Sometimes I forget how lucky I am. I really do. I go everywhere the Ravens go and see almost everything they see on these crazy roadtrips that have been the most fun part of my life for 11 years now.
Some trips I take lots of people — droves of people, like the two bus trips up to Milwaukee and Green Bay when I took 150 people or the Nashville playoff deal in 2001 when we took 180 — and other times I go alone, or just with my wife. Inevitably, I always wind up drinking beer with Mike Flynn’s parents and/or Bobby Nyk. And inevitably, I wind up sitting with, commiserating with and enjoying time with people in funny purple-colored body wear.
And, much like Rod Stewart says, “Every picture tells a story.” I literally have thousands of pictures and mental snapshots from a life on the road in the fall.
I’ve taken well over 3,000 people on Ravens roadtrips over the 11 years since the first one to Indy in 1996, where we watched the Orioles get eliminated from a bar called Jackass Flats.
As much as I wrote a sappy, crazy but true online book about baseball and my life and childhood through baseball, the last 11 years of my life have really been about a goofy love affair and Sunday afternoons in the upper deck with a certain purple football team that is incredibly popular these days.
Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll celebrate 15 years of doing this for a living. Fifteen years ago tomorrow I walked into the “Sports Forum with Kenny Albert” on a building at 5 Light Street that is now an empty lot about to be redeveloped.
And 11 of those 15 years have been almost always about football, the Ravens and the trials and tribulations and dramatic differences between how our two major sports franchises conduct business. I’ve missed just one home game — I spent the day throwing up with a 102-degree fever when Jacksonville was in town in 2002. And I’ve missed a handful of road games, but too few to even mention, and always truly insignificant games until next week’s Pittsburgh game on Christmas Eve. (Tough call on this one, but even I have my limitations with the Ravensâ€¦if the Steelers were 10-3 as well, it’d be a different storyâ€¦so I’ll watch from some smoky bar in New Hampshire, I’m sure).
But I’m rambling here. My point is pretty simple: this weekend I had the best roadtrip I’ve ever had, and that’s a bold statement.
There was something special about Kansas City and the environment there for football. Nice fans, the smell of the tailgate, great sunshine and memories of my childhood. Maybe it was thinking about my father and mother taking a picture in that parking lot back in the summer of 1983 and now taking my wife there to this random place in my youth (hey, it’s not like I can take her to 33rd Street for a doubleheader, right?)
But it all came back to me.
And it came to me through the eyes of one of my best childhood buds — his real name is John, but we always called him “Hells” when we were kids — drinking buddies/music buddies/sports buddies in Dundalk in the 1980′s. Hells loved all sports, U2, good music in general and he loved drinking beer and, well, you don’t get a nickname from your pals like “Hells” without being a fun guy.
Funny thing is, he never “raised” hell. He just had this wide body, a menacing look but the heart of a big teddy bear. We chased girls in Ocean City together. We bought counterfeit U2 tickets in the Spectrum parking lot. We saw countless concerts together: INXS and Eric Clapton in Philly, many nights at Hammerjacks, Billy Squier and Living Colour at Richie Coliseum, Live at Max’s on Broadway — you get the idea. We went to 33rd Street on the No. 22 bus to see Navy-Notre Dame. We did O’s games on 33rd Street when he came home from the service. We once took the Amtrak train to New York City to see the Letterman show at the old NBC studios and Evander Holyfield and George Foreman were on the show together. It was fig Newton night and they were passed through the crowd. We left the taping and boarded another train to New Haven where we saw The Alarm, one of our favorite bands. And we took the all night train home and got home at noon.
Hells and I have history, for sure!
Hells was a PSLer in the early days, did the ugly years on 33rd Street through Vinny and Ted. He did a roadie with us to San Diego back in 1997, a very memorable WNST trip. He also did the 2000 bus trip loss in Raljon, a close game and a missed tackle by Rod Woodson that we’ll not soon forget.
In late 2000, Hells accepted a job in Little Rock, Arkansas — a Bill Clinton thing, long story, don’t ask! — his first day of work down south was Monday, Jan. 29, 2001, the day AFTER the Ravens won the Super Bowl. He spent that special Sunday unloading boxes in Arkansas waiting to watch the biggest game of his life in his new home with his new wife.
Since then, he’s seen two Ravens games on his rare trips home. He and his wife have adopted the Arkansas Razorbacks — the only game in the state, let alone the town — and they make the drive three hours away on Saturdays in the fall to yell “woo, pig, sooey” or whatever the hell they yell. He says Brooks Robinson does ads on local Little Rock television.
And on Sundays, Hells still ropes off his Southern estate, dons purple and from what I gathered after sitting with him at Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday, apparently screams his head off from his living room for the Ravens. Every week, from a thousand miles away, he gets his WNST fix a few times per week and I get the occasional email with some thoughtful feedback.
He has a long-distance love affair with the Ravens and drove six hours through Arkansas and Missouri to join Drew Forrester and I and our wives for some purple road football in the heartland. (Turns out Drew has played golf with his brother a bunch of times and didn’t realize it until breakfast on Sunday. It IS Smalltimore, after all!) We planned this trip the day the schedule came out, a chance to renew our friendship in adulthood and see a Ravens game together.
We stayed at the team hotel and he got to stalk the lobby and press the flesh with the guys he only knows as the ones he sees on TV every week. He got handshakes and photos but no autographs. I helped his cause. He was absolutely blown away by his “fan” experience and how nice Todd Heap and Steve McNair and Brian Billick and Mike Flynn and Derrick Mason were to him. We also piled into our rental car six deep, doing the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame and the Jazz Museum combo in downtown KC on Saturday morning, had lunch at George Brett’s restaurant in the afternoon, did the parking lot walk on Sunday and high-fived our way through an amazing win at Arrowhead.
I started to wonder, because I meet people every week on the road from far-flung places, just how many expatriated Ravens fans there are, guys like Hells who live and die with the team every Sunday but almost never get a chance to see them play in person. I wondered how many Ravens fans there are in the universe as compared to say, Chiefs fans or Seahawks fans?
And how much every Sunday on their couch or in some sports bar means to them and how it can be just as much fun to watch on TV from a thousand miles away as it can be to be in the locker room afterward. And how it makes you feel the exact same way when they win — or lose.
But what struck him after seeing a game in person is how different the game looks on television. And just how much the announcers miss while the game unfolds in front of them and how much we as fans in the seats miss being at the stadium in replays and challenges and penalties.
Either way, it’s downright frustrating!
On Monday morning, I watched the Comcast DVR edition of Sunday’s CBS game from K.C. to get a different perspective on the crowd, the noise, the atmosphere, the strategy and what Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf were saying was just way off base.
First, they didn’t do justice to the wind, which was swirling and gusting all day, especially in the second half. It was a major factor in the game. They sit in a glass booth so they experience the game in a totally different way. Secondly, they said the stadium was packed and loud but there were THOUSANDS of no shows — and I mean thousands — there were scads of empty seats all over the place and it really wasn’t all that loud.
Then there were the many focuses and dialogue that were missing key ingredients of the game or just off base. Even from their angles and various replays they couldn’t provide a view to justify the “no good” call on the first Chiefs field goal.
I really feel as a journalist — or whatever I am — sitting in the upper deck in a regular seat, that anyone who isn’t at the games is getting cheated by the broadcast crew, who seem to stink week after week no matter which team gets sent out or whether we’re 3-10 or 10-3. It frustrates me to watch the games on TV.
It’s the NFL! Can’t they find 16 announcers and 16 washed up football players who can convey what’s really happening during a game and still pronounce all the players’ names correctly? It always feels like a cheap weekly rental of two people who don’t know as much about the Ravens as the most casual fan in Baltimore — or Little Rock — would know.
Even the NFL Network, the league’s own pride and joy, can’t get it right. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think Bryant Gumbel’s three Thursday nights haven’t been the biggest laughingstock in the history of the league. It’s not even up to “bush league” standards — it’s a total embarrassment. I’m getting audition tapes here at WNST for the 6 to 8 gig from fans with better knowledge, insight and pipes than Gumbel.
So, when I’m on the road watching the game in the bowl of the stadium in color commentary silence, it seems many of you are watching and listening to the national TV broadcast, which presents the game through a pretty stilted view.
Honestly, you always miss a lot, either way.
When you’re in the stadium you see all sorts of extra stuff the announcers don’t see and when you watch the replays you see all the rest of the stuff you missed from 300 feet up in the sky.
So I wondered if anyone out there actually turns up the sound on 98 Rock with Gerry Sandusky and company instead?
The online survey I conducted last month was filled out by 1,500 unique WNST listeners and the results were staggering: 29% said they never listen, 31% said they almost never listen, 33% said they tune in only sometimes and only 5% said “almost always” and just 2% said they listen “every week” religiously. And these are people who actually LOVE sports radio and actively use their radios.
Just watching a game on TV is weird for me — the Pittsburgh experience on Christmas Eve will certainly test my patience — but it’s how 99.9 percent of you see the road games.
I suppose my message today is to be careful about how much of what you see and hear on your TV set is believable or accurate when the Ravens are on the road.
My experience over 11 years tells me you’re seeing a different game than the one I’m seeing from the upper deck.