Commentary

Baltimore feels like home for Final Four

Originally Published: May 28, 2011
By Mark Winegardner | Special to ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- As a slim lady in the distance waves at us and crews set up tents and signage with bad puns involving "lacrosse" and "fans," my 9-year-old son and I find ourselves wandering in between stadia: one built for the Baltimore Orioles and the other -- looming before us now -- to lure the Browns from Cleveland and thrust yet another knife into my back and deep into my somehow-still-beating heart.

[+] EnlargeMaryland Pep Rally
ESPN.comHometown favorite Maryland was greeted by a big crowd at the Inner Harbor.

My son, who was born in Florida and who, I hope, will never know such pain from what should be life's frivolous passions, is toting a beloved lacrosse stick with a head he believes to be lucky. I am heavy with computer and light on knowledge of the game the Iroquois called baggatway: "little brother of war."

(Full disclosure: I have been in possession of that factoid for a good solid week now.)

"Oh, thank God!" shouts the lady, overjoyed and brandishing an untented microphone. "It's a kid! I finally found a little boy!"

I tell her that there are contexts in which she may not want to shout those things.

She tells me she's been sent to do a preview of the crowds descending on Baltimore, which, a few hours later, to a young and gathering crowd, defending national champion coach John Danowski of Duke will call "the capital of lacrosse, as everyone knows."

(Welcome, dear reader, to the ranks of "everyone.")

This is expected to be the best-attended Final Four ever, both because of the sport's growing popularity but also given the presence of Maryland, essentially a home team, and Virginia, Maryland's greatest and most abiding frenemy. Plus another ACC rival, the University of New Jersey at Durham ... err, I mean Duke. And the aptly named Denver Pioneers, interlopers from a faraway land, the first team west of Indiana ever to make it this far.

The last decade, since lacrosse became big enough for the NCAA to hold its championship weekend in NFL stadiums, the venue has rotated (in an irregular wobbly way, like some kind of lacrosse shot I'd use for comparison if I knew anything more about lacrosse than what I've learned in the past year) between and among Philadelphia, Foxborough and Baltimore.

But Charm City, the apacionados say, is special. Baltimore is home to the team that's won the most titles ever (the Johns Hopkins Blue Jays); the state of Maryland is home to 40 of the 75 champions college lacrosse has ever crowned.

[+] EnlargeMike Powell
ESPN.comSyracuse lacrosse legend Mikey Powell entertained the crowd Friday night.

I'm told Baltimore is the only major American city where, in terms of participation, lacrosse may be the biggest team sport going.

Also, unlike Philly and Foxborough, everything, including ample eating and drinking opportunities, is within walking distance.

This should be an easy story for a local TV station to show and tell, but unfortunately the reporter outside M&T Bank Stadium needs to do the piece a little before the crowds actually show up. Her own son plays, too, but it would be weird to feature him in her story; besides, he's in school. Desperate, she asks if she can instead interview my boy and show him shooting goals in the Lax-Perience Zone.

She pulls off what, under the circumstances, turns out to be a very nice piece. But not the piece it could have been.

At about the time it aired, the teams -- Denver, Duke, Maryland, Virginia and their Division II and III counterparts, each team dressed in matching sweat-wicking polo shirts -- stride with perfect laxers' ease down a red carpet and into the Inner Harbor Amphitheatre.

Pinnie-clad stick-wielding tweens erupt into cheers of near-Bieber proportions. Pinnie-clad stick-wielding teenagers stop flipping their southern swoops and tugging their tube socks long enough to shout just as loudly. The parents applaud, too, even though most, like the TV reporter and me, didn't know thing one about the game when we first dropped off a kid at lacrosse practice.

The reporter was not working on a hard-hitting investigative piece, which was probably for the best, since no one here really wants to talk about the ancient-history ugliness that cloaked the Duke team five years ago or the tough year the Virginia team has been through this season (one former player stands accused of murdering his lacrosse-playing girlfriend, and, more recently, two of the team's best players were booted for disciplinary reasons).

[+] EnlargeDuke Pep Rally
ESPN.comPlayers from all of the teams playing in this weekend's championship signed autographs and talked with fans before Saturday's semifinals.

However, the reporter might have pointed out that lacrosse crowds seem to be distinct in two ways.

One, in what other sport do fans routinely walk around with weaponry? In most, they rock nothing but apparel. Baseball: gloves yes, bats no. Even hockey fans don't come to games with sticks.

Two, I doubt that even soccer has a higher percentage of fans whose parents never played the game. The reporter might have fared better, but I spend a solid hour working the crowd, talking to fans from two Canadian provinces and seven U.S. states without finding a single parent who even knew the rules when their kid suited up for his first game.

It's too bad that, instead of my kid, the reporter hadn't been able to grab Virginia attackman Steele Stanwick as he leaves the red carpet.

One of the biggest stars in college lacrosse, Steele Stanwick (yes, that's his real name) is a Baltimore native. This is the city where, at age 7, he picked up his first stick "and just loved it from the start." Where his older brother and three younger sisters learned the game. When Stanwick saw his first Final Four, just down the road in College Park, he was 10. "I thought it was so cool, and I wondered immediately if I'd ever play in it myself."

He shrugs and gives an adorably sheepish, TV-ready grin. He's about to play in it for his third straight yearthe second in a row in his hometown.

Mark Winegardner is the author of "The Godfather's Revenge" and a creative writing professor at Florida State.

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