Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dance if you want to Dance

This past Sunday I experienced an awesome sporting moment. It wasn’t historic or even noteworthy. As a matter of fact it has been happening at least 8 times a year during the last 8 or 9 years. It didn’t even happen during the game. It happened at a time when most people are still settling into their seats. In Tampa most of the crowd wouldn’t even be in the building yet. Sunday afternoon at about 4.00pm I saw a city lose it’s collective mind for one of their athletes - I saw Ray Lewis introduced to the home crowd.

A lot has been said or written about Ray Lewis, the 13 year veteran for the Ravens. Depending on who you are or where you’re from he’s a hero, or a murderer, a hall of famer or an average linebacker, overrated or underrated, hard nosed or over exposed., passionate or a fool. What you can’t deny is that he is the Ravens and by extension he is Baltimore.

There is a holy trinity of sports heroes in Baltimore. At the head is Johnny Unitas, at his right hand is Brooks Robinson and at his left Cal Ripken, Jr. The others (Jim Palmer, Artie Donavon, Eddie Murray, Michael Phelps, etc) are in a tier well below them. Soon, however, Lewis will join the Big Three. That’s why it’s tough to read stories about him possibly being a free agent after this year. He is nearing the end of his career that can’t be disputed and to have that happen in a Patriots uniform or a Cowboys uniform would be a disappointment. God forbid he return to Baltimore in Bengals’ colors.

It’s common for athletes, notably football players, to overextend their stay in the league. After all, the legendary Unitas donned San Diego colors and who wants to remember Emmitt Smith as a Cardinal or Tim Brown as a Buccaneer? If Lewis were to leave next season it seems that it would be worse. Those other players played for franchises that had a history before them and after them. Lewis is the history of the Ravens. He was the second ever draft pick (Jonathon Ogden was their first) and has suited up for the team since he was 21 years old. He gave Baltimore a reason to be proud again, and to be cocky. Every fan wants that. Some take it to far - that’s you Red Sox fan.

That type of player doesn’t happen along very often and in Baltimore it seems even harder. For as long as I’ve been around I’ve been aware of the fact the Baltimore as a city has an inferiority complex. It’s an east coast city between the political capital (Washington, DC) and the cultural capital (New York) of the country, if not the world. Everyone talks about the Yankees dynasties, but no one seems to remember that from the late 60’s to the early 80’s the team to beat was the O’s. This is the 50th anniversary of the “Greatest Game Ever Played” - won by the Colts. A team that doesn’t even have it’s own section in the Hall of Fame. Got to the Hall of Fame website and search for Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts. I’ll wait for you….

….. And you’re back. That’s right they’re not listed under the Baltimore Colts, they’re listed under the Indianapolis Colts. You tell what the hell Indianapolis has to do with Johnny U or Raymond Berry? Do you think Indiana Joe Fan gives two figs about history of the franchise and the “World’s Loudest Outdoor Insane Asylum”? No all they care about is Peyton Manning.

Lewis gives the fans a connection to those proud days. He has suffered for his indiscretions, he has lost millions in endorsement opportunities for his mistakes. I won’t claim that he’s a saint or that he does no wrong, but I do know that since those days in jail he hasn’t come close to running afoul of the law. Unlike others he has learned his lesson. He keeps his nose out of trouble and the only off field stories you hear about are his goodwill charities.

His critics call him arrogant or flamboyent. His antics aren't neccesary. I tend to disagree. He doesn't dance on the field every time he makes a sack or a tackle - he only does it during his introduction. To me it's a show of joy not showmanship. It's for the fans.
After this season the Ravens are going to have to make a lot of decisions. All three of their high profile linebackers (Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Bart Scott) are free agents. Suggs and Scott are in their mid-twenties - the prime age for defensive players. Suggs has already been franchised once so he will be looking for a big pay day. Losing him would be a tremendous set back for the franchise. Scott has been a better than average linebacker in Rex Ryan’s aggressive scheme and could be looking at a substantial raise.

Both of those players are younger than Lewis and have a brighter future. Ray-Ray, as fans and players call him, is only 33, but in football that is old. With his frantic, hyperagressive style of play Lewis is an “old” 33. He is still effective. He still flies to the ball to force fumbles or recover them. The addition of the big boys up front - Haloi Ngata, Justin Bannan and a healthy Kelley Gregg - have allowed him room to roam the middle of the field without having to worry about fending off a big ol’ 350lb offensive lineman.

He isn’t just valuable on the field. Every player on the team knows that they are accountable to him in the huddle and in the locker room. While that respect can be used for good (keeping the team together during the offensive struggles during the Super Bowl season) or bad (the ouster of Brian Billick last season) it is important. So far rookie coach John Harbaugh has been able to harness the good. Making the playoffs helps as well.

Had the Ravens suffered through another losing season I could be writing a different story. Heck, I have written a different story (take a look at March 2007). If Lewis asks for absurd money this off-season (I.E. anything over $10 Million a year) I’ll write a “thanks but no thanks” article. However, the team team needs to do what it can to ensure he keeps wearing the purple so that for 8 days next season a town can go nuts over it’s adopted hero.

On Sunday it seemed impossible that he would leave. As he danced his way onto the field my dad summed it up best. It was like a king entering his castle.

No comments: