This card pretty aptly captures the turbulent, decades-long sports feud between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The two cities both had teams in the National League from 1892-1899, but weren't serious rivals. The Orioles were doormats for the first few years before blowing past Pittsburgh and establishing a brief dynasty with the likes of Ned Hanlon, John McGraw, and "Wee Willie" Keeler. But in the 1970s, the Pirates and the "new" Orioles twice did battle in hotly contested World Series; both were heartbreaking for Charm City.
In 1971, the O's were thwarted in an attempt to repeat as World Champions. After taking the first two games in Memorial Stadium, they were swept in the three games in Steel City. The Birds pulled out Game Six, 3-2, on Frank Robinson's desperate base running in the tenth inning. The 36-year-old walked, dashed to third base on Merv Rettenmund's single, and tagged up on Brooks Robinson's shallow fly ball to center field, barreling into home plate just ahead of Al Oliver's throw to force a winner-take-all seventh game. Sadly, pitcher Steve Blass stymied the Baltimore bats for the second time in the Series, twirling a 2-1 complete game victory. After reaching four World Series in six years (winning two), the Orioles would not return to the Fall Classic until 1979...
...When the Pirates again stood in the way of Mobtown's glory. The O's were out for revenge and stormed to a three games to one lead, fueled by an offensive attack that produced 24 runs in those four games. But again, Willie Stargell and company devastated the good guys, who went cold and were outscored 15-2 in three straight losses. Pittsburgh had erased a big deficit to beat the Orioles in a seven-game Series for the second time in the decade. Their rallying cry of "We Are Family", inspired by the obnoxious tune of the same name from the musical group Sister Sledge, served as salt in the wounds of Baltimore's fans.
Then, of course, there's football. My hometown Colts scored the first victory when a flat-topped rookie quarterback (and Pittsburgh native) named Johnny Unitas was cut by the Steelers. He found his way to Baltimore and the rest, as the amorphous "they" say, is history. When the NFL merged with the upstart AFL (American Football League) in 1970, these two teams joined with the Cleveland Browns to switch from the original NFL (now the NFC) to the AFL (now the AFC). It was just a matter of time before their paths crossed in the postseason, which could not have gone worse for the Colts. After winning 21 games (and losing only 7) in 1975 and 1976, they were blown out in back-to-back Division Series playoff games against the Steelers, 28-10 and 40-14. This proved to be the beginning of the end for Baltimore's first NFL team. They would have only one more winning season before bottoming out and eventually leaving for Indianapolis under the cover of night in March 1984.
When the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 and became the Ravens, a new divisional football rivalry was born. Though the series was lopsided in the early years (including a 37-0 Pittsburgh romp in 1997), Charm City's new bird developed a hard-hitting defense that was a mirror image of their Steeler foes. The pendulum swung decisively in Baltimore's favor in 2000, as they set the tone for a historic season by shutting Pittsburgh out in the season opener. The Ravens would set a league record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165) and win a Super Bowl, something that the Steelers hadn't done since 1979. The following year, the villains in black and gold ruined the opportunity for a repeat, crushing the Blackbirds 27-10. The Ravens wouldn't win another playoff game for the rest of Coach Brian Billick's tenure (through 2007), while the hated Steelers returned to glory by winning the Super Bowl in 2006.
The Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry has boiled over in the past three years, with the Ravens embarrassing the Steelers twice in 2006 (27-0 and 31-7) before the tables were turned again in 2007 with a 35-7 pasting on Monday Night Football. This year, the dials have been turned to eleven, with Pittsburgh winning two absolutely brutal games by a combined total of seven points. There have been brutal injuries, heated confrontations, allegations of bounties being placed on players and spitting incidents. Oh, and controversial officiating. It wouldn't be the NFL without shaky referees.
Now the Ravens are looking for redemption and the continuation of an unbelievable season that has seen them flip their record from 5-11 in 2007 to 11-5. A rookie quarterback, a rookie head coach, and a roster of walking wounded veterans have won two straight road games. Now they're walking back into the lion's den to face their bitter enemies, an elite AFC team with a potentially explosive offense, a monster defense, and a more rested and healthy roster. The Steelers have baggage of their own, having lost three straight AFC Championship games at home. I think Sunday's game will be nerve-wracking and incredible, but I wish I had the same confidence about it as I did going into the previous two playoff games. I just can't bear the thought of this enchanted season ending with a jubilant Steelers team punching their tickets to the Super Bowl, having dispatched the Ravens for the third straight time this year. It just can't happen.
Less than forty-eight hours to go. C'mon, Ravens. Win it for the former Ravens. And the Colts. And Frank and the Orioles, while you're at it.