The heart and soul of Baltimore’s now nationally famous tailgate scene is NOT on the official lots at M&T Bank Stadium. Nothing wrong with those lots of well-healed spectators. They surely put out a great spread one more outlandish than the next. From the stainless steel grill the size of a bass boat to the gramps bunkered down in a van with three tier rotating carousel of liquor, M&T offers up a might buffet that doesn’t welcome my kind — peddlers.
Lucky for me hauling around a massive bag of newly minted T-Shirts, there’s the wilds of the Baltimore hinterlands that sprawls through what is the city’s oldest industrial sites. To the South was the B&O Warehouse, made a museum to the North was the Mount Clare House, which oversaw a colonial forge one of Baltimore’s first. Lost in the middle is this flatland of rubble, weeds and harsh hughed buildings along Ostand Street snaking up Warner Street and slivers and lots under bridges in-between. The Mad-Max revelers unleash their twisted take on the family picnic. Booze presented on checkered table clothes. Kids play catch alongside the railroad tracks before a nervous security guard looking for the flashing signal lights listening for tale-tell moan of the rail. In fact the tracks is littered with the purple-cladded doing a hobos stroll, taking pisses while guzzling urine-colored beer at the same time. More times than expected a train pushes oafishly through, the wheels grinding in a fist pumping camaraderie. The blast of the horn definitely so.
A D.J. sets up his mobile studio and mashes up country-western with hip-hop. Absorbing it all like he’s done for years is T sitting like a kingpin reading the paper — who reads the paper at a tailgate?
“Without the football team a lot of people of different races would not have met,” he said. “ They have their differences and the whole nine but there’s one common denominators, the Baltimore Ravens, the purple and black.”
And with my T-shirts I was hoping to plug into this common denominator not just into the Ravens, but the definition of the season and hell why not – the city.
Winning Ugly is a Beautiful Thing — Laying down a concept is ruckus that is Baltimore Tailgate scene not an easy thing especially when the competition gets to sell trademarked protected and lawyer enforced emblems and player’s jerseys, which has become a required uniform for the football fan. But every once in a while a rouge t-shirt comes along that sums of the moment. I believed that Winning Ugly was that next big thing. Like Ball So Hard University was last year.
Winning Ugly surely would make a connect – I thought. While the Ravens forged a reputation for not winning pretty, this season has been particularly vexing. The Ravens vaunted Defense loomed at the bottum of ranking and the high-hoped anticipated high powered offense played like Joe Cool has been supplanted by Flaky Flacco and yet were playoff bound, I was hoping to give the fan to embrace the team’s inner-ugly for a bargin price of ten dollars. Then Ray Lewis had to go mess this whole spleen venting indulgence up and announce his retirement. Hours before the Ravens played the Colts nobody mentioned the old tired history of the Baltimore Colts leaving town. It was all about Ray. Nobody wanted to hear about Winning Ugly with the return of Ray Lewis. After being out for nearly eight weeks due to an injury, Ray Lewis presence was conjuring up images of days of yore when he and his fellow hunters terrorized offenses to the point it wasn’t even physical. The quarterback would become mired in his own mind game.
It’s a simple T-shirt with high aspirations, a newly minted slogan, a get rich quick scheme, a chance to experience that hustler’s rush of peddling on the streets, a chance to step away from being a passive spectator and ride back-drafts of a team plunging into post-season glory. What I got was a crass view of Baltimore’s psyche, the collective unease of being the step-child of the Mid-Atlantic, a harsh view that comes ever clear with a butt whipping when I hit the streets.
This project wasn’t all about selling shirts, but also engaging the crowd, a little subversive instigating in the guise of a street hustle for a short film. As a low-end documentary filmmaker, I’ve always been attracted to dynamic of old school peddling. I’ve done more than my share of A-rabbing stories and videos. I did a film about a successful New York street musician. I followed around Fancy Clancy, beer vendor extraordinaire for two years. But this t-shirt scheme has fermented for years until I could stand it no more.
I figure the shirt not only fits this team, particularly this season, but if embraced — that is if you embrace the inner ugly — than you’ll experience a transcendence and isn’t what we all want in a football team or as fan of any sport. You’re hoping to experience transcendence or more accurately live vicariously through the players. But the ugly truth that very little if anything that happens on the field will fix the lives of those up in the stands and out in media land. We are stuck with our selves like a hangover while the players go on to their exclusive euphoria capped with hundreds of thousands if not millions, that us fans manufacture for them – that is unless you got a stake, a wager, a business, 150 t-shirts that needs to be sold.
Finding the good in the ugly was what I was preaching to the fine folks tailgating in the nooks and crannied remnants of South Baltimore’s old world industry — vacant lots festooned with purple tassels and obscene suggestions for Ben Roethlisberger — It was Steelers Week and the fan base stewed, hellishly, enflamed further with each yield of the bottle. And there I was, the short misfit among gunslingers, talking some nonsense about benefits of winning ugly.
“Winning Ugly is a beautiful thing. Winning is a beautiful thing. Embrace it and if you do we’ll ride this horse to the Super Bowl. Give up on the dream of being a Peyton Manning Team. Fuck that. I wanna win ugly all the way and piss the whole world off. “
At this point it was no longer about selling a t-shirt for ten bucks. It was about if these boys were thinking about kicking my ass.
But I still, at this writing defend my actions. I am going down believing that Winning Ugly is beautiful thing is the Ravens true identity whether the team crushes their opponents or is given a gift-win. In fact I believe that winning ugly is where they find their glory.
“They are not the most esthetically pleasing team to watch — they can put up 55 points one game and not get 8 points the next,”
Bob Haynie, a Sports Radio Talk Show Host for 105.7 the Fan, who offers a point of reason on the airwaves particularly after a loss, but does so in a scratchy voice one suspects is forged from yelling at the TV, cured by cigs and distilled by libation
Ever since the Ravens ugly Super Bowl Win in 2001 where a historic defense lead by then four year Linebacker Ray Lewis, Haynie and the rest of the sports show hosts have fielded irate calls about lame play calling, inept quarterback play be it Kyle Boller to Joe Flacco, who by many accounts takes extra heat, and a general offense that can look clueless at times.
“Everybody wants to identify with the team’s hard working smash mouth grind it out — throw out any cliché you wanna to use but at the end of the day they want Joe Flacco to be Joe Montana. And when he’s not that’s when the complaints roll in.”
No doubt Baltimore dug deep in their Ravens Defense street cred. As Warren Sapp put it, when his team won Tampa Bay Buccaneers team won the Super Bowl the next year, “The Ravens made defense cool.”
But you get the feeling the NFL wasn’t too keen on games being won on Defense. Before The Ravens Super Bowl win over the New York Giants, Ray Lewis stated that all they all needed was for the Offense was to put up 3 points and Defense would take care of the rest.) Rules were instated that hampered defense play including preventing cornerbacks from “ touching” receivers five yards off the line of scrimmage. The word was that the NFL was looking for more scoring and flags for illegal hits start flying. Even the Ravens the next year didn’t believe in their Winning Ugly M.O. and jettisoned Game Managing Quarterback Trent Dilfer for Glory Boy Elvis Grbac, a decision that came back to haunt the Ravens like a curse. Grbac left the team and the game in tears and the Baltimore fan base was driven to tears by watching the clown shoes footwork of Kyle Boller. The team was either by design or out of survival stuck with keeping the Defense stout, despite a doomsday chorus of prognosticator declaring the end of the ancient adage “Defense Wins Championships.” According to the NFL stats, The Ravens produced a Top 5 defense eight out its last ten years.
Players like Ed Reed, Bart Scott, Adalous Thomas, Kelly Gregg, Jerrett Johnson, and Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ladarous Webb to name too, powered a fierce Baltimore’s defense. It didn’t seem to matter who was the defense coordinator, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan Rex Ryan now Dean Pees, the Ravens consistently inflicted its will on opposing offenses. And Baltimore, with a rich sports heritage but one fraught with some horrible losses (The Colts 68 Loss New York Jets has been the greatest upset.), not to mention step child status to cities like New York, Philadelphia Boston and Washington, D.C. ate ugly defense identity up. Even Pittsburgh, the Ravens arch-rivals, , at times would top the Ravens in Defense standing, with Baltimore taking number, has had a dynamic offense ever since Ben Roethlisberger came into the league and made magic with tenacious receiver Hynes Ward. It can be easy to pair the defense with Baltimore’s blue collar vibe.
Talk to Ernie Ernie Grecco, 70 year old native, who watched when an upstart Colt Team beat the Giants in what now has been called the Greatest Game Ever Played, because of the first use of Sudden Death and the dynamic play of Johnny Unitas. Back then Sparrows Point had 35,000 workers. There was a General Motors Plant. Armco Steel and Continental Can. Baltimore was second to New York in the garment industry. The city was chalked full of Breweries. Grecco, now the President of the AFL-CIO in Metropolitan Baltimore got his start at the Seagram Distillery. “Now it’s all gone,” he said.
But Grecco bails before going down life was sweeter in the good ole days brattle. He marvels that Baltimore, a town that people drove through to get from D.C. to Philadelphia, pointed out in a National Geographic article – has emerged as a destination point. “I’d rather have the jobs the good manufacturing jobs,” he said. “But people love Baltimore.”
Baltimore’s hard climb as a destination point for artists and those looking to break out on their own has surprised yours truly. I remember my dad driving me around as a kid pointing out the few hot spots in other dreary streets — Louis Bookstore, Bread and Roses Coffee House, Peabody’s Bookstore. Now city pulsates tailights from Woodberry, Hamden down through the Charles Street Arts district into Fed Hill and Fells Point, Canton and beyond. I remember when you couldn’t find a cab now the streets team with taxis and you still can’t find one — empty.
But last week came a new realization. I was out in LA desperate for something on the radio when I came to a DJ gushing about Dan Deacon’s America. He talked how he was out to Baltimore and how those places that Deacon refers to like “Guilford Avenue Bridge” really do exist and that he could see why Deacon doesn’t wanna leave.
Never in my dreams did I think Baltimore would get such recognition, much of which has already been documented in this paper.
It’s gotten to the point that natives like myself have become a bit rare, maybe not like Formstone, but maybe like Berger Cookies. We around but you got to know where to find us. And for the last 10 years I’ve heard from the new settlers an appreciation of the feel of history. Sports Talk Show Host Rob Long noted that many blue colar towns like Cleveland or East Coast cities like Boston have rich sports heritage with teams that pre-date ours by more than half a century, Baltimore keeps its history close to the surface.
It’s the difference someone who keeps the family heirlooms in a cherry wood box or someone who displays the great, grand-dads fiddle on the wall or even plays it. .In fact, Long takes it another step further and says that Baltimore’s revels in the under-dog snub.
“I don’t know if it’s an inferiority complex or our edge,” Long said. Long warns that people shouldn’t interpret the complaints about snubs or National Coverage conspiracies as self hatred. “We don’t believe it.”
But change does come even for a town that has a firm grip on the past and old fashion smash mouth football. For one, Baltimore is in the mists of its fifth straight playoff birth but also racking up at least one win in the post-season. And during this run there’s been a seismic shift from defense is king to offense led by Joe Flacco, who came in as an under-dog, from a below the radar school University of Delaware and looking to be a second stringer at least at first until Troy Smith got sick right before opening season. The problem is for a whole host of reasons, the offense hasn’t hit the heights of the Ravens defense. Last year it looked like Flacco and The Ravens was about to plateau at beautiful heights with a spot in the Super Bowl. The Season careened from brilliant play — from opening day beat-down against the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers to the head scratching bungle in Jacksonville. But in the AFC Championship Flacco did what everyone out their in radio and web-land have been clamoring for: Flacco put the team on his shoulders and marched the team down the field. With less than a minute, Tom Brady was on the bench, his head in his hands and Flacco reared back and found Lee Evans in the End Zone. What followed is one of the ugliest drops – somehow a New England defender managed to lurch two steps in the endzone and knock the ball out before Evan could but the second foot down to be called a touchdown. Two plays later Billy Cunduff shanks a gimmie field goal to at least send the game into overtime. Talk about an ugly loss. Man put that one on the NFL top ten why don’t cha.
Honestly it’s surprisingly the Ravens could even muster the nerve to be contender this year. Long is convinced that Ravens 5-11 showing in 2007 was a hangover from the Ravens 13-3, throwing a dismal and ill-advised pic in the Playoffs against the dreaded Colts, losing their chance to get to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens have ridden the top of our division the entire season and it felt like we’ve been in a tail spin. Hell at 9-3 we fired our offensive coordinator. Who fires an offensive coordinator when the playoffs seemed almost certain and the losses could have been put on the defense who allow The Steelers and then the Washington Redskins to drive the field and win.
“We’ve become spoiled,” Haynie said. Drew Breeze threw a ton of touchdowns and he will be home watching the playoffs with everybody else. The fan base, fans in all cities they tend to harp on the negative more than the positive.”
So Winning Ugly is a Beautiful Thing. Right. No way to dress this season up — the miracle 4 and 29, 30 yard run by Ray Rice in San Diego was as ugly win as anything. The next day Flacco got mocked for not daring to throw down field like a real quarterback, instead he dumped it off to running back in the flat with a lot of real estate to make up. No way to dress this season up. Might as well give it an ugly kiss and feel better about ourselves.
Ah Theories look much better on paper, but as soon as they hit the air they start to tarnish. It wasn’t pretty for this little peddler out there folks. I never felt so short.
I sold 14 shirts and everyone was tough and took a lot a patter. There was a time I got a bunch of grissled fans engaged in some conversation, the first step to a sale.
“Hey Buddy, Hey Buddy. You’re selling to the wrong crowd.
This is a homeless shelter.
I played the fool well. Doing a hard sell to a woman who wondered if I would be there after a game, while a stranger freaked her. I turn around and spot tons of Pittsburgh Sucks shirts everywhere. A bail bonds company was giving them away. Ten dollars can’t compete for Free. One woman mocked me and said I needed to change the saying to “A win’s a win.”
“A win’s a win?”
Her eyes spoke loud as any jeer — you doofus.
“You’re never going to sell shirts with that.”
Next stop a man heckled during a near sale. “I’ll give you two cookies and two dollars. This heckler owned the massive lot and demanded a five dollar shirt if I wanted to keep selling on his lot, the only lot that I had made multiple sales.
He already called me a fuck up and “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
But in this business you can’t have any pride and when I’m saying this business, I’m referring to journalism. A journalist has to eat it for a story. Many cases I’m intruding or at the very least culling their world and if you want truth, you got to seek pain. Tom Nugent, a teacher told me that back in J-school at U of Maryland. If it was not for him I’d never be a journalist, which isn’t such a good idea these days with the written word and the newspapers in such straights. He would urge us to “seek pain,” look for the truth by throwing off the cliché’s and the formulaic. He inspired me to aim to be a great writer, not that I am or ever be, but to aim for it anyway. Why not go high, but to do so would be an ugly road. He warned me. He also hated sports, football especially. He thought sports was an opiate for the masses, a place where people took their broken lives and dreams and hung them on a team that would do nothing but take their money, get them drunk and feed their shortcomings that many times exploded into violence and abuse. That’s the truth of sports, he’d say. “I used to see blood run down the steps of Memorial Stadium.”
His father was Tom Nugent (Sr.), The Football Coach at University of Maryland, back in the 50s. Through his access due to his father, Tom was struck by the brutality on the student athletes — not the physical impact but the lie that aspiring athletes were left along with their shattered knees and no hope of getting into the NFL. But worse,he says, is how sport obliterates people’s view of the ills of society. As sports engulf the culture he says, society has become, “so degraded and vile, it’s hard to look at.”
“By roaring at this abstraction that we call our team in the stadium, we avoid the big problem of community mainly the killings that go on forever in the ghettos of Baltimore,” he told in a phone interview.
I believe he spoke the truth. PSLs is a crock after we the people paid millions to build that stadium and what’s worse is the time – weekend quality time – that I spend away from wife and kids. More than once I’ve come back from the stadium with this sick feeling that I’ve been had, that why am I putting so much physical, monitory effort in something that means nothing while my life could use such effort. Each summer I proclaim I’m not going to be into it that much, my friends and family laugh.
But I love football. Can’t help it. I love it. I loved The Baltimore Colts, got my heard broken and stayed away from it until the Ravens showed up in very ugly fashion I might add.
Football to me is about the struggle, seek pain — it plays out the hassles of the day to day of living.
They say soccer is a beautiful game. That may be true in real time. But in slow mo there’s nothing more beautiful than Football. Even baseball — besides Brooks Robinson watching clips of him scooping up balls, still sends chills up my spine). But the struggle as violent as it is what I relate to …. Between the rants of the God-talk Ray Lewis personifies the struggle.
I not much for hero-worship, but I dig Ray Lewis work ethic, how he stresses working on the little things. That’s all in the work you put in or as Jackson Pollack put it, “Work is Art.” How amazing it must be to go to Ray’s house and do film study with him and Ed Reed and whom ever else. I once met an ex-linebacker who had dreams of making it back into the league. He never did, but he kept himself in shape and the day after The Ravens horrible loss (worse than ugly) to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2010 playoffs when the Ravens went from 24-7 in the half to losing with a series of dropped passes on Flacco’s last drive, the day after that, Ray Lewis called this guy up and asked him to work out throughout the afternoon. That’s all I need to hear about the man.
But my misgivings about Old 52 retiring had nothing to do with missing his presence. No. I had a feeling it was going to throw static in my Winning Ugly vibe. And when I parked my car for an extra ten bucks, I knew it was over. I gave t-shirts to the parking lot attendants and invaded people personal space, re-working my pitch:
I know we’re going to win pretty today. But in Denver we’re going to scratch and claw, so you might as well sit on your coach next week with this t-shirt on.
Not one sale.
I found myself on the Southside of the tracks penned in by a slow moving freighter and security fencing. The train wheels screeched something fierce and I sold one shirt. I turned to get a number of a guy who says he would buy one but he’s leaving the country on account of Obama winning the elections and the taxes. His wife verified that they were packing boxes to move to South America.
When I got his name turns out this bail bondsman was in my class in Mount Washington Elementary School. Everything changed. He brought his dad over, gave me a drink and we talked about the fights down by Falls Road. This wasn’t Whole Foods Baltimore. The train was gone but I wasn’t going anywhere as he marveled over Baltimore’s small town vibe.
“This is a blue colar working hard team, that’s gonna do what it takes to win, just like Baltimore Cty , unemployed taxes through the roof, but they are gonna make it work. When you see Ray Lewis come out you’re gonna see the real Baltimore City.
I went to see Ray’s last game and as Rob Long predicted the story line has changed – It’s no longer about the dreaded Colts (the ones who scorned us via Mayflower Trucks) coming to town. It’s about a Raven leaving.”
Sitting next to me was Minnie Niazi, who forgo her club seats to sit with her daughter.
“They are a hardnosed fighting battling guys, that give us all they have and we love them,” said Minnie Niazi of Annapolis with a dog named Lewis.
The game started out ugly – exchanging turnovers, but finished in a noble way. Not a beat-down, but a hard fought win that at time was closer than the 24-9 implied.
When I got back the parking lot attendant looked up and said, “Hey I got a lot of comments on your shirt. If you leave some with me, I’ll make some sales for you.”
Sure thing, Next Year/.
Check out the five minute film at http://vimeo.com/55525096
And for a David Lynch look — https://vimeo.com/54908743