Whenever I cover a Browns game in Baltimore, I think of Dan Rooney and say, “Thanks, Mr. Rooney.”
The late, great Pittsburgh Steelers team president and patriarch was a voice of reason and great influence when the Browns returned to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999.
Expansion Browns owner Al Lerner and partner Carmen Policy were against being placed in the same division as Art Modell’s renamed Baltimore Ravens. Lerner hated the prospect of having his conduit role in Modell’s move to Baltimore rehashed year after year.
So when the NFL realigned in 2002 to eight, four-team divisions, Lerner and Policy favored Indianapolis or Buffalo as the fourth team in the AFC North. But Rooney thought it a natural rivalry for Baltimore to join Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Like most of his league initiatives in his Pro Football Hall of Fame career, Rooney’s reasonableness prevailed.
I’m thankful because it made Baltimore a yearly visit for me when covering the Browns.
Ever since the Browns returned in 1999, Baltimore has been my favorite road trip – despite all the dreary losses. If you separate Baltimore the city from Baltimore the football team, you can really enjoy this trip. When fans ask me to recommend one Browns road trip to make, I usually answer Baltimore, a.k.a Charm City.
First, it’s one of the few non-stop destinations still available from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The drive isn’t awful, either; about six hours.
Second, the weather is almost always perfect. I can’t remember a rainy or nasty weather day for a Browns game, even in December.
Third, the bustling downtown Inner Harbor area is convenient to hotels and attractions and accessible via an inexpensive light-rail ride from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
And fourth, you can walk from your hotel to M&T Bank Stadium on game day. I love that.
There’s a lot of history to explore in Baltimore.
Early on in my travels here I visited Fort McHenry, which was a battlefront in the War of 1812 that inspired the penning of The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key. This is a historical site that every American should visit if in Baltimore, and is conveniently accessible via water taxi from the Inner Harbor.
Baseball fans will want to visit the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, which is just a three-block walk from Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The legendary New York Yankees slugger was born in Baltimore and actually signed his first professional baseball contract with a minor league team named Baltimore Orioles.
(A quick aside on Camden Yards: It’s a beautiful baseball park – the forerunner to now-Progressive Field in Cleveland. But even today I shudder at the memory of the press conference in the parking lot on what is now M&T Bank Stadium announcing the move of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, which I attended. The sight of smarmy Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening waving the copy of the lease in Cleveland’s face and shouting, “We have a deal!” still raises the hair on the back of my neck.)
All of the bad memories of the old Browns’ move to Baltimore, however, can be blocked out when visiting Baltimore.
The Inner Harbor is loaded with family-friendly attractions, such as paddle boats on the harbor, historic ships and submarines to board, the renowned National Aquarium, and plenty of street vendors and entertainers dotting the area. A water taxi ride to nearby Fell’s Point -- which is surrounded by small shops, eateries and drinking holes -- is a pleasant experience in itself.
Over the years, I have fallen into a pattern, which I followed religiously on this year's visit.
I try to stay on the east side of the Inner Harbor, closer to Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood. Even from the west side, the walk to Little Italy is enjoyable and not far.
I have been to Little Italy sections in New York City, Boston and, of course, Cleveland, and I would rate Baltimore’s No. 1. The narrow resident streets are vibrant with life and the dozens of eating establishments fill the air with the smell of spaghetti sauce and garlic.
My Saturday evening usually begins with 4:30 Mass at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church. It is a magnificent edifice filled with traditional Catholic statues and intricate painted walls and ceiling, with murals and mosaics.
Dedicated in 1881, St. Leo’s is one of the oldest Catholic churches in the U.S., and is registered as a historical landmark with the U.S. Department of the Interior. The church bulletin on the day I visited highlighted ravioli and meatball making events in the coming days.
After Mass, I met a friend at Davidus Cigars a block away for a Montecristo white label cigar. I remembered Al Lerner favored Montecristo, so I splurged to honor his memory.
Dinner, for me, has most always been at Amicci’s on High Street. You can’t go wrong with any of the restaurants in Baltimore’s Little Italy. I have visited most of them and they are all delicious.
But I’m a creature of habit and have been dining at Amicci’s because of its great food and casual atmosphere for more than a dozen years. It’s a good place to have a fine meal and watch the evening college games of the week on its multiple large screens in the bar area. Inevitably, I order the Shrimp & Mussels Marco more times than not, with a Caesar’s salad. I am never disappointed.
It is diabolical that Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop is strategically located a block from Amicci’s on the walk back to the hotel. It is impossible to not stop for cannoli or gelato at Vaccaro’s. Sometimes the line at night extends outside to the street.
After dessert at Vaccaro’s, the 20-minute walk to the Inner Harbor hotels is a welcome night-time exercise.
On game-day morning, the walk from the hotel to the game is always nice. The Ravens Walk area between Oriole Park and M&T Bank Stadium is replete with kids-friendly activities and music. I must admit, the Ravens create a great game-day experience.
Now I can’t wait for the game in 2020. If you go, remember: if it weren’t for Dan Rooney, this experience would not be available to Browns fans.