Monday, November 12, 2012

Fire In The Hole

It was a day I had looked forward to for months. Tickets to see the Baltimore Ravens football team play at home against the Oakland Raiders, the latter a team I pinned my heart to decades ago when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was a fan of Oakland in the 1970s when Kenny Stabler rose to quarterback fame.  And I was ecstatic when Jim Plunkett took the Raiders to victory against the Philadelphia Eagles at Superbowl XV in 1981.  

Fate took the Raiders to Los Angeles the following year. I turned my attention to the newly formed United States Football League and its inaugural team, the Oakland Invaders. I even bought season tickets to see the nascent East Bay team.  But the USFL didn’t last, and eventually my affections leaned in the direction of the San Francisco 49ers during the Joe Montana years -- a team that played amazing football in the 1980s and still tugs at my heart strings all these years later.

My brother, Dave, on the other hand, never lost his affection for the Raiders. He was angry, as many fans were, when the Raiders abandoned Oakland for Los Angeles in 1982, but when they returned to Oakland in 1994, David welcomed them back by becoming a season ticket holder. Meanwhile, I was in the process of moving my life slowly across the country: first to Reno, Nevada, in 1991, then to Texas in 1994, where I embraced the Dallas Cowboys and, finally, to Maryland in 2001, where the Ravens became my team of choice.

Now, having lived in Baltimore County for more than a decade, I was finally making my inaugural visit to Baltimore's M&T Bank stadium. Months earlier, I emailed my brother to ask if he and his wife would like to come to Baltimore for a long weekend.  I would treat them to tickets to the Veterans Day game and we could each cheer on our respective gridiron heroes while sitting side by side. Wouldn't that be fun?  I upped the ante by promising his favorite home-cooked meals and I even offered to open a bottle of coveted Silver Oak cabernet I’ve had stashed in my wine cellar for over a decade, knowing it is one of his favorite wines.
A record crowd came out to see the Ravens win on a gorgeous fall day

No deal. My brother preferred to plan a trip to Hawaii for Christmas this year. Gee, go to Baltimore to see his beloved Raiders get trounced and be subjected to merciless teasing by his sister or spend a week luxuriating in Hawaii over the Christmas holiday? I guess it was never really a contest.  I was hopeful he might come anyway. But no. 

In any event, gameday in Baltimore finally arrived. I donned my black Levis boot-cut jeans and a violet-hued Ravens T-shirt, the latter a gift from my local health club. I added some antiqued gold-metal earrings with purple feathers, a bracelet of plum-colored wooden disks and a fashion ring of amethyst glass stones, a birthday gift from my best friend’s mother, Joyce, in September.

Joe Valentino is the unofficial "mayor"
of  Section 503 at Ravens stadium
The day was ideal for a football game: brilliant sunshine with temps in the high 60s and a slight breeze. Never mind that my seats weren't exactly on the 50-yard line.  I was happy just to be able to watch the pigskin sport in such glorious autumn weather.

While enjoying the game, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Joe Valentino, the unofficial "mayor" of section 503 at the stadium. By day, Joe is a financial advisor, but he and his best friend since the age of ten, Ed Nemec, himself a managing partner of Baltimore’s New York Life Insurance, have had season tickets to Ravens games since the team first came to Baltimore in 1996.  Their buddy, Brett Sause, also a financial advisor, goes two or three times a year as Joe's guest.  In all, the longtime friends have seven seats among them, and a core group tries to attend almost every home game. Years ago they got into the habit of shouting out in unison whenever a nice-looking girl took a seat in their section.  "Fire in the hole!" was their enthusiastic cry.  To enhance the "fire" theme, Joe obtained an actual fire fighter’s helmet from a cousin in New York and enlisted his sister-in-law to decorate it with Ravens colors and artwork. The first time he got to wear his new head covering was to the Ravens Superbowl game in 2000, and he’s worn it to every Ravens game since.  Wearing his helmet proudly, Joe periodically fires up the crowd -- and he asks patrons, including his buddies, to tone down their salty language when its called for, too.  He is a perfect section leader!

Sitting lapside with Mike Peters
My ticket to today’s game came courtesy of a dear friend of mine, Mike Peters, a local architect whose season tickets happen to be in Joe Valentino’s section of the stadium. Mike and I share the same birthday, although we are several years apart in age. Mike rides his scooter to the stadium on game days from his row-house in Baltimore City. I drove in from my home in the suburbs of Owings Mills. True to form, the Baltimore Ravens packed the stadium Sunday with over 71,000 cheering fans and gave Oakland a thorough trouncing at 55-20, which broke a Baltimore record for number of points scored by the winning team in a single game. I was glad my brother didn’t have to suffer through such an embarrassing loss for his Raiders.

With perfect weather and a decisive win for my football team, it was an awesome autumn day all the way around.

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