Just before one o'clock on Sunday afternoon, M&T Bank Stadium throbbed. In a picture-perfect scene for the national-TV audience, 71,000 fans seemed to generate so much noise that their faces threatened to turn purple, like their shirts and hats. Soon, Ray Lewis would emerge from the locker-room tunnel, do one last home-field rendition of his "Squirrel" dance, and the Ravens would take the field to play the Indianapolis Colts in the second AFC wild-card game.
But if you wanted to get to the heart and soul of Ravens country, to understand the team's fans and the city they come from, you needed to be around earlier-and not in this fastidious stadium, not even just outside it, but in the trash-strewn lots further out, where fans gather hours before home games.
There's nothing wrong with the well-heeled spectators on the official lots at M&T Bank Stadium-they surely put out a great spread. But Baltimore flavor is richest in the hinterlands that sprawl beyond, through one of the city's oldest industrial areas. To the north is the B&O Roundhouse, now a museum; to the west, the Mount Clare Museum House, one of Baltimore's first colonial forges. Lost in the middle is a flatland of rubble, weeds, and harsh-hued buildings along Ostend Street, snaking up Warner Street, with slivers and spots under bridges in between.
Here, the Mad Max revelers unleash their twisted take on the family picnic. Booze lines checkered tablecloths near makeshift grills on flatbed trucks. Kids play catch alongside the railroad tracks, frequently displaced as a train pushes oafishly through, the wheels grinding in a fist-pumping camaraderie. Purple-clad stumblers take pisses while guzzling urine-colored beer at the same time. A DJ sets up his mobile studio and mashes up country-western with hip-hop. Absorbing it all like he's done for years is T. Elliott Sr., sitting like a kingpin, reading the paper.
"Without the football team, a lot of people of different races would not have met," he says. "They have their differences and the whole nine, but there's one common denominator: the Baltimore Ravens, the purple and black."
He's right. For the last several weeks, I've been on a mission to tap into this common denominator, an ethos that ties the Ravens as a team to their fans and to the city itself.
Some time around Week 12, when the Ravens bumbled their way to an overtime win against the hapless San Diego Chargers thanks to Ray Rice's impossible catch and run on 4th-and-29 and, somehow, a dominant 9-2 record and, for the fifth year in a row, a near-certain berth in the playoffs, the slogan hit me:
baltimore: where winning ugly is a beautiful thing.
I invested $1,060.14 and made 150 T-shirts with the line, determined to see if Baltimore would embrace its identity. But laying down a concept is not an easy thing, especially when the competition gets to sell trademark-protected emblems and players' jerseys, which have become a required uniform for the football fan. But every once in a while, a rogue T-shirt comes along that sums up the moment-like the Terrell Suggs-inspired Ball So Hard University shirts last year. I believed I had that next big thing.
Surely "winning ugly" would connect, I thought. While the Ravens have forged a reputation for playing ugly since their defense-led championship in 2001, this season had been particularly vexing. The Ravens' vaunted defense was now statistically middling, and the hoped-for high-octane offense led by Joe Cool had been supplanted by the sputtering inconsistency of Flaky Flacco. It got so bad that the team fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron-the target of endless fan ire-an unprecedented move in the middle of double-digit win season. Perhaps never before had a fan base been so angry with a team that won so many games.
And in this city, so often dismissed as some run-down D.C. suburb where everyone is affiliated with either the Barksdale crew or the Stanfield crew, but still manages to produce great art, great scholars, great communities, and, yes, a great football team and fan base-wouldn't people embrace our inner ugly for a bargain price of $10? Winning Ugly could replace The City That Reads park-bench slogan that's so old it's not even ironic anymore. I know because I wear an Ed Reed-referencing T-shirt that says "Baltimore: The City That Reeds" and people don't get it.
I figured that my shirt not only fits this team, particularly this season, but if embraced-that is, if you embrace the inner ugly-then you'll experience a transcendence, and isn't that what we all want in a football team or as fans of any sport? We're hoping to experience transcendence, to live vicariously through the players. But the ugly truth looms: that nothing that happens on the field will fix our lives. We are stuck with ourselves, like a communal hangover, while the players earn hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars that us fans manufacture for them.
So I took to the streets for Week 13, when the Ravens played the Steelers, and videotaped my efforts. I wanted to teach the fine folks tailgating in the nooks and crannies of South Baltimore's old-world industry-vacant lots festooned with purple tassels and obscene suggestions for Ben Roethlisberger-to find the good in the ugly.
"Winning ugly is a beautiful thing," I yelled until my voice was gone. "Winning is a beautiful thing. Embrace it and if you do, we'll ride this horse to the Super Bowl. Give up on the dream of being a Peyton Manning team. Fuck that. I wanna win ugly all the way and piss the whole world off!"
I sold 14 shirts and every sale was tough, took a lot a patter, and elicited a lot of grief. At one point, I was pitching to a group of grizzled fans sitting along a front stoop until one of them said, "Hey buddy, you're selling to the wrong crowd. This is a homeless shelter."
"Awesome." I actually said that.
I was giving the hard sell to a woman who wondered if I would still be on the Ostend Street Bridge three hours later. Before I could answer, a stranger came up from behind and starting freaking her.
The message wasn't sitting well with some. One woman thought it was an insult, another chastised me. "A win's a win," she said.
"A win's a win?"
Her eyes spoke loud as any jeer-You idiot.
"You're never going to sell shirts with that."
Next stop, a man said, "I'll give you two cookies and two dollars" for a shirt. This heckler owned the massive lot and later demanded a $5 shirt if I wanted to keep selling on his spot, the only lot where I had made multiple sales.
He called me a fuck-up and added, "You don't know what you're doing."
Mike Greenberg: The Ravens look to me like a team I give a puncher's chance next week in Denver because, while it wasn't real pretty yesterday and Ray Rice put two balls on the ground-and obviously you can't do that against a really good Denver team-Joe Flacco and Boldin, in particular, make a couple of really big plays, the defense is capable of making a big play here or there.
Ron Jaworski: This is the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens, they seem to get no respect.
-"Mike & Mike," ESPN Radio, Jan. 7
"They are not the most aesthetically pleasing team to watch," says Bob Haynie, a talk-show host for 105.7 The Fan. "They can put up 55 points one game and not get eight points the next."
He talks in a scratchy voice one suspects comes from yelling at the TV, cured by cigs and distilled by libation.
Ever since the Ravens' ugly Super Bowl win in 2001, with a historic defense led by fifth-year linebacker Ray Lewis, Haynie and the rest of the sports-show hosts have fielded irate calls about lame play-calling, inept quarterback play-be it Kyle Boller or Joe Flacco, who gets skewered extra-and an offense that can look clueless at times.
"Everybody wants to identify with the team's hard-working, smash-mouth, grind-it-out-throw out any cliche you wanna use-style, but at the end of the day, they want Joe Flacco to be Joe Montana," says Haynie. "And when he's not, that's when the complaints roll in."
"We've become spoiled,"he adds. "Drew Brees threw a ton of touchdowns and he will be home watching the playoffs with everybody else."
And when the defense was dominant, you got the feeling the NFL wasn't too keen on games being won 15 to 10, watching blooming, elite quarterbacks get hit hard and their famed aerial assaults grounded. Nobody but the home crowd wants to see Super Bowls like that. Rules were instated that hampered defenses: Cornerbacks couldn't touch receivers five yards off the line of scrimmage. The word was that the NFL was looking for more scoring and flags for illegal hits to start flying. In the last year, even more referee laundry has been flying over concerns about concussions.
The defense-minded team matched Baltimore's blue-collar vibe. Talk to Ernie Grecco, 70-year-old native, who dates back to the Greatest Game Ever Played-when an upstart Baltimore Colts team took the train up to New York and beat the Giants, the game when the NFL grew up, thanks to the first use of sudden death and the dynamic play of Johnny Unitas.
Back then, Sparrows Point had tens of thousands of workers. There was a General Motors plant in Southeast Baltimore. Armco Steel, Continental Can. Baltimore's garment industry rivaled New York's. The city was chock-full of breweries. Grecco, now the president of the Metropolitan Baltimore chapter of the AFL-CIO, got his start at the Seagram Distillery. "Now it's all gone," he says.
But Grecco bails before going down life-was-sweeter-in-the-Good-Ole-Days prattle. Instead, he marvels that Baltimore, a town that people drove through to get from D.C. to Philadelphia, has emerged as a destination point. "I'd rather have the jobs, the good manufacturing jobs," he said. "But people love Baltimore."
Baltimore's hard climb as a destination point for artists and those looking to break out on their own, taking advantage of cheap rent and a welcoming arts community, has surprised a lot of natives, including me. I remember my dad driving me around as a kid, pointing out the few hot spots in other dreary streets-Louie's Bookstore and Café, Bread and Roses Coffee House, Peabody's Book Shop and Beer Stube. Now, the city streets pulsate with tail lights from Woodberry and Hampden down through the Charles Street arts district into Fed Hill and Fells Point, Canton and beyond. I remember when you couldn't find a cab. Now, the streets teem with taxis and you can't find an empty one.
Recently, I was in L.A., desperate for something on the radio, when I came to a DJ gushing about Dan Deacon's America. The DJ talked about how he was out to Baltimore and how those places that Deacon refers to, like "Guilford Avenue Bridge," really do exist and that he could see why Deacon doesn't want to leave.
Never in my dreams did I think Baltimore would get such recognition.
It's gotten to the point that natives like me have become a bit rare-not Formstone-rare, but maybe Berger cookies-rare-we're around, but you have to know where to find us. And for the last 10 years, I've heard from the new settlers an appreciation of the history. Sports talk-show host Rob Long, a Baltimore native, noted that many blue-collar towns like Cleveland or Boston have rich sports heritage with teams that predate ours by more than half a century. But Baltimore keeps its history close to the surface. It's the difference between someone who stashes the family heirlooms in a cherry-wood box and someone who displays great-granddad's fiddle on the wall-or, even better, plays it.
In fact, Long takes it another step further and says that Baltimore revels in the underdog snub, something that the Ravens and their fans have often noted: "I don't know if it's an inferiority complex or our edge."
I decided to take my T-shirts for one final push on Sunday before the Colts game.
So winning ugly is a beautiful thing, right? No way to dress this season up-might as well give it an ugly kiss and feel better about ourselves. The week leading up to the game was heavy with sappy tributes to Lewis. I knew it was going to throw static in my "winning ugly" vibe. And when I parked my car for an extra $10, I knew it was over. I gave away T-shirts to the parking-lot attendant and invaded people's personal space, customizing my pitch to the anticipation that Ray Lewis' return for one more game would resurrect the defense's luster one more time:
"I know we're going to win pretty today," I said. "But in Denver, against Peyton Manning, who crushed us only a month ago, we're going to have to scratch and claw. We're going to have to bring them down to our level-ugly. So you might as well sit on your coach next week with this T-shirt on."
Not one sale.
I found myself trapped on the south side of the tracks, penned in by a slow-moving freighter and security fencing. The train wheels screeched something fierce and I sold one shirt. Another guy said he would buy one but he's leaving the country on account of Obama winning the elections and the taxes. His wife verified that they were packing boxes to move to South America.
When I got his name, it turned out this bail bondsman went to Mount Washington Elementary School with me. Everything changed. He brought his dad over, gave me a drink, and we talked about the fights down by Falls Road. This wasn't Whole Foods Mount Washington. The train left, but I didn't go anywhere as he marveled about Baltimore's small-town vibe.
"This is a blue-collar, working-hard team that's gonna do what it takes to win, just like Baltimore City: unemployed, taxes through the roof, but they are gonna make it work," he said. "When you see Ray Lewis come out, you're gonna see the real Baltimore City."
I went to see Ray's last game and, as Rob Long predicted, the story line has changed: "It's no longer about the dreaded Colts coming to town," he said. "It's about a Raven leaving."
Sitting next to me was Minnie Niazi, who has a dog named Lewis and passed on her club seats to sit with her daughter. "They are hard-nosed, fighting, battling guys that give us all they have and we love them," she says.
The game started out ugly-exchanging turnovers, but finished in a noble way. Not a beat-down but a hard-fought win that at times was closer than the 24-9 scores implied. It was eerie still to see the Colts, that historic white-and-blue with the horseshoes, rush the field toward Ray Lewis.
When I got back, the parking-lot attendant looked up at me with a rotten-tooth grin and said, "Hey, I got a lot of comments on your shirt. If you leave some with me, I'll make some sales for you."
"Sure thing," I said. "See you next year."