Ravens fill gaps in slow start to General Assembly

Whether in a meeting of the state’s gambling regulators, in a recurring House of Delegates trivia segment or in the opening statement of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s State of the State Address, talk of the Baltimore Ravens has been unavoidable in Annapolis.

Even when government officials aren’t talking about their purple pride, the colors of Baltimore’s team accent state lawmakers’ attire and light state buildings at night (see my colleague Alissa Gulin’s story on the purple lighting business).

But there’s more. The Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee displays a Raven screensaver on its projection screen in the panel’s hearing room. The canteen in the State House basement on Friday served a Ray’s Raven Wrap with chips and a drink for $7.99.

Cheery talk of the Ravens has filled the gaps between partisan bickering about the the governor’s agenda, a potential shortfall in expected lottery revenue and general inaction among some lawmakers in the face of a dwindling Transportation Trust Fund.

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NFL playoffs spark O’Malley-Brown wager

It’s become pretty commonplace: with two playoff teams set to face each other, a mayor, county executive or governor makes some sort of wager with a counterpart in the rival city, county or state.

But even with the teams still a month away from potentially facing each other in the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins have stoked a rivalry between Maryland executive branch buddies Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown.

Sort of.

Brown, who once represented Prince George’s County in the House of Delegates, says he supports both teams that play their home games in Maryland but is a Redskins fan first.

O’Malley, a former mayor of Baltimore, is so enamored of the Ravens that he released a statement Wednesday when inside linebacker Ray Lewis announced his retirement after 17 years in the NFL.

So here’s the wager: if the Redskins make it further than the Ravens in the playoffs, O’Malley must wear a ‘Skins jersey at the Feb. 6 Board of Public Works meeting. If the Ravens make it further, Brown will be wearing purple.

Brown says he can’t wait to see O’Malley “draped in the burgundy and gold.” O’Malley says he wishes both teams luck, “at least until the ‘Beltway’ Super Bowl.”

No word on what happens if both teams lose in the opening round Sunday.

The Ravens will host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at 1 p.m., while the Redskins will host the Seattle Seahawks at 4:30 p.m.

The teams would have to win Sunday and then twice more to meet in the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Feb. 3.

Ray Lewis’ retirement draws officials’ attention

This time of the year, many Marylanders and the officials they elect go a little crazy with Ravens playoff fever.

Portions of Baltimore and other towns across the state are often lit in purple, including Baltimore’s City Hall. Team flags fly in front of homes and outside of car windows.

Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis will retire after the teams' playoff run. (Photo: Associated Press)

But inside linebacker Ray Lewis’ announcement Wednesday that he will retire from the National Football League after 17 seasons leading the Ravens’ defense has made Sunday’s home playoff game versus the Indianapolis Colts an even more popular talking point for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Martin O’Malley.

It was yet another instance of Maryland’s elected officials being quick to use sports as a way to identify with a segment of their constituencies that sometimes worship professional athletes and the teams they play for. It was just last month, for example, that Rawlings-Blake weighed in on the Ravens’ firing of  frequently-criticized offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

O’Malley’s statement came Wednesday, when he called Lewis “a man of dignity, respect and character.

“We will always be grateful for his love of the people of Baltimore and fans everywhere,” O’Malley said. “He has given football fans of all ages hope and inspired us all to reach beyond our dreams. Though we will miss him on the field, we wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Rawlings-Blake statement came Thursday, after city employees finished installing purple light fixtures in preparation for the teams’ playoff game Sunday. It’s become tradition for purple lights to fill the city skyline — but this time it’s different, the mayor said.

“This year has an added significance with the announced retirement of Ray Lewis,” she said. “As he carries the team through the playoffs to the Super Bowl, we must celebrate his Hall of Fame career and how he has helped define Baltimore football for a generation of fans.

“The city’s entertainment industry benefits greatly from the thousands of fans that watch the games together — at the stadium, in bars, or at home.”

Franchot looking for a Ravens-Redskins Super Bowl

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has made his opening statements at bimonthly Board of Public Works meetings can’t-miss political theater for at least the last year, returned to a favorite topic Wednesday morning: handicapping Maryland professional sports.

“I’m making plans for an I-95 Super Bowl between the Redskins and the Ravens,” said Franchot, who in March predicted the Washington Nationals would make the World Series while offering more tepid support for the Baltimore Orioles.

He reminded those in attendance Wednesday of his Major League Baseball predictions but admitted he did not foresee both of Maryland’s National Football League teams making the playoffs. (The Washington Redskins play their home games at FedEx Field in Landover.)

The first round of the NFL playoffs begins this weekend. The Ravens will host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at 1 p.m., while the Redskins will host the Seattle Seahawks at 4:30 p.m. The teams would have to win Sunday and then twice more to meet in the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Feb. 3.

It’s unclear whether Franchot’s endorsement is a good sign for fans of the Ravens and Redskins. Both the Orioles and the Nationals made the playoffs after years of ineffectiveness, but neither advanced past the second round.

What is clear is that having two teams in the NFL playoffs is good for the state coffers, Franchot said, because the teams’ success has put consumers in high spirits.

“Trust me, I can see it in the sales tax revenue,” he said. “People feel better.”

Rawlings-Blake weighs in on Ravens’ firing of Cameron

Social networks were atwitter with activity Monday morning as news broke that the Ravens had fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, with very few lamenting the oft-maligned offensive coordinator’s dismissal from a 9-4 team in the midst of a playoff push.

Shortly after noon, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake jumped in, too. Speaking at an awards ceremony for Baltimore businesses, Rawlings-Blake said she was in mourning following the football team’s first losing streak since October 2009.

But Cameron’s dismissal had the mayor feeling like a new day was coming for “frustrated” quarterback Joe Flacco, chronically under-utilized running back Ray Rice and the 18th-ranked Ravens offense.

“Maybe with the new offensive coach, there might be some opportunities on the horizon for us,” Rawlings-Blake told a crowd of city business leaders enjoying lunch in a Hyatt Regency ballroom.

Half the crowd laughed and the other half groaned, an appropriately-mixed reaction given Cameron’s replacement.

Quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who presided over a Super Bowl run by the Indianapolis Colts in 2009 but was fired following a 2-14 season in 2011, will take over play calling duties, despite having never called plays in the NFL or college.

Professional football in Hagerstown?

Gov. Martin O’Malley said this week that the state could help pay for a new stadum in Hagerstown where the Suns, the Washington Nationals‘ minor league baseball affiliate, would play.

But the town may be ready for some football, too.

The Herald-Mail reports that a professional football team in Chambersburg, Pa., could play in a new multipurpose stadium across the state line. The towns are only about 25 minutes apart.

The Chambersburg Cardinals play at Chambersburg Area Senior High School now, but the team’s business director told the Herald-Mail that moving to a private facility would allow the team to sell alcohol and conduct more pre- and post-game activities.

O’Malley suggested earlier this week that the state could help pay for the new stadium. State Comptroller Peter Franchot also showed support for building a new stadium this month.

Keeping the Suns in Hagerstown — and maybe attracting the Cardinals — are not the only professional sports interests of the state.

An item in the fiscal 2013 budget gives $175,000 to the Maryland Stadium Authority so it can study building a stadium for the D.C. United professional soccer team in Baltimore.

Slots commission eyes late-April decision on Rocky Gap license and other gambling news

The state slots commission could decide on the licensee for the state’s fourth slots parlor this month.

The Video Lottery Terminal Location Commission will meet April 26, and could make a decision on the license for a slots parlor at Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort at that time.

A major hurdle was cleared last week when the Allegany County commissioners came to agreement on a payment in lieu of taxes with Evitts Resort LLC, the lone bidder for the license. Because the resort is in Rocky Gap State Park, the county cannot collect property taxes from tenants. The agreement calls for Evitts to pay the county the equivalent of what property taxes for the site would be.

All that remains is the completion of a lease agreement between Evitts, the Maryland Economic Development Corp., which owns the resort and the Maryland Department of Natural Resource, which owns Rocky Gap State Park.

Donald C. Fry, chairman of the slots commission, said he expected that lease agreement to be completed in the next week.

“I’d still believe we’re in a position to make a decision on Rocky Gap by the end of this month,” Fry said. “I think the Allegany County commissioners, them moving forward, is a significant step.

“We need to make sure the lease is ready to go. But you’ve got a lot of different players. We’re down to a couple of issues.”

The award for a Baltimore facility could take a bit longer, Fry said, though he expected the commission would make a decision on that license before the end of June. The Maryland State Lottery Agency is still working on its background check of a group led by Caesars Entertainment.

“My target date is still the end of the fiscal year,” Fry said.

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The end of a baseball fan’s streak

Cal Ripken Jr. played in 2,632 straight games, Joe DiMaggio had a hit in 56 games in a row and the Atlanta Braves won 14 consecutive National League East division championships.

Even the greatest streaks in baseball history eventually came to an end. Today, my own baseball streak skids to a halt.

After eight years, I won’t be sitting at Oriole Park this afternoon when the Orioles celebrate Opening Day at Camden Yards in a game against the Minnesota Twins.

Opening Day has been the best baseball day in the city for more than a decade. Even as the Orioles have suffered through 14 consecutive losing seasons, the seats in the ballpark have remained filled on that April afternoon when baseball returns and honest hope for the team’s turnaround momentarily trumps sensibility.

It’s not that the stadium isn’t full of some kind of energy at other points during the season. But the first game is the only time when there are more than 40,000 fans at the park wearing orange rather than Yankee pinstripes or Red Sox caps.

Opening Day and the crowds that flock to it are the last real connection to the team’s glory days, when walking up and buying a seat at Oriole Park on game day was a laughable impossibility.

Most days, you can walk to the booth five minutes before the first pitch, buy a ticket and be in your seat before the Star-Spangled Banner ends.

Instead of being in Baltimore, I am, of course, in Annapolis today, covering the final days of the General Assembly. But at least I won’t be alone.

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State would help with study to bring D.C. United to Baltimore

Photo by Lietmotiv

The state will foot the bill for a study into the viability of  D.C. United moving up Interstate 95 to Charm City.

In his supplemental budget proposal delivered to the legislature this week, Gov. Martin O’Malley included a $175,000 appropriation to the Maryland Stadium Authority to fund a study into the feasibility of building a stadium for D.C. United.

Fiscal analysts recommended eliminating the provision, but a conference committee between House of Delegates and Senate members decided to reject that recommendation, keeping the money intact.

The team said in November it might move out of RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., due to high operating costs at the former home of the Redskins and Nationals. A new, downtown Baltimore stadium, near Oriole Park and M&T Bank Stadium in Camden Yards, has been mentioned as a possibility.

College Park and Bowie have also been mentioned as possible homes for the team.

Editor’s Note: This post has been corrected.

O’Malley takes a shot at Perry

Gov. Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore, mixed a little pigskin and politics Tuesday in advance of the Sunday’s playoff game between the Houston Texans and his hometown Ravens.

Governors and mayors from the states and cities from which playoff teams hail often make good-natured bets before games.

O’Malley said Tuesday he has reached out to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to agree on a wager.

“I had a hard time reaching him on the phone,” O’Malley joked.

Perry is also the former chairman of the Republican Governors Association, but left the post to Virginia’s Bob McDonnell when he launched his presidential bid. O’Malley heads the Democratic Governors Association.

Perry has been largely rendered a non-factor in the race after a weak showing in the Iowa caucuses.

“We’re putting out a bet to Rick Perry that the Ravens will score more points against the Texans than he gets in New Hampshire tonight,” O’Malley said, referring to the Granite State’s primary on Tuesday.