Ever-expanding wait for NFL hits home stretch


A guy called on the phone the other day to ask the betting line on the Pro Bowl, which suggests a couple of things: One, he has way too much time and money on his hands; two, life without pro football in your town does something destructive to the brain waves.

Yes, another season has officially passed without pro football in Baltimore, leaving us only with the age-old argument of whether or not to support the Redskins (the politically correct position is, of course, to root against). Oh, one other thing we're left with -- hope.

We've been hoping for nearly seven years that pro football would return to Baltimore. We've wished so hard that our very own governor, who never called Baltimore a dirty name, pushed through the legislature a football stadium to be built as soon as the NFL gives the word. There are people who even want to put a dome on the stadium, if only to show how terribly modern Baltimore can be.

Finally, there is good news of a kind. The long wait is apparently nearly at an end. It seems that by this time next year we will know, one way or the other, up or down, in or out, victory party or ashes and sackcloth.

No one knows how it's going to go, except that the NFL expects to name two expansion teams to join the league for the 1993 season, which means they'll select the cities by perhaps as early as this fall. Unless something goes wrong. Unless the NFL boys put in one of their typically impossible requirements for expansion -- like world peace or a labor agreement.

But this time I think it's for real because commissioner Paul Tagliabue said once again in his state of the game address during Super Bowl week that expansion plans remain in force, and here's a guy desperate to put his stamp on something -- anything. He's trying to make people forget Pete Rozelle, or, at the least, remember his name, although the commissioner can't hope that anyone would ever be able to spell it correctly.

In any case, here's his chance to do something positive. And, besides, with franchise fees that will total at least $100 million per team, it's a nice way for the other 28 clubs to make a few extra bucks on the side.

So, let's say it's going through. There's one meeting this month of an expansion committee and another scheduled in March.

And where does that leave Baltimore?

Here's the latest guesswork, and it's only that, but suddenly everyone seems to be in love with the idea of Charlotte, N.C. The state is said to be a demographer's dream, and everyone points to the spectacular success of the NBA franchise there. These days, the NFL, which always used to be in front, is ready to play catch-up.

Charlotte may be the leader of the so-called New Cities. There is said to be sentiment for one New City and one Old City (fortunately, neither Rome nor Athens has expressed interest). Once, Phoenix was the leading New City, but it got the Cardinals, leaving St. Louis as a prominent Old City. Before Charlotte, Memphis was the leading New City, with its effort led by Fred Smith, who owns Federal Express and presumably, if he doesn't get a team, might refuse to Fed-Ex important NFL business.

Jacksonville is a New City that seems to have lost favor. So is Sacramento. Oakland is an Old City that nobody is talking about any more, particularly since its latest dance with Al Davis.

So, here's how it might look: Charlotte ahead of Memphis, and Baltimore even with St. Louis. I've heard some people, who say they know, suggest Baltimore is a lock. I've heard others, who also say they know, suggest St. Louis is a sure thing. At this point, I don't think even the people who are going to do the voting know.

If it comes down to St. Louis and Baltimore, it will be a difficult choice. The demographics are similar, not that it much matters. The NFL has shown it can succeed, with effective management, in any sizable town. St. Louis and Baltimore are proof that pro football can fail only with serious buffoons in charge. Bill Bidwill, late of St. Louis, has made a fiasco of Phoenix, and Bob Irsay, wherever he goes, remains Bob Irsay.

The baseball Cardinals and the Orioles are both great success stories, meaning football should succeed in either town. St. Louis is going ahead with a domed stadium, and Baltimore has all the finances in place for a stadium of its own at Camden Yards in what would be an exciting downtown venture.

If Baltimore has an edge, it is that the league stood by and watched Irsay ruin what had been among the foremost franchises in the league. Baltimore has a football history that St. Louis cannot match, and there are surely owners who figure the NFL owes Baltimore something other than that twisting knife still visible, if you look closely, in the city's back.

Of course, it doesn't matter what we think, and no one knows for sure how the owners see it. But we can hold onto this: The end seems to be in sight, and that has to be the best football news around here in years.

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