Colts' final days: The inside story Behind-the-scenes wrangling proved Baltimore's undoing WHEN THE COLTS LEFT BALTIMORE


Painful, provocative memories take us to the last day in the life of the Baltimore Colts. Who can forget the green-and-yellow trucks glistening in the snow? The trashed training facility? The domed stadium that beckoned Bob Irsay?

The Colts' departure is well-documented in newsprint and on film. But there were other events, behind the scenes, that led to that point, events that may fuel your anger once more.

Events such as Baltimore's 11th-hour legal bid to take the Colts from Irsay, an attempt that backfired. Events such as a secret meeting in Skokie, Ill., where the Colts owner made certain proposals to Baltimore officials and never followed up.

Events that led to the darkest chapter in Baltimore sports history. Events that led to March 28, 1984. That was the night 22 Mayflower moving vans uprooted 31 years of tradition and boxed it for delivery to the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.

By dawn the next day, the tawdry deed was mostly done. As the last van pulled away from the lower parking lot about 7:15, John Lopez, the team's trainer, noticed something lying on the ground. What he found jolted him. There, on the snow-covered driveway, was a T-shirt bearing the team's blue-and-white insignia.

There were tire tracks on the chest of the shirt. Right across the name Baltimore Colts.

It was as if this night of sheer madness needed a defining moment, as if it needed a sad snapshot instead of 1,000 angry words.

Nearly 10 years later, Baltimore is still trying to replace the Colts. The city's relentless campaign to gain an NFL expansion team goes to Chicago this week, where a final verdict is expected to come Tuesday.

If the NFL does award a franchise to Baltimore, perhaps only then will the city be able to distance itself from the nightmare of March 28, 1984.

The Irsay era in Baltimore was punctuated by a dozen years of acrimony, threats and outlandish public appearances by the owner. Within four years of acquiring the club in 1972, Irsay began to entertain offers for relocation. They came from Phoenix and Indianapolis. From Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla. From New York and Los Angeles.

He solicited offers on the run and, for the most part, kept on running. Until the winter of 1984, when he perfected the art of solicitation to a science. By then, events here and nationally had created a window of opportunity:

* The NFL was so entangled trying to send Al Davis' Raiders back to Oakland after they had moved to Los Angeles that it was powerless to prevent another move.

* Indianapolis was nearing completion of the 63,000-seat Hoosier Dome.

* Irsay was troubled by the lack of improvements to Memorial Stadium and by his rapidly deteriorating image here.

What was it, then, that caused Irsay to make the leap?

David R. Frick, an Indianapolis attorney who negotiated the Colts' move, says Irsay didn't jump as much as he was pushed.

"I've always felt that Baltimore lost the franchise," Frick said. "Even though the negotiating process was getting firmer with Indianapolis, the real trigger mechanism for departure was eminent domain."

Acknowledging that Baltimore had submitted a better economic package to Irsay, Frick called the legal gambit "a strategic error."

Although Frick had held most of his negotiations with Michael Chernoff, the club's legal counsel, he sensed in Irsay a reluctance to leave Baltimore.

"Bob had an attachment [to Baltimore]," Frick said. "That decision to move came very hard for him. I watched the man in the process. While the stadium was not the quality stadium that other teams were playing in and fan support had declined dramatically at the end, that was a long-standing franchise, and it troubled him to move it."

Eminent domain was a legal process by which Baltimore believed it could condemn the Colts franchise and take the team from Irsay. It was a move of desperation the city had saved until all hope seemed lost, according to Mark Wasserman, who was chief aide for then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

Cat-and-mouse game

"When the situation was so ridiculously deteriorated, it seemed like that was one option that ought to be thought through carefully and maybe considered seriously," said Wasserman, who is secretary for the state Department of Economic and Employment Development. "My sense is that there was a lot of shifting sands. All signs pointed to a certain level of disingenuousness. It became a cat-and-mouse game. 'Should we make a move or not? If we do, what will the reaction be?' Unfortunately, we found out."

Schaefer, the governor now, refused to second-guess the city's strategy, using the analogy of a Monday morning quarterback.

"Well, you can be [Johnny] Unitas on Monday," he said.

On March 27, the Maryland Senate approved a bill on eminent domain. It would not be enacted, however, until it passed through the House of Delegates and was signed by Gov. Harry Hughes. On the fateful morning of March 28, Frick read of the eminent domain development.

"I saw in the paper that the Maryland legislature had suspended its rules and started the process to give Baltimore power to condemn the franchise," he said. "At that point, my confidence level went up. I felt we were further along than Phoenix in the process. I knew how much time they were spending with us."

Donald P. Hutchinson saw nothing in Bob Irsay during a secret March 11 meeting that suggested the team owner was reluctant about leaving Baltimore. In fact, Hutchinson came away from the session feeling more pessimistic than before.

That was a meeting in which Hughes, Schaefer, Hutchinson and the late Frank De Francis (at the time secretary for DEED) met Irsay and Chernoff at a country club in Skokie, Ill.

"We flew out Sunday morning and had lunch with [Irsay]," said Hutchinson, recently named president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "No one knew of the mission. The entire time, I felt the man was totally irrational and that it didn't matter in any way what any of us said. It didn't matter."

The meeting lasted 2 1/2 hours. The conversation centered on the inadequacy of Memorial Stadium and the Colts' desire to develop the 100 acres around the Owings Mills complex.

"Irsay was controlling the conversation, and he was drinking martinis," Hutchinson said. "He did not eat. We ate lunch. Chernoff ate lunch. He did not eat, he drank. I remember it as clear as yesterday. When I came away -- I had some familiarity of the impact of drinking on decision-making -- I said, 'This man will never be able to deal with the issue.' "

As Baltimore County executive, Hutchinson could address the problems of developing the training site. But he remembers that those discussions never went beyond the preliminary stage.

Nobody asked the county

"Nobody [from the Colts] ever went to the county for specific contracts," he said. "That's why I always felt that this guy just wasn't dealing with us in a straightaway fashion. Because if he had, those kind of conversations had to take place."

Through a spokesman, Jim Irsay, Colts general manager and son of Bob Irsay, said the team would not comment on the events surrounding the move.

To this day, Schaefer says he feels Irsay was negotiating in good faith during the long, arduous process. The discontent arose, Schaefer said, from Irsay's belief he was promised a new stadium when he made the famous franchise swap with Carroll Rosenbloom, who wound up with the Los Angeles Rams. "He was under the impression when he bought the team there was a commitment to build a stadium," Schaefer said. "I never made a commitment to build a stadium.

"The last meeting we had was on the Saturday before he left. We were negotiating, and, quite frankly, we had met just about every demand he asked. That's one of the things that disturbed me. Everything he asked for, we gave him. But he wanted a new stadium, and we just could not do that.

"When he pulled out, my immediate thought was why were we wasting our time? But it's because he wanted that stadium."

For Schaefer, there is irony in that he worked so hard to get Camden Yards built for the Orioles, that he has become, in effect, a champion of the new stadium in Baltimore. In hindsight, he says he feels he did everything in his power to save the Colts.

"Do I feel I was at fault? Absolutely not," he said. "Sure you feel bad when you lose something like that. Everything that happens while you're mayor is your responsibility. But I knew we did all we could do. We couldn't build him a stadium."

The Arizona overture

On March 15, Irsay had one final meeting with representatives from Arizona. He flew from Las Vegas, where he had spent a few days at Caesars Palace, to Bakersfield, Calif., where he met with a five-man delegation headed by Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

Arizona was prepared to match the $15 million loan at 8 percent interest offered in Baltimore and Indianapolis. In addition, officials there pledged a $5 million practice facility and promised to build a domed stadium in downtown Phoenix. In the interim, the Colts would play at Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium.

Harry Cavanagh, a Phoenix lawyer, was part of the Arizona delegation. He remembers the talks with Irsay and Chernoff as being straightforward. "We were never misdirected by either of them," Cavanagh said.

The March 15 meeting was held at the Bakersfield airport and lasted two hours.

"We felt he was trying to find out what he could get from us," Cavanagh said. "He did not mention Indianapolis. He didn't pit one against the other. I felt he was going to move out of Baltimore, and he wanted to know what he could expect if he moved to Phoenix."

There were no apparent snags in the exchange, and the two sides parted with the idea of talking again.

"He said he was going to study everything and get back to us," Cavanagh said.

"The next thing we heard, he moved to Indianapolis."

Morning of The Night

On the morning of March 28, Irsay called coach Frank Kush in Tempe, Ariz., told him a decision had been made and to catch a flight to Washington. About the same time, Jim Irsay, who would shortly become general manager, called offensive line coach Hal Hunter into his office at the complex and informed him of the move. Hunter was to tell no one. At the close of the work day, he was to inform the rest of the coaching staff, and they were to begin packing.

At the 5 p.m. meeting, the coaches received final instructions from young Irsay.

"We had to get projectors, notebooks, all the things we used, ready," Hunter said. "Jim told me the moving company was coming in at 8:30 or 9 o'clock, and gave me a list of how things would go. The first truck was for contracts, legal papers and anything that had to do with players or legal matters. The second truck was to be all football equipment out of the players' lockers and equipment room. Each truck had a priority."

It was dark, and snowing, when Kush arrived. By then, he knew the destination was Indianapolis and not Phoenix.

"I would have loved to go to Phoenix," he said, "because my home is there. But it wasn't surprising to me that we didn't."

A short while later, the phone rang in Kush's office.

"What are you doing in there this time of night?" Kush was asked.

"Watching films," he said, taking an evasive position.

Moments later, Kush conceded the obvious. No, he was not watching films. No, it was not a routine night at the office. Yes, he said finally, the team was moving to Indianapolis.

"But don't quote me," he said, as if that mattered.

News of the moving vans broke almost immediately. Media, fans and curiosity seekers assembled at the complex to watch the exodus toward Indianapolis. Schaefer, who had expected to hear of the decision from Irsay, learned about the move while listening to the radio in bed that night.

"First of all," Schaefer said, "I couldn't believe it. You couldn't sleep after that. You couldn't do anything. What could you do? Call the police and tell them to stop them? It was a very hard day for me, a very sad day."

The next morning, he attended a Cabinet meeting. Wasserman, Schaefer's aide, recalled the mood.

"I remember the mayor coming in and obviously having had a sleepless night," Wasserman said.

"There was a lot of pathos in the air. What that group of people there felt, or what the mayor felt, was no different than any other person in Baltimore.

"We all felt victimized."

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