Storied past joins tomorrow's dream on 33rd Street


Directions for tonight's game at Memorial Stadium: Take 33rd Street from any place in town, and keep driving until you reach the crossroads of a community's legendary football yesterdays and its feverishly imagined tomorrows.

The Miami Dolphins vs. the New Orleans Saints: Who are these guys?

It doesn't matter.

Tonight 60,000 of us will trek to the abandoned ballpark we used to call home and pretend to care. On the same soil where Unitas threw long to a place called Orrsville, where Spats gave a hip and then took it away, where Gino and Artie met at the quarterback, some guy in a helmet with no horseshoes on the sides will dive off-tackle, and everyone will be expected to cheer with enthusiasm and not go home too early.

It's the way they play the game these days. You want professional football back in Baltimore, you've got to grovel a little, buy a ticket and wave the pompons for the television screens a little, convince a bunch of team owners who never heard of a place called the world's largest outdoor insane asylum that greater sums of money can be made here than in St. Louis or Charlotte or anywhere else.

A long time ago, there were no more magical words to be uttered on autumn Sundays in Baltimore than, "I got two in the upper deck."

The tickets made you part of an exclusive fraternity. They put you within intimate worshiping distance of a football team and a glad, rollicking era, which we mistakenly thought would never go away, until a man named Robert Irsay was inflicted on us.

A certain resentment still bubbles, which we struggle to keep in its place. All dreams of a new franchise are tangled with old betrayals never sufficiently explained. They always told us football was a game. They always told us the fans mattered. They always told us Baltimore helped put pro football on the map, and then none of it seemed to matter anymore.

Eight years after the Mayflower vans headed toward Indianapolis, a sense of wonder still surrounds tonight's game: How did we get ourselves into this condition, and have we done everything possible now to get ourselves out?

The insiders tell us history counts for nothing with the new breed of football owners. The overtime classic in '58 that made the nation embrace the pro game? Something out of another century. The consecutive stadium sellouts, autumn after autumn, before it became fashionable in all football cities? Yeah, but what about the dog days of Irsay? The Colts Band, still keeping the flame alive in absentia, and the Colts Corrals and the kids who were named after players? Quaint affectations, we are told now.

What matters, the insiders say, are raw numbers: metro population, the size of the television market, the purchasing power of the citizenry, the financing of a new stadium.

"Pro football owners today don't talk in terms of moral obligations," Herb Belgrad, head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, was saying yesterday. "The majority aren't even going to think about how the Colts were taken away. It's past history to them.

"They're bottom-line businessmen. They'll review our application and compare it with the other cities'. And that's fine. No one's application compares with Baltimore's. Insiders who have seen them all have told me so. And I do expect Baltimore to get a franchise. Not just because it's the right thing for me to say, but because I believe it."

Sometimes, in spite of itself, the business draws the boyishness out of grown men. Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass has made untold millions with his clothing store chain, but mention the chance at football ownership and he becomes transformed into the teen-ager who used to sneak his way onto the sidelines when the Colts played.

"I'm so excited, I feel like a kid going to his first football game," Weinglass said yesterday. This afternoon, he and his partners -- including filmmaker Barry Levinson -- are to meet with pro football officials to discuss sale details, should Baltimore win a franchise.

"You know," Weinglass said, looking toward tonight's exhibition, haven't gone to a pro game since the Colts left. I could have. But if it didn't involve a Baltimore team, I wasn't interested."

Tom Clancy writes of doomsday military confrontations, very adult stuff, but feels his life incomplete without the possibility of owning a team here. He talks movingly of returning the game to the city where it once seemed part of the very fabric of things when he was growing up.

And the Glazer family: Don't these people have anything better to do with their money? Well, yes, but it wouldn't be as much fun.

Sunday afternoons around here used to be a lot of fun. It wasn't just the winning or the losing, it was the sense of community you felt for a few hours at a time on Sunday and the sense of common interest you held through the week, little talks about everybody's very own extended family.

In that sense, there's a certain purity to tonight's gathering. The game itself is meaningless. But we come together in hopes of a reunion. Nothing is at stake on the football field, only in the stands, only in the possibility of things to come.

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