"You can't separate the Patriots from the expansion effort," said Herbert J. Belgrad, coordinator of Baltimore's expansion bid and chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.
In fact, the disposition of the Patriots could determine if Baltimore returns to the NFL.
James Busch Orthwein, the lead investor in St. Louis' effort to buy an expansion franchise, bought the Patriots last year to protect a loan he had made to Fran Murray Sr., a part-owner of the team.
Mr. Orthwein said then and now that he wants only to be an interim owner, reselling the Patriots to buy an expansion franchise for St. Louis, his hometown.
But he has been careful to preserve his rights to move the team, if necessary, to St. Louis. He refused a request by the league to sign an agreement preventing such a move before he bought the Patriots.
St. Louis is competing with Baltimore, Memphis, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., for one of two expansion franchises the league is scheduled to award in October.
Mr. Orthwein's decision could have a significant impact on Baltimore's hopes to rejoin the NFL. Consider:
* Memphis, a small city with an old stadium, generally is considered a long shot in the bidding. That leaves the other three cities fighting for two teams. If the Patriots went to St. Louis, Baltimore and Charlotte would appear to have their football dreams answered.
* Boston has done little to demonstrate it is willing to fight for the Patriots. If Mr. Orthwein lands an expansion franchise, he could sell the Patriots to someone who would move it to a loser in the expansion sweepstakes, perhaps Charlotte or Baltimore.
* Some dreamers even suggest that if Mr. Orthwein moves the Patriots to St. Louis, the league might respond by putting expansion teams in Charlotte, Baltimore and Boston. To keep the number of teams even, the league then would put a team in Memphis. League officials scoff at this, saying a two-team expansion was tough enough to get everyone to agree to.
* If Mr. Orthwein is unable either to sell or move the Patriots, St. Louis could find its expansion effort without the marquee investor that has given its bid a lot of credibility. That would boost Baltimore and Charlotte by default.
No doubt, the Patriots have their problems. Among the most pressing is a long-term lease at Foxboro Stadium, an outdated facility almost an hour's drive from Boston that is owned by developers who keep the revenue from concessions, parking, advertising and sky boxes that other team owners keep. Built in 1971, it lacks such basic fan comforts as backs on the seats.
Mr. Orthwein is trying to get a combined stadium/convention center built in Boston, similar to the $250 million one under construction in St. Louis. So far, state and city officials in Boston have been unable to commit to the funding.
Mr. Orthwein pledged in a May letter to Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld that he would sign a 30-year lease on a downtown stadium if the legislature enacted the necessary measures before it recessed for summer. The governor submitted the bill for a $700 million stadium/convention center on the last day of the session, too late for enaction.
"It still would be our hope and wish that we settle the issue right there [in St. Louis], and the league supports that," said Walter Metcalfe, an attorney and spokesman for Mr. Orthwein.
But, because of the delay, Mr. Orthwein no longer is tied to the pledge with Governor Weld and is "free to pursue other options," Mr. Metcalfe said. "I don't think there is any list. There is no magic list of what the options are."
The Patriots have received inquiries from potential buyers, he said. None of them is from Baltimore, but that city would be an obvious possibility, he said. There is no clear deadline for a decision, although Mr. Orthwein is not interested in owning two teams at once, Mr. Metcalfe said.
The NFL has said it would give him time after winning an expansion team to sell the Patriots, in effect easing the rules against owning two teams. Another St. Louis expansion investor, beverage distributor Jerry Clinton, says he's prepared to bring in other investors if Mr. Orthwein is bogged down with the Patriots.
The league is likely to oppose any move from Boston. The metro population of 4 million makes it an attractive market for both the NFL and the television networks who carry its games. But the Patriots, with abysmal attendance, may meet the criteria of non-support the league has laid out for abandoning a market.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue sent a letter last month to the Boston Redevelopment Authority saying Foxboro is unacceptable and warning that time is running out for a new facility to be built.
It's not clear how much the NFL can do to stop a transfer. Al Davis thwarted the league's will in 1982 and moved his Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles. The league, citing new rules put in place since then, says it is confident it could block a non-sanctioned move of the Patriots, according to one official.
"We think all our clubs are going to operate under existing rules," said an NFL official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Among those rules is one that may make moving the team nearly as expensive as an expansion team for Mr. Orthwein: a relocation fee. William V. Bidwill paid between $7 million and $10 million for the right to move the Cardinals from St. Louis to Phoenix in 1988. A Boston-to-St. Louis move is "more significant" and would rate an even higher fee, the NFL official said.
And moving the team from Boston to Connecticut -- as has been suggested by Mr. Murray, the former team owner -- is not considered the same market, the official said.
Mr. Metcalfe said Mr. Orthwein hasn't considered a move yet, but said he's not so sure the league could stop a move.
"That would be one for the lawyers," Mr. Metcalfe said.