After Baltimore Colts owner Bob Irsay packed up his team and bolted to Indianapolis under the cover of darkness that snowy March night in 1984, the Baltimore Colts Band played on. Its members kept on practicing every Wednesday; kept performing at parades, other NFL games and at the Preakness; kept playing Let's Go You Baltimore Colts! even though the fight was over and NFL teams were being awarded to cities (Charlotte! Jacksonville!) with no pro football tradition. The band became a symbol of Baltimore's love affair with its Colts.
Last Saturday when the band's bus pulled into the parking lot at Memorial Stadium, the Colts' old home, for the Baltimore Ravens' first exhibition game, the 200 elated musicians yelled, "We're home!" Not exactly. But the NFL is indeed back in Baltimore, and 63,804 fans, the largest crowd in Memorial Stadium history, witnessed its homecoming as the Ravens beat the Philadelphia Eagles 17-9.
As the band marched onto the field to a standing ovation, tears of joy streamed down John Ziemann's cheeks. Ziemann, the band's president and a member since 1962, met his wife, Charlene, on the Memorial Stadium turf in 1968, when she was a cheerleader (she now instructs the flagline, and their 16 year-old son, Christopher, is a member of the color guard). Given that the Colts have been part of so many Baltimoreans' lives, fans generally view the Ravens--those Cleveland Browns transplanted by Art Modell--as the New Colts. "It will take a generation or so [before the Ravens establish their own identity]," says Ziemann. "When we think of the Colts, we think of Baltimore. When my youngest son, Patrick, who is 12, thinks of the Colts, he thinks of Indianapolis." Rest assured, Baltimore Colts fans, Ziemann's band is now the official band of the Ravens (but it won't change its name until the last game of the 1997 season). The fight song's melody will remain the same; only the words will be changed.
Another throwback to the Colts' era is Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda, who was Baltimore's coach from 1975 to '79. Can Marchibroda work a little of his magic on the Ravens? This team went 5-11 last year, but quick turnarounds are his specialty. He took Baltimore to the playoffs a year after a 2-12 season in '74, and last year he guided Indianapolis, a .500 team in '94, to within a Hail Mary pass of the Super Bowl.
When the Ravens ran out of the tunnel last Saturday they looked nothing like the Colts--or the Browns--for that matter. They wore black pants and white jerseys with funky-looking purple numbers. The team's nickname comes from the famous poem written by Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe, though fans looking to establish traditions haven't delved into that rich trove of ideas just yet. Will Memorial Stadium be known as the House of Ushers? Will tight end Frank Hartley be nicknamed Tell-Tale Hartley? Nevermore. So far, only the Raven Caw noisemakers have caught on. The stadium sound system also blasts a caaaaaw recording, which, as left tackle Tony Jones says, "sounds like they're choking the bird."
For the next two seasons the Ravens will play at Memorial Stadium while awaiting the completion of their $200 million, 68,400-seat home in the shadow of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Modell abandoned creaky Cleveland Stadium because of the sweetheart deal Baltimore gave him--the stadium is being financed largely by tax revenue and state lottery proceeds. Almost 58,000 season tickets have been sold, and Modell will have to kick in only $24 million to build the Ravens' new stadium.
Baltimore fans were willing to shell out big bucks for season tickets. Dennis Clampitt, a 32-year-old cable splicer for Baltimore Gas and Electric, took out a $6,000 bank loan to pay for his pair. Clampitt is the type of fan who recites the Colts-quiz scene from the movie Diner; the type who just gets "goose bumps walking into this place again." And he is not alone. Walk down any aisle in Memorial Stadium and you'll find someone just like him.
That may explain why Modell, the most vilified owner in sports, is considered a hero in Baltimore. Euphoric fans--they call themselves Raven Maniacs--are overjoyed to have a team again.
Only in Baltimore....When Modell addressed the crowd at midfield before the first game, he was greeted with applause. Fans screamed, "Thanks, Art!" They chanted his name. "The last time I received an ovation like that was when I left town," the 71-year-old Modell cracked later. "The last time I was this happy was when I bought the Browns 35 years ago. I'm happy because I'm being embraced by the community and so is the team. This is a renewal for Art Modell, a new era. It's more than just a preseason game."
Still, others haven't been taken in by his charm. They realize that Modell didn't move the Browns to Baltimore because he felt sorry for jilted Colts fans; he moved to make a ton of money. "He's no better than Irsay," says Wayne Wise, a season-ticket holder from Glenelg, Md. "Cleveland made him, and then he did them wrong."
Only in Baltimore....Vinny Testaverde, probably the most maligned quarterback in football, is treated like the second coming of Johnny Unitas. Just about every kid who wore a Ravens jersey last Saturday wore Testaverde's number 12.
Only in Baltimore....The team's fans don't seem to notice that the front-office troika--vice presidents David Modell and Ozzie Newsome and financial officer Pat Moriarty--bear a close resemblance to the Three Stooges. First, they gave rookie offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden an unbelievably generous contract: a $6.79 million signing bonus and a $15.4 million salary over seven years, an unprecedented amount for the fourth pick in the draft and more than the New York Jets offered wideout Keyshawn Johnson, the No. 1 pick. Then, citing salary-cap concerns, the Ravens cut veteran linebacker Pepper Johnson and receiver Andre Rison. And when the Ravens signed Indianapolis receiver Floyd Turner, who, with Calvin Williams, will try to replace Rison, they failed to file the appropriate paperwork with the NFL, for which they could be fined or docked a draft pick. The fans don't seem to notice these front-office bungles because all that matters right now is that football is back.
So it was a wonderful end to a new beginning on Saturday when a rookie from nearby Lanham, Md., turned out to be the star. Receiver Jermaine Lewis, the team's fifth-round pick out of Maryland, returned a punt 75 yards down the left sideline with 2:08 remaining to put the Ravens up by eight.
At the end of the game the fans cheered as if it were 1958 and Unitas had just beaten the New York Giants in sudden death for the NFL title. The usually undemonstrative Testaverde tipped his baseball cap and pointed appreciatively at the crowd. Several players threw their sweaty gloves, towels and wristbands to a throng gathered near their locker room entrance.
A few minutes later receiver Michael Jackson, who scored the first touchdown in Ravens history, explained why he had then handed the ball to a fan sitting behind the end zone. "It's the least I could do," said Jackson. "They've waited 12 years for this."