There have been some special moments in the history of Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. Perhaps none were quite as memorable or significant as Ray Lewis' final home game in January 2013, but others were significant, too.
Perhaps you're considering other playoff games in Baltimore -- the stadium has hosted five in total with the Ravens winning three of them. Running back Jamal Lewis' 295-yard effort against the Browns in September 2003 comes to mind; wide receiver Torrey Smith's performance against the Patriots (127 receiving yards, two touchdowns) after losing his brother in September 2012 must be considered as well. It's even worth pointing out that, of the many college football games played at the stadium, the two Navy-Maryland games had tremendous atmospheres and incredible finishes.
But there's another moment that really stands out for me. It was a Ravens game during that special 2008 season, the first for quarterback Joe Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh. The game was actually very early in the season -- in fact, it was in August. The Ravens were playing the Vikings during the preseason. You obviously remember that, right?
Memories from that night, of course, have nothing to do with what happened on the field, although I'll forever have fond memories of Ernie Wheelwright. The memories of the evening are based entirely on the fact that after the "game" was finished, thousands of fans packed the lower bowl of the stadium to watch Michael Phelps pursue his record eighth gold medal of the Beijing Summer Games.
It was incredible. It was intense. It was an absolutely electric vibe that whipped into a frenzy as the U.S. relay team clinched the gold to allow the Baltimore-born swimmer to break Mark Spitz's record for most gold medals in a single Olympiad. The moment felt like the culmination of a love affair between an athlete and the city that shaped him.
In the eight years since, however, that love affair has ... cooled? There was another Inner Harbor celebration for the swimmer after he became the most decorated Olympian of all time in 2012. There have been ovations for him when he's shown on a big screen at a Ravens game. But there have also been those whose opinions of Phelps have changed due to his personal issues, or perhaps it's a perception some have of him from personal interactions (or secondhand storytelling ... or storytelling told through sources no more reliable than a game of "telephone").
Part of the reason the love affair has cooled is likely also because Phelps moved away from the city to train with his longtime personal coach Bob Bowman, who is now the swim coach at Arizona State. While much has been made publicly about the Towson High School alum's maturation -- now in his 30s and as a first-time father -- we haven't been able to witness it up close and personal in this area.
Mix that with the fact that there isn't much for Phelps to prove this time around in Rio de Janeiro. He already has all of the medal records you could possibly care about. In a way, he's just running up the score this time with whatever haul he brings home. As he prepares to compete in his fifth and (this time he means it) final Olympics, Baltimore doesn't seem to have nearly the "Phelps Phever" (so mad I didn't think up that T-shirt idea eight years ago) it's had in the past.
This time around, perhaps instead of fervor we just try on "appreciation" for the former North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmer. Perhaps we simply enjoy every final opportunity we have to watch the man compete. Whether he adds five more gold medals or none, we have the tremendous opportunity to just be grateful for the attention he's provided our hometown as the most famous/visible Baltimorean on the face of the planet. He hasn't always handled the spotlight with perfection, but a city largely known for "The Wire" has been well served by the publicity Phelps has provided.
Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken Jr., Al Kaline, etc ... somewhere in that mix you'd find Phelps among the all-time greatest athletes who are from Baltimore. Phelps may never be as beloved as Ripken, but his impact can never be marginalized. The recent U.S. Olympic trials were littered with swimmers from the NBAC, many of whom are hoping for the opportunity to become "the next Michael Phelps."
Enjoy this, Baltimore. It's unlikely there will be an Olympics again in your lifetime in which the majority of the attention will be paid to an athlete from your backyard. It has been special to watch for the last decade and a half, and it should be special once more.
And maybe for Phelps' final race, we can consider heading over to the stadium to enjoy it together one more time? Just a thought.
Issue 223: July 2016