Paper or Plastic?

December 20, 2007 | Thyrl Nelson

It’s a tough time to be a sports fan in Baltimore. That might be the understatement of the year. The Orioles are in the throes of a decade long slump, the Terps have been on a steady slide backward in both football and basketball for 5 years or so, and now it seems that even the Ravens have hit rock bottom.
If you remain a fan of any team for long enough, you are going to go through seasons like this one. In a league where parody is king, living up to preseason expectations is usually a tall order for the favorites. At times like this, it helps to have perspective. Three losing seasons in a decade is not bad, and history shows us that this organization has a knack for filling its needs quickly.
I remember game 4 of the ALCS back in 2004, the day that the Red Sox began the most improbable championship run in recent sports history. What I remember most is the way that they booed Manny Ramirez in that game, and Johnny Damon too. I remember them chanting, “Po-Key Po-Key” when Bellhorn was at the plate. I also remember the signs at the ballpark, “Here we go again” & “I can’t believe I fell for this again.”
As an Oriole fan having suffered through 7 straight losing seasons at the time I remember thinking how spoiled they were. How the Red Sox were perennially in the playoffs and playing exciting and meaningful baseball every August and September. That more than anything made me hope that they’d never win.
Still, there is no karma in sports. Baseball’s hit king gambled on the game, and its homerun king and the greatest pitcher of the last 20 years have both been implicated for steroid use. The New England Patriots, who were caught cheating in week 1, are on the brink of an undefeated regular season, and we may be seeing TO vs. Randy Moss starring in this year’s Superbowl. Clearly in sports, what goes around does not always come back around.
As I said, if you are going to be a fan of any team, you are going to go through seasons like this one. When you are fortunate enough to be a fan of a team like the Ravens, you can expect that seasons like this one will be few and far between. When seasons like this do come around, it’s important to maintain perspective. Remember that in the history of our division, no team has ever repeated as division champ. Remember also that half of our division has one playoff appearance each and no playoff wins since the Ravens came into existence. Don’t expect Bengals or Browns fans to feel sorry for you.
I think that if we all take a step back and look at this team realistically we’d agree that even if they were healthy, the Ravens would have little chance of winning the AFC this season. The top of the conference is just too talented.
At 4-10 there is little to be positive about. We realistically could have beaten Cincinnati in week 1, Buffalo in week 7, Cleveland in week 11 & the mighty Patriots in week 13. In that case we’d be 8-4 with 2 tough games remaining, and in the driver’s seat for a playoff berth. And when it was all said and done, we’d be looked at as a disappointing one and done, rather than a team that clearly played over its head.
With a wealth of compensatory picks likely coming in this year’s draft, and a pick near the top, the Ravens will probably be better off in the long run from having lost those close games. I think that the Patriots game might indicate that we are closer to being a contender again than our record indicates, but this team clearly has big needs; a better draft position should help that.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t be disappointed; you’re right to be upset. Nobody likes losing. If you can though, try to imagine what it’s like to be a fan in Cincinnati or Houston or Arizona. Imagine being a fan of a team like San Francisco or Washington who got used to being on top all of the time and are now in prolonged droughts. If that’s too tough to imagine, then remember what it was like to not have a team. Surely you remember that.
I’d rather sit through 13 more seasons like this one than another 13 without a team at all. In their short history, the Ravens have accomplished more than half of the teams in the NFL. Yet in 2005 I sat virtually alone for the last 2 home games of the season, the best games of Kyle Boller’s life by the way. Prior to winning the Superbowl, we routinely shared our stadium with fans of the Steelers or any other team that traveled well. And I suspect that I’ll be out there in a see of Black and Yellow on the 30th as well.
Sadly, in Baltimore there are far too many of us whose loyalty is directly tied to our winning percentage at the time. I can understand if you’ve abandoned Oriole Park, after a decade it’s time to make a statement there. Some of us still take pride in the fact that we will never to be able to go away, no matter what.
Everything in life is subject to change, but being a fan of a team gives some of us consistency. It’s tough to be loyal. Being loyal to your team sometimes means sitting through a miserable season like this one and trying to find positives to stay sane. (The young offensive line, good draft position, growth, maturing, character building) Sometimes it means sitting in your home stadium, while it’s overrun with visiting fans and supporting your team through a loss. The fans will come back when we start winning again, you can always count on that. And everyone will have been there all along through thick and thin, by their own accounts. 
Losing football is better than no football. That’s a sad way to look at it, but it’s absolutely true. We clamored for the Cardinals, the Bucs, an expansion team and any other miserable team to fill the void when we were without one. We welcomed the USFL and the CFL, anything to just have football again. Compared to that 4-10 isn’t bad at all.
Loyalty is underrated I guess. As paying customers, we don’t owe our loyalty to anyone, as real fans we can’t help it. Billick’s own loyalty would be considered by some to be one of his biggest faults. I wonder how fans of the Falcons or Dolphins or Mountaineers would feel about a coach who is too loyal? Maybe there’s no such thing as loyalty in sports, I know there’s no karma.