

Let me be clear. To Ravens fans and Colts historians alike, do not forget. Simply Move On. I know it’s not simple, but we have a new task at hand and only so much airtime on the local sports talk shows to talk about the game. It’s not worth dredging up the past. Park the backhoe in the garage and start looking to the future.

Exit10 lights up the Natty Boh Tower

The transformation has already begun. Purple has grown on this town. From the offices of Exit10 at the Natty Boh Tower to the Pagoda in Patterson Park; from the steps of City Hall to the storefronts of Dulaney Plaza; Baltimore County and beyond has a new look this winter and there’s not even a hint of a horseshoe. Unless of course you count the “Beat Indy” t-shirts being sold along Pratt St., with ‘Unitas 19’ on the back. Don’t fret; the shirts are only sold in black and purple. Johnny U will always play for Baltimore.

Dulaney Plaza in Towson shows off its Ravens Spirit

Considering the Ravens have won more Super Bowl’s than both of their former franchises have combined for since the spring of '84 (Browns and Colts in case my attempt to be clever didn’t work in that sentence) it only makes sense that the city is ready to embrace another run at a title. The moons just happened to align last weekend to send Indianapolis to Baltimore. We’d all be singing the praises of Tom Brady and predicting the sweat suit ensemble for Belichik had the Chiefs found a way to run on first down. Instead, the Irsay’s midnight run has received as much as press as the Colts pass attack.

It’s not too late though. If David Beckham can move to Hollywood after 15 years of playing across the pond, than surely Baltimore football fans can learn to focus all of their passion on the men in purple. “Pass the tardy sauce, Dwight,” (I can’t help myself, I love The Office this year) and pour a little on top of those crab cake sandwiches you can get on the club level. Ravens fans, it’s about time. Hopefully the Ravens players will follow suit on Saturday and simply, Move On.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Week 17 – Hawaiian Fusion

Baltimore, MD -- 12/31/06.

Mele Kalikimaka gets all the love, but there is another Hawaiian saying that deserves some attention this time of year. Hau'oli Makahiki Hou (pronounced how-OH-lee mah-kah-hee-kee ho) is the island greeting for Happy New Year and for at least one weekend, the Baltimore greeting as well.

Over the past sixteen weeks I have tried to capture the thrill of being on the plane, along the sidelines, and in the locker room of one of the NFL’s elite teams in 2006 (I picked quite a season, right?). Well every time I sit down and write about one of our road trips, I inevitably describe the Saturday night dinners we’ve treated ourselves to in cities across the country. From steak to sushi in Nashville to New Orleans, ‘On the Road with Ravens’ has been as much of a culinary crusade as it’s been a football fan’s fantasy.

However, I have yet to highlight the cuisine of the city we call home, that is until now. On the eve of our last game of the regular season, the RaveTV broadcast department enjoyed a night out at one of Hawaii’s best-known restaurants (I know, I said Hawaii, but you’ll understand in a minute). Roy’s, named after its founder Roy Yamaguchi, is known for its Hawaiian Fusion cuisine. Not surprisingly, the chain includes six locations spread amongst the islands of Hawaii including the original Roy’s of Honolulu. Now there are Roy’s restaurants in 10 continental states, but only three in the entire northeast, so I say its still best known back home. Although word has apparently spread to Owings Mills.

The Inner Harbor is host to one of the three Roy’s in the East and that is where we celebrated the night before New Year’s Eve. An appetizer canoe for two, macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi, and a chocolate lava soufflĂ© cake validated our choice, and Roy’s reputation. And we weren’t the only Ravens employees, or should I say employers, to dine in paradise as Ravens team owner Steve Biscotti happened to be seated at the table next to ours. A surprise for sure, but a welcome one as I introduced myself, we all wished him and his wife a Hau’oli Makahiki Hou, and he even requested to be included in our team picture. (I don’t think he realized that the photo now became blog-worthy, but the rest of the table sure did.)

Game day started a few hours later than usual this week to expose the rest of the country to the Ravens defense they were going to see in this years playoffs. It had been exactly two weeks since the last Ravens home game and in that stretch of time, the team had clinched the division title, five players had been named to the Pro Bowl, they handed the Steelers another blowout loss on Christmas Eve, and had put themselves in place for a first round bye. Not a bad two weeks of work and the Ravens faithful were more than ready to show their appreciation.

The game-day entertainment staff obliged and introduced their own dish of Hawaiian fusion by introducing all of the 2006 Pro Bowl starters and alternates, along with Pro Bowl players of the past. The line up was not only lengthy, but legendary, and Jeff, Lauryn, and I managed to make our way into the tunnel to be a part of the pre-game party.

The smoke machine was apparently set to ‘Tornado’ as the white clouds engulfed the players while the last four men to be introduced, Adalius Thomas, Terrell Suggs, Steve McNair, and Ray Lewis, paced in the hallway. To make the scene even scarier, the Ravens were wearing their alternate all-black uniforms making their faces and feet the only visible views. My role was to spot Jeff as he weaved in and out of the big bodies, but it was hard for me to see where he was going. I just held on to the back of his jacket and eventually found myself face to back with some rather familiar jersey numbers. I decided to keep my distance and attach my back to one of the walls as I watched in awe. Just imagine Ray Lewis, dressed in full pads and an all black uniform, pumping himself up in a sea of smoke. Hollywood has nothing on M&T Bank Stadium. George Lucas would be jealous.

The game stayed closer than expected. The only first half highlight was courtesy of this weeks wired Raven, Terrell Suggs, who recorded a big sack on Bills quarterback, J.P. Losman. Sizzle, as he is affectionately known by his teammates, celebrated during the ensuing timeout and even called over J.P. to thank him for the opportunity. I’m sure Losman was thrilled.

The score in the third quarter was 9-7 and Ray knew his defense needed to make a play. “Ray came on the field in the middle of the third quarter and said, ‘Good teams don’t let teams hang around.” Chris McAlister repeated. “Somebody has to do something, we have to all make a play.” Of course in 2006, the difference has been that when the defense decides its time to make a play, they almost always do. Sunday was no different. Moments after Ray rallied the troops in the huddle, C-Mac intercepted a pass and returned it to Jeff and I. Fortunately we were in the endzone and the return counted for a touchdown. The game was out of reach. The bye was secured.

As the game ended, Jeff and I followed Suggs into the locker room. After 16 weeks, I assumed I had witnessed just about everything an official press pass could get me. I was mistaken. The locker room doors closed behind us this time and I had the privilege of listening to Brian Billick give his post game speech. Chills filtered down my back as I watched players congratulate each other and surround their coach. Billick made sure everyone understood how special it is go 13-3. I understood. He closed with the familiar and possibly Hawaiian phrase, ‘takeanee’, before the team prayer. And if our prayers are answered, we will get to celebrate again from another land where palm trees sway.