Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
The gritty Ravens take on the laid-back 49ers.
At the top-secret council where the media plot narratives for major American sporting events, this Sunday’s Super Bowl match-up looked like a walk in the park.
How could two American cities, sons of this great gridiron land, turn out as different as Baltimore and San Francisco? (Also: did you know coaches John and Jim Harbaugh are brothers? How about that!)
In the Eastern corner, there's old Baltimore, haunted by the ghosts of its past like a character in an Edgar Allen Poe story. (Did you know the team is named after Poe’s poem "The Raven"? How about that!) Salty Baltimore, the age of its rusting port facilities matched only by the age of its backfield. An iconic linebacker in his final season whose tremendous character flaws could have written him right into a season of The Wire. And of course, the grittiness, that Baltimorean word working overtime as the choice epithet for both the city and the Ravens' defense. A rugged, tough city from another age – how very much a win would mean to these people!
The contrast with the upstart opponent of the West is as jarring as a wagon ride over the Rocky Mountains. Here's a classic of the genre: “Baltimore is an iconic American city, a proud (by the definition of its residents) shot-and-a-beer, blue-collar place ... It would be especially galling to those good men and women if their beloved team lost to — of all people — a squad from San Francisco, the white wine-swilling crowd out there in the west.”
Ugh. I don’t know if this guy means the 49ers crowd is white, the wine is white, or both. One thing is clear: those hippies are up to their Beats by Dre headphones in vino. Haven’t they celebrated enough this year, what with those transplanted New Yorkers at AT&T Park winning the World Series?
In San Francisco, the city where young people come to invent the future, the weight of history seems lighter. A quarterback, like a tech company, can be a media darling one minute – and an also-ran the next. Just ask Alex Smith. The power players from Stanford prize efficiency over loyalty. It’s the West Coast. It’s booming. The 49ers are favored to win.
"San Francisco is a lovely place, with all kinds of good Northern California karma and high-tech wonders, while Baltimore is, well, still Baltimore," writes Craig Timberg in the Washington Post. "But Baltimore is a terrific football town — loud and proud, with the scars to show for it."
Indeed. Although the scars, when it comes to football, are pretty well covered. The Ravens are 126 and 82 since 2000, the fourth-best record in the NFL over that period, with nine playoff trips and one Super Bowl championship. The Niners have only a handful of winning seasons in that time, and haven't won the Super Bowl since 1994.
It’s Baltimore, not San Francisco, that has nurtured a successful start-up: the teenage Ravens, a team founded in 1996. (Though Art Modell had moved the franchise from Cleveland, he wasn't able to take any history with it.) The 49ers, by contrast, are not only a San Francisco original but a pioneer. That's why the team, unlike the Dodgers or Lakers, has a name that refers to an element of California culture. Founded in 1946, the Niners were the first Big Four sports team on the West Coast.
It was San Francisco, not Baltimore, where rundown infrastructure led to a national embarrassment when Candlestick Park lost power for nearly 15 minutes on national television last season. It’s San Francisco, not Baltimore, that is losing a team of nearly 70 years to the suburb of a bigger, younger city.
By the time the NFL kicks off in 2014, only one city will have a football team: gritty old Baltimore. And Baltimore, unlike Washington, New York or Boston, will have a football team downtown.
Those San Franciscans can drown their sorrows in Napa Valley Merlot.
Top image: San Francisco: Flickr/Joey Parsons. Baltimore: Reuters.