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Making the conversion try

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Forty-some years ago, Baltimore wrapped itself in blue and white. Blue-collar workers toiled at steel mills and shipyards. White marble steps beckoned them home.

Come fall, folks packed Memorial Stadium on Sundays to cheer the Colts, a club of castoffs and commoners who had somehow clicked to win it all. Of course, Johnny U and Spats and Gino dressed in blue and white. Bled those colors, too

But by 1996, those hues had faded. The Colts were long gone, as were many of the manufacturing jobs. And the tidy rowhouses with their marble steps seemed ripe for rehab.

In their stead would come high-rise condominiums that hug the city's waterfront, high-tech jobs and a swaggering football team clad in purple and black.

Baltimore was trading up, though not everyone embraced change.

Even now, as the Ravens begin their 10th season, there are steadfast Colts fans who ignore them. But attrition is reducing their kind.

George Politz attended Colts games to the end in 1983 but has yet to see the Ravens. At 67, he doubts he ever will. Like others, Politz found his spirit flattened by those fleeing Mayflower vans.

"When the Colts left [for Indianapolis], I felt like I'd gone through a divorce," said Politz, who grew up in Middle River. "I'm a throwback who can't - no, won't - let go of history.

"I went to Colts games when it was so cold we burned newspapers to stay warm in the stands. And when they won the [NFL] championship in 1958, I went to Friendship Airport to cheer them home. The crowd was packed so tight, I got carried along with my feet off the ground -- and I weigh 270 pounds."

In their day, the Colts so consumed the city that local commerce depended on the outcome of Sunday's games. Ask Politz, then a sales rep for Kraft Foods.

"I had clients who, if the Colts lost, were so upset on Monday that they wouldn't buy a thing," he said.

And if the Colts won?

"I could write my own ticket."

The halcyon years are what Colts fans remember. Back-to-back titles in 1958 and 1959. Fifty-one straight home sellouts from 1964 to 1970.

Forgotten is the fact that the team's last home game in 1983 drew a paltry 20,418 fans who braved a cold, gray day to wave vulgar banners and shout obscene chants at the Colts' owner, Robert Irsay, and a club cobbled together with players like Leo Wisniewski and Karl Baldischwiler.

A city in transition In the wake of the Colts' exodus, the city took a hard look at itself - parochial and unpretentious, save for Harborplace - and realized its shortcomings. To woo an NFL franchise, Baltimore would have to doll itself up.

Down came the drug-laced public high-rises. Up went trendy condos and lofts. Memorial Stadium became, well, a memorial, replaced at Camden Yards by twin peaks (Oriole Park and M&T Bank Stadium).

Whole neighborhoods were revamped. Fells Point went upscale; likewise, Canton. Even Hampden, perhaps the last campy haven of Bawlamer kitsch, has morphed into a caricature of its old self.

Was it coincidence that the Ravens arrived in the midst of the makeover? The team's followers think not.

"Things had gotten stagnant, socioculturally, in Baltimore, and you began to see a shift in the city's image back then," said Don Cooke, 42, a Ravens fan from Pasadena. "Politicians agreed to cooperate to get stuff done, and a lot of things started to click in.

"We knew that certain elements within the NFL were working to keep us from getting another team. But the city's image changed so much [for the better] that nothing could stop the juggernaut. It was too right a place for the league not to embrace, especially with our history."

Much of that history survives in memory alone. Gone are the post-game restaurants where Colts followers rallied. The Harvey House. Haussner's. The Chesapeake Restaurant. Gone, too, are the lunch-bucket industries where nine-to-fivers punched in. Western Electric. Bethlehem Steel. The B&O Railroad.

Between 1990 and 2000, the city lost 25 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Even Esskay, a Baltimore landmark for 126 years, moved its meat-packing plant to - of all places - Indianapolis.

"Our rust-belt economy was eroding," said Jerry Kelly, 72, a City College graduate who grew up amid belching smokestacks and churning rail yards. Into the breach stepped a team that would help anchor the downtown's transformation and epitomize its new-found glitz.

"The Ravens were a phoenix, rising from Baltimore's ashes," Kelly said. "They came, they won a Super Bowl and they thanked the city for its support. They have worn the bonnet well."

But Ravens fans acknowledge that they lack a rapport with the players, an intimacy that only Colts fans could feel.

"The Colts were the Baltimore Colts," Kelly said. "The Ravens are a professional team that happens to play in Baltimore."

Everyone needs heroes. At the Ravens' camp in Westminster last month, thousands sweated out an afternoon practice in near 100-degree heat. Purple jerseys mottled the crowd, which was sated with Lewises, Ogdens and even a Kemoeatu or two.

New team for a new era The parking lots at McDaniel College were peppered with purple cars and purple Harleys, their license plates trumpeting countless derivations of RAVENS. A woman pushed an infant in a purple stroller. A man with purple hair sought players' autographs. Anything to get an edge.

What would he do with their signatures?

"Sell them online," he said.

Seated beneath an oak tree, overlooking practice, Chris Conlon listened, smiled, shrugged.

"Today's fans are different," said Conlon, 29, a computer engineer who lives downtown in gentrified Ridgely's Delight. "Years ago, you wouldn't have logged onto eBay and hawked autographs of the old Colts. They were keepsakes. Those players were cherished by the city, not hounded by it.

"But football has become a business, a quest for the almighty dollar, and fans today are OK with that."

At 10, the Ravens have converted most Colts diehards, though the rift between players and fans has widened. Gone are the days when Colts players lived among the public in tidy rowhouses or modest tract homes and worked offseason jobs at Sparrows Point or Calvert Distillery to pay bills. (Though you can still drive past Lenny Moore's house on a middle-class cul-de-sac in Randallstown and see the Hall of Famer mow his lawn.)

The affluent Ravens are apt to live out of town, in gated communities, or both.

Younger fans accept this chasm more than do old-timers like Kelly, who was privy to such camaraderie. A charter member of Colts Corral No. 1, he remembers partying in years past with players at the Fifth Regiment Armory and the Parkville American Legion Hall. Once, on the dance floor, he followed All-Pro lineman Jim Parker in a conga line.

"Go to a game today and you don't know the players," Kelly said. "You can't see their faces, with the masks and bars that they wear. And after the game, they're gone.

"Who are they? A name and number on the backs of their jerseys."

Free agency and the salary cap have turned many Ravens into mercenaries, save for standbys like Ray Lewis, Matt Stover and Jonathan Ogden. Few players stay with the team long enough to learn the right way to eat crabs.

Said Kelly:

"Go back 40 years and, without batting an eye, you could name half of the Colts' roster."

Plus their height, weight and duckpin shoe size.

It was a measure of the city's obsession and connection with the Colts that inspired the famous football quiz scene in Diner. There we met Eddie, a character whose passion for the home team prompted a demand of his fiancee: pass a Colts trivia test or the wedding is off.

Today's young Ravens fans not only cannot tell you the longest run from scrimmage by a Colts rookie in his first game (79 yards by Alan Ameche in 1955), they also don't know who Gino Marchetti was. Or Art Donovan, Raymond Berry or Jim Parker.

At Ravens camp last month, five people, ages 18 to 25, were asked to identify those four names, all Hall of Famers who starred for the Colts. None could do so. And only one fan recognized both of the other legends on that list - John Unitas and Lenny Moore.

"There's a reason for that," said the winner, 18-year-old Jimmy Mildenberger of Severna Park. "People don't know Colts history because that team isn't here. The Ravens are."

The Colts' history survives in grainy black-and-white, as unassuming as the 1960 Baltimore skyline. The Ravens strut on the field in color, an entertainment package as kinetic and calculated as that action flick at the neighborhood multiplex.

"The old Colts were poor and humble and would do anything for you," said Mike Vaughn, 69, of Hagerstown. That said, he pledged allegiance to the Ravens, having braved a scorching day to do training camp as an autograph-starved crowd milled about, pens in hand.

"In a way, these players are movie stars," said Vaughn, gazing at the purple panorama before him. "And all of this is Hollywood."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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