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8 Upper

Welcome to the Big Time

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/23/1998

If I were a good and loyal citizen, I would say I feel the thrill of being back in the NFL at 12:38 p.m., on Sept. 6, when the man in the flying-rocket backpack lands on a Ravens welcome mat in the west end zone of the Stadium With No Name. But the truth of the matter is that I'm too busy gawking. The stadium is so big, and the Touchdown Baltimore Celebration--Get it? Rocket backpack? Touch down?--is so chaotic that I'm not getting any perspective. Somewhere down on the field, John Moag, the soon-to-be-gone head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, is giving a speech. "Today we are winners," he says. "Today we are very proud."

I can't figure out where Moag really is in all of the confusion and immensity, so I watch him on one of the giant Smartvision video screens. This is my first-ever NFL game, and I'm still getting my bearings. I'm at the far left end of the top row of the press box, on about the 4 1/2 yard line--about the remotest seat available to The Media. The crowd noise is muffled by glass, and the air conditioning is truly boffo. Depending on how I swivel, I can see either screen.

The Smartvisions, like that hard-to-photograph purple of the Ravens' uniforms, really must be seen in person. They are immense panoramic things, with an aspect ratio as wide as that of Lawrence of Arabia or Chinatown, wide enough to show three things at once. They're like Panavision. And they're digital, so they have that creepy precision to them, which makes them look more crisp than clear.

I realize it's no great act of courage to say so, but I don't like the Smartvisions very much. I lump them with music during play and outfield advertisements as gross intrusions on my ability to peacefully experience a game through my own eyes and ears. Of all of the places I've watched a sporting event, my ideal has been the upper general-admission seats at Memorial Stadium--the field spread out below me, room at my elbows, nobody telling me when to cheer or what to pay attention to. Hence the name of this column, 8 Upper.

I am basically, in my mean little heart, a sentimentalist. This is why, when I dressed for this Ravens opener, I put on a blue-and-white shirt. As far as I can tell, nobody else in the stadium is wearing blue and white, unless you count John Steadman's seersucker suit. There's sure as hell nobody wearing brown and orange. There are plenty of people in black and gold though. After the first half, out on the concourse, I put a historical question--What about the Browns?--to Tom Walsh of Dallas, a bright-eyed guy in a Steelers jersey and shiny black hard hat, his face painted half black and half yellow. "I just transferred my dislike for the Browns to the Ravens," he says. Little beery drops of spittle fly. "I hate 'em as much as I hated the Browns." I ask how he'll feel next year when Cleveland once again has a team, but before he answers, another Pittsburgh fan spots Walsh and yells, "Gimme a head-butt," and cuts in, forehead first.

History is not a big concern here. The Ravens' 1998 Fan and Media Guide dances around it as best it can. Staff profiles for employees of more than three years refer to their careers with "the Modell organization" or "Art Modell's franchise," rather than saying they were hired by the Cleveland Browns. A special section in the back combines Colts and Ravens stats to list "Baltimore Pro Football" records, such as Most Points Scored, Season, in which Lenny Moore (120!) beats out Raul Allegre and Matt Stover. The CFL Stallions aren't included.

But why mope? Football is back. I quote the official second-quarter play-by-play: "K. Stewart (shotgun) pass incomplete to A. Coleman. . . . J. Miller punts 26 yards, out of bounds. . . . R. Potts up middle to BR40 for 3 yards. . . . E. Zeier pass incomplete to E. Rhett. . . . E. Zeier pass incomplete to P. Holmes. . . . K. Richardson punts 50 yards to PS 10. . . . F. McAfee penalized 10 yards for Illegal Block Above Waist. . . . K. Stewart pass incomplete to J. Witman."

How many million bucks did we spend for this? But I will cast no aspersions when it comes to the Stadium With No Name. Besides the free crab cakes in the press lunchroom, the most pleasant surprise of the day is our new facility. You can sort of tell that they ran out of money, and the place has a refreshingly humble charm. When you get past all of the hoo-hah and the silver streamers and the Ravenettes cheerleaders hurtling through the air, there's a lot of no-nonsense bare concrete. Part of what's wrong with the costly Smartvisions is that they look out of place, like French doors on a double-wide. I prefer the rotating ad boards along the perimeter of the mezzanine, which are completely buggy all afternoon and keep saying things such as 25 YEAR cDonE NE TH THE NFL UNITED WAY OF CENTRAL UTE. Once the spills turn into stains, the stadium might even achieve a homey scuzziness.

Contemplating this, I feel the first stirrings of civic pride.

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