Exhibition brings trip down memory lane


The NFL finally returns Thursday night to the place where it all began -- the old dowager on 33rd Street.

Memorial Stadium has become obsolete. It's not a modern money machine with luxury boxes and club seats that owners covet, but it still deserves its place in pro football history.

Before there were Super Bowls and Monday night games and instant replay and the Inner Harbor, there was Memorial Stadium.

It's where pro football became a passion, where sellouts became routine and tickets were fought over in divorce court. This is where the pro football boom started.

When the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints play Thursday night in the first pro football game there since 1983, it will be a celebration of Baltimore's quest to get another NFL team.

"Give Baltimore the Ball" will be the theme at the game and at the pep rally at the Inner Harbor at noon Wednesday.

But it's more than that, too. It also will bring back memories of the era that was captured so well by Barry Levinson in the movie "Diner."

It will wipe out some of the memories of the crowd of 27,834 fans that watched the Colts' last game on Dec. 18, 1983. It will wipe out some of the memories of the moving vans on that snowy March 28, 1984, when the Colts left town.

It will recall the days of "The Greatest Game Ever Played." (The 1958 NFL title game between the Colts and Giants really wasn't, but Sports Illustrated called it that, and NFL Films even put that moniker on its video of the game). At the least, it fueled the pro football boom.

The Colts also played in another significant game -- their crushing loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III that virtually made the NFL-AFL merger official.

Twenty years ago, of course, it all started to unravel when Bob Irsay bought the Colts and destroyed all that tradition.

Even in the 12 Irsay years, Baltimore ranked fourth in the league in TV ratings. The fans watched the said spectacle on TV, but didn't want to attend the wake in person. Matt DeVito, Rouse Co. chairman, likes to say Baltimore loved the Colts too much.

It might seem hard for the younger generation to understand that the Orioles had the best team in baseball in those days, but had to play second fiddle to the Colts. There are almost more fans lining up for Boog's Barbecue than showed up to watch Boog Powell play.

This game is proving the football flame never really died in the eight years that Baltimore has been on the outside looking in.

Even when the NFL shrugged when Baltimore lost its team (compared with the full-court press it used to keep the Eagles in Philadelphia nine months later), the fans never gave up.

When Baltimore started its quest for another team, its drawback was the map test -- its location between Washington and Philadelphia.

It wasn't enough that Baltimore came up with the funding for the best stadium complex ever built. It wasn't enough that it built a baseball park that is getting almost as many raves as the Sistine Chapel (the comparison is apt because you have to twist your neck there, too). It wasn't enough that Baltimore made an offer to the NFL that will enable a new team to virtually print money.

The skeptics said the city still had to play host to a preseason game. That was another rap against Baltimore. The fans had resented paying full price for practice games in the past.

So they sold the game out in two hours the day before the Super Bowl. The demand for tickets was virtually unprecedented for any preseason game anywhere. The only problem was fans complaining about their seat locations.

In some cities, corporations have to subsidize these games. In Baltimore, Herbert Belgrad, the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, has had to go back to corporations that bought tickets for employees and ask if he can buy some back because of the continuing demand.

For example, when the game was sold out, the city didn't know ESPN would televise it. The ESPN contract calls for it to be able to purchase 100 tickets. Belgrad has had to scramble to come up with the tickets.

There was a time when there was concern about a ticket guarantee for an expansion franchise. Now it's obvious there will have to be some kind of lottery to sell season tickets because of the demand.

The enthusiasm for this game erases the final doubt. When Baltimore got into the expansion derby, it knew it had to have a bid better than any other city to overcome the map problem. This game is the final touch on that bid. It obviously has a bid that no other city can top.

The scene Thursday night will prove that.

Things will be just as they were when a Chicago writer once dubbed Memorial Stadium "the world's largest outdoor insane asylum."

For one night, it will be again.

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