Is city worthy of a team? No question about it


In Little Italy two weeks ago, a friend of mine who knows a guy who knows another guy said it didn't look good for Baltimore getting a pro football team. Believe me, I believed him when he told me this. Because my friend says this guy who knows the other guy appears to be a very knowledgeable fellow about such things, and is well-connected (if you get my meaning, and I think you do).

But then, a week ago in Glen Burnie, another friend of mine who is well-connected to a well-connected guy in St. Louis told me that he talked long-distance to this guy the night before, and apparently it's a done deal: Baltimore and Charlotte.

It is this way everywhere you turn: confused absorption in a long-deferred dream. On the radio talk shows, I hear people who can still recite not only the names but the actual jersey numbers of Baltimore Colts defensive linemen from 35 years ago (89 Marchetti, 70 Donovan, 76 Lipscomb, 83 Joyce, 81 Braase, OK, so I've still got 'em on my own brain), and they're pouring out their hearts in public over this football expansion business because it's not only a ballclub we're talking about here but a return to a stolen way of life.

On Tuesday, we're supposed to find out. After practically a decade of waiting (or is it a lifetime?), we're supposed to learn if the authorities of the National Football League deem us worthy of a second chance at a franchise.

Worthy, can you imagine this? This, of a community that hasn't stopped mourning since that thief Irsay ran off with the Colts. This, of a community that has put together money beyond imagining for a new stadium, money beyond counting for visiting teams and money beyond all reason to buy our way back into a league that kissed us off a decade ago after we'd virtually given birth to the entire modern NFL era.

Baltimore, worthy? Here's a little history quiz for all those late-arrival sports who'll gather in Chicago this week to make up their minds on expansion: In what cities did the Colt franchise fall on its face before finding salvation in Baltimore?

Answer: The big-shot cities of New York and Dallas. The current NFL owners could look this up, and maybe they should, because if history doesn't count for something in sports, then the hell with all this begging that's been going on.

Yes, it was 40 years ago when Baltimore embraced its football team, and yes, it's a different game now, and so what? This is not AT&T; we're talking about. It's a love affair. You take away the love, and football's not a game, it's a collection of corporations asking us to watch human beings in helmets knock each other down.

Around here, we didn't completely understand the corporate bullying involved until the moving vans were rumbling toward Indianapolis. We do now, and we've covered every argument, financial or sentimental, to get a football team back.

Is the money here? Yes. The financial package we've presented the NFL is remarkable. It's more solid than Charlotte's, and we didn't need any last-second scrambling like St. Louis'. (And, as for that argument about Anheuser-Busch pulling its beer commercials if St. Louis doesn't get a franchise, ask yourself this: Did Anheuser-Busch pull the ads when St. Louis lost the original Cardinals five years ago? Of course not. Budweiser advertises so it can sell beer to America, not so it can support the city of St. Louis.)

Are our prospective ownership groups strong? Beyond all legitimate demands. As for that nonsense about Boogie Weinglass or Malcolm Glazer not having sufficient stature, who's kidding whom? Are we talking about entering the clergy or buying a football team? Is a man like Robert Irsay the criterion for stature? It so happens that both of Baltimore's entries have made their fortunes in a manner at least as honorable as any existing NFL owner.

Are we geographically close to Washington? Yes, and so what? The two franchises coexisted profitably for 30 years and would do so again. We don't hurt each other, we re-create a natural rivalry that brings something called passion to the sport.

Then there's the other question: Despite all the grand memories of sellouts, all the memories of the so-called world's largest outdoor insane asylum, did Colts fans, in fact, desert the team in its closing years here?

It's an argument some NFL executives have muttered, so let's make this real clear for them: They've got it backward. Robert Irsay deserted Baltimore, and he did it long before the moving vans arrived. Right there in front of TV cameras, he openly shopped the team around, did it back when we were still filling the stadium here. He openly bad-mouthed the town. He took what once was a religion and swept away all of its idols.

As Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated days after the Colts were taken away: "A man who could screw up professional football in Baltimore would foul the water at Lourdes or flatten the beer in Munich. . . . The modern highwaymen who own sports franchises use up cities and throw them away. . . . When did the Baltimore Colts die? The answer isn't 1984 but 1972, for that was when the NFL allowed a man like Irsay to buy a city's heart."

Give us a team or don't, but let's not hear any talk about Baltimore not being the worthiest city. We've been grieving for 10 years, and now we've put our money where our hearts are. It's time for the NFL to show if it's even got a heart.

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