It's Super Bowl time: Baltimore sees purple

WASHINGTON The Ravens' trip to the Super Bowl is the biggest thing to hit Baltimore since crab cakes, hon.

From Pigtown to Pikesville, the Queen City of the Patapsco is bathed in purple. That's the team color, don'tchyaknow. They're even selling purple frosted doughnuts at the Krispy Kreme up on York Road.

Over in Roland Park, St. Mary's Seminary is lit up purple at night. It looks kind of eerie - like some higher authority has taken sides.

But for Baltimore, a turn on football's biggest stage is more than a game. It's even more than an opportunity to boast about civic resurrection.

Baltimore is one of the truly great sports towns in America, and here a big game is a boost, a jolt, a memory that lives in the collective consciousness. Win or lose, it goes up on the shelf to be admired and discussed for generations to come.

Not that anyone expects less than victory in Tampa, Fla. "Lose?" says Mayor Martin O'Malley, appearing genuinely affronted. "Lose? Oh, I can't think about that."

The city's personable young chief executive has himself become chief Raven booster. He ordered so many municipal buildings illuminated in Raven colors that the city had a hard time finding enough purple light bulbs. Workers had to scour suppliers up and down the East Coast.

"We sent people hither and yon," Mayor O'Malley says. Then he turns to an aide. "Who went to hither?"

Perhaps the housing commissioner, whose recent drunken tirade inside a local bar was a major embarrassment for the city administration. But never mind - O'Malley's own popularity is soaring. A white who won election in a predominantly African-American city by outflanking his opponents to the right on crime, he's one of the Democratic Party's fresh new faces.

The party leadership thinks he could be governor, maybe even a national figure. He met Bill Clinton in the White House a few times, and the now ex-president has ribbed him about his sudden popularity.

"He calls me 'Mr. 91 percent,' " says O'Malley, breaking into a dead-on Clinton impersonation. " 'Hey Mr. 91 percent! Nobody wins by that much! Do you people even vote up there?' "

By many measures, the city has improved in O'Malley's brief tenure. Crime is down - the murder rate dropped by one-third in the last half of 2000. Property values are up - metro Baltimore resale prices rose 25 percent in 2000's last quarter.

But drug addiction has been slower to decline here than it has in some other big cities. Baltimore has some of America's greatest institutions - Johns Hopkins University Hospital, the Peabody Institute - juxtaposed with some of the worst slums.

What has remained, even in the city's worst times, is its sense of itself. In Baltimore - unlike that other city, whatchacallit, down there south of Odenton where the president lives - natives stay for generations. Obituaries routinely refer to the deceased's neighborhood.

The pull of the past has even affected the football team. Coach Brian Billick was hired on the premise that he is a modern offensive genius. Yet at heart, they are a collection of huge men who win by pounding the other team's quarterback until only his helmet is visible, sticking out of the turf like a mushroom. Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa laid such a vicious hit in the playoffs that the NFL fined him. The reaction here? A local businessman, only half in jest, started fundraising to pay the fine for him.

That's Bawlmer for you. Not much irony, but lots of nostalgia. In Baltimore's heart, it is always November, and the tiers of Memorial Stadium are shivering, thousands on their feet, as Johnny Unitas leans over center one more time, in the rain.

"The people here," says O'Malley, a native Washingtonian, "they kind of take you in."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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