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D.C. has only adopted Baltimore’s baseball team, and Daniel Snyder’s clever plan to kick-start a rivalry with the Ravens hasn’t kicked in yet. So Ray Lewis means next to nothing around here. But 45 or so miles up the road, the young linebacker had pretty much supplanted Cal as the It Jock by the end of his third Pro Bowl season and was doing far more than his share to make Charm City a football town again. Then came those darn murder indictments….

Keith Silberg went to opening day at Camden Yards, as he does most seasons. But his mind wasn’t much into the game with Cleveland. The Baltimore native, like all his buddies, expects the 2000 O’s to stink. And he, like all his buddies, is more into the Ravens now, anyway.

“We’ve got the draft coming up,” he says.

This year’s NFL draft, to be held next week, means more than most to Silberg, 27, and his friends. If the Ravens go heavy on linebackers in the draft, it’ll say a lot about where Lewis stands with management.

It won’t, however, affect where Lewis stands with the fans.

“Ray is the man,” Silberg says.

Silberg et al. stood by their man even after Atlanta police named Lewis as the prime suspect in the deaths of Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21. The victims were stabbed in a brawl outside the Cobalt Lounge—a nightspot in the Buckhead section of town where the cover charge is $100 and the drinks go for $10—in the hours following the Super Bowl. Lewis, in a full-length white fur coat and a white cowboy hat, was the one all the witnesses remembered seeing at or near the murder scene.

When Lewis, 24, was arrested two days after the killings, Silberg, who has been to every Ravens home game in the franchise’s history, refused to accept the police version of the crime. Things like Lewis’ record of prior assaults as a college student at Miami, his failure to call the Atlanta cops despite all the bullet holes and blood in his limousine, and his many different stories about who was with him at the club didn’t inspire reasonable doubt of his guiltlessness as far as Silberg—and his pals—were concerned.

“Somebody committed murder, but everything I’d heard was that Ray didn’t do it,” Silberg says. “And I think the police have the evidence to prove he didn’t do it, but they want to do everything they can to say that he was involved in the murder. I think a lot of people felt that if Ray didn’t actually commit murder, he should be playing football.”

So when the Fulton County prosecutors fought letting Lewis out on bail, Silberg started up a Web site—freeraylewis.com—where other folks who thought the player was being set up for a big fall could e-congregate.

The site also offered pep talks to anybody whose faith in Lewis’ innocence had wavered.

“[A]s more evidence comes forth, and the light at the end of the tunnel begins to fade, we must turn to those areas inside of us all where logic and reason play no role,” read the site’s “Daily Opinion” for Feb. 10. “The more things become clear, it seems Ray is looking at third and long, with five seconds on the clock and no time outs. And he is down by nine.”

From the start, Silberg says, the response from locals to the Web site and the opinions expressed on it has been tremendous and favorable. The message board has been particularly active. A typical post: “[Ray] will be found innocent in good time,” wrote ravenmaniac52@yahoo.com (52 being Lewis’ number). “If you are a true fan you know in your heart that he would not jeopardize himself and his teammates in doing something stupid like this.”

Another visitor posted an open letter to the mayor of Atlanta that put forth Lewis as the real victim. “Ray Lewis had a constitutional right to be at the lounge,” it read. “He had a right to try to get his friends away from danger. And once again, just in case you forgot, there were people there shooting at him….You Sir, by taking part in this absolute violation of civil rights, are a piece of garbage.”

Silberg printed the e-mails received in the site’s first few days and had them delivered “in five huge boxes” to Lewis in the Fulton County jail. Silberg never found out if Lewis got them before posting the $1 million bond on Feb. 15 and heading back to Baltimore.

Greg Sher, who hosts a sports talk show on WBAL, says the Lewis case has been the only topic that matters to listeners since the Super Bowl. Sher says he was initially surprised by the level of disbelief about Lewis’ possible involvement, considering that few listeners had ever even met him.

“Just listen to the news lately, and we’ve heard about players murdering pregnant girlfriends, battery affected against so many spouses, repeat drug offenders getting caught with drugs again and again,” Sher says. “It’s to the point where you’d think sports fans wouldn’t be shocked by anything they hear about an athlete. But this shocked them. They just wouldn’t believe it.”

But over time, and after taking hundreds of pro-Lewis calls, Sher came to understand the mood around his hometown.

“I think this has something to do with how much Baltimore football fans had their hearts broken when Bob Irsay moved the Colts,” says Sher. “Now they’ve got a team again, and there’s the threat that the star player—and nobody comes close to Ray Lewis—may be taken away from them. That would be another heartbreak, and the last thing this city needs is another football heartbreak.”

(Sher, who grew up in Baltimore, says he’s spent a lot of time with Lewis in recent years, adding, “I can’t imagine Ray being involved in this, either.”)

Lewis’ trial is scheduled to begin May 15. If the Ravens draft or trade for a linebacker before that date, Silberg’s going to start to worry.

“That’ll mean that maybe they know something I don’t,” he says.—Dave McKenna