- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

BALTIMORE. There was much made recently of the marketing war between the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Ravens, but that is far from the most significant battle for the hearts and minds of sports fans that will take place in Baltimore.

The fight to watch is between the Ravens and the Baltimore Orioles, because it is about to enter a very pivotal phase one that could have far reaching implications for the Orioles franchise.

For the first time since the last time the Baltimore Colts were a competitive team in the late 1970s before Bob Irsay tore the guts out of the franchise before eventually moving it to Indianapolis in 1984 there appears to be more interest in pro football in this town than baseball.

It isn't necessarily something you can quantify, although I'm sure some marketing geeks could come up with something either way, with enough analysis, data and other mind-numbing tools.

But you don't need to be a marketing genius to get a sense in this city that, at least for now, the buzz is about the Ravens and not the Orioles.

"Without a doubt there is more interest now in the Ravens than the Orioles," said John King, owner of Sliders, a sports bar across from Camden Yards and just down the block from PSINet Stadium. "A few years ago, all people wanted to talk about was the Orioles. But now they are on the back burner. We aren't getting as many people in to celebrate after Orioles games anymore, and I'm not nearly getting bugged about tickets for Orioles games as much as I am now for Ravens games.

You wouldn't have had a problem getting tickets for Orioles games lately. The reported attendance for Tuesday night against Detroit was 31,980, but there were a number of no shows, and by the ninth inning of the 12-2 loss, only about 5,000 people were left. On Wednesday, in the Orioles 5-1 win, the crowd was even smaller 31,383, the lowest of the season. It had rained both days before the game, but there was a time when people wouldn't let the rain stop them from going to Camden Yards.

This couldn't come at a worse time for Orioles owner Peter Angelos. A series of circumstances have put the Ravens on the rise right at the very time the Orioles have fallen to their lowest level, with a team of no-name young players.

How do you market a losing team with players no one has ever heard of when you are facing strong NFL competition?

"The Orioles you couldn't pick our players out of a police lineup."

Well, except for one, maybe.

Then again, a blind man could pick Albert Belle out of the Orioles lineup these days. All he would have to do is listen for the boos when they are batting.

Today the Orioles leave town for a 14-day road trip, while the Ravens open with big expectations on Sunday in Pittsburgh against the Steelers, then come home to play Jacksonville. Both are winnable games for the Ravens. The Steelers look horrendous, and have played right into Baltimore's defensive hands by going with the immobile Kent Graham as their starter. The Jaguars have been significantly weakened by injuries.

By the time the Orioles come back to Camden Yards on Sept. 15, they could have dropped right off the face of the earth.

"I think when the Orioles get back in town, there is a chance that for the first time in 25 years they will be second-class citizens here," said Stan Charles, who hosts the "Stan the Fan" sports talk show on WJFK radio in Baltimore and is also part of Ravens radio team. "If the Ravens are 2-0, the Orioles are a ghost in this town."

The Orioles were second-class citizens for a long time when this was a football town. But then circumstances changed in the Orioles favor. Irsay drove fans away, then he drove the team out of town. The Orioles, under the new ownership of Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, managed to put a winning product on the field during this time, winning two pennants and the 1983 World Series, and that served to boost baseball interest here.

Then, when football disappeared, there were fears that Williams would move the team to Washington, so people still came to see the Orioles, even when they began to decline in the mid to late 1980s. Then there was the heightened interest in the new ballpark that was coming. "People wanted to hold on to their tickets because they didn't want to lose their place in the new ballpark," Charles said.

Camden Yards opened, the Orioles managed to field winning teams, and, several years after Angelos purchased the team, went to the American League Championship Series two years in a row and did so at the most opportune time for them, when football had finally returned to Baltimore.

The Browns moved from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996, and of course there was a lot of interest in football coming back to the city. But it was somewhat muted. "At first football was a blip on the radar screen here," Charles said. "We struggled to get phone calls to get people to talk about football. People were excited, but in a vague way when the team first got here. About a year and a half ago, things started to change. You could feel a real texture to the development of passion for the Ravens. The team got incrementally better [winning five of its final seven games to finish 8-8]. The Orioles were going in one direction and the Ravens in another."

Here's all you need to know about the direction these franchises are going. On Tuesday, the Ravens signed tackle Jonathan Ogden to a six-year contract extension for $44 million, making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history.

Mike Mussina is one of the top five pitchers of his time, in the same group with Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux. He has about six starts left in an Orioles uniform before he becomes a free agent after 10 seasons in Baltimore.

As you drive on Interstate 95, you can see the city's two sports palaces. PSINet Stadium is visibly larger than Camden Yards.

It may soon swallow it up.

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