Sharing hopes, beer, glum fans order another


Leaning against the railing on the balcony of Balls Sports Bar, ready to dive into the crowd, Jack McCarty had to steady himself with a gulp of beer when he heard the news.

"I'm crushed," said the 25-year-old from Catonsville, who had vowed to make a stage dive into the throng jostling elbows at the bar below him if Baltimore got the ball.

Disappointed fans ordered another round of drinks at the downtown sports bar and made glum bets with each other on whether the Bombers would bomb out.

Many had purchased T-shirts earlier in the night with the slogan "Incoming Baltimore Football 1995 -- Bombs Away." Featured on the back was a gun sight targeting Colts owner Robert Irsay and a Mayflower moving van.

Sporting matching blue Colts Corrals jackets, Chris and Butch Ergott arrived at the bar near Oriole Park at Camden Yards to begin watching and waiting for the return of football. The Catonsville residents, who have stuck by the Colts, even though the team has been gone for nearly a decade, want nothing more than to carry seat cushions to another home football game.

Nine years after the Colts' nocturnal move to Indianapolis, 22 fan clubs are still thriving in Maryland. The Baltimore Colts Band, the marching band without a team, hasn't missed a note since. And the die-hard fans who got together at Balls to switch their support to a new football team can still recite the starting lineups from 1957.

Terry Norman, who has been active in the Catonsville Colts Corral for 13 years, wearily stroked her forehead as she stared at one of the four television sets tuned to the press conference in Chicago.

"I feel bad. I'm disappointed," she said. "But I've got to be optimistic."

Others in the eclectic crowd of more than 100 of Baltimore's most faithful football fans uncrossed their fingers and sighed -- most at the continuing uncertainty, but at least a few at not cashing in on the free beer promised by Balls if Baltimore won a franchise.

And then there were the three auditors from Charlotte. They burst into cheers.

"Terrific. This is terrific," said an exultant Spencer Barnes, one of the auditors, as the Charlotte Panthers logo was shown on television.

But for Baltimorean Bob Giles, the NFL's indecision could prove profitable. He was peddling the Bombs Away T-shirts, and said the delay means more business, at least until Nov. 30.

While fans gathered in bars -- even at the Golden Arm Restaurant founded by Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas -- to share hopes and beers, others held lonely vigils in their homes.

In Pasadena, Steve LaPlanche sat in his sports room, surrounded by memorabilia that included Johnny Unitas' cape and Big Daddy Libscomb's jersey from the 1958 championship game. He says he was the only Colts fan to watch the entire night as the Mayflower vans were loaded and the team was driven away.

"I'm very depressed right now," said Mr. LaPlanche, 40, a captain in the Anne Arundel County sheriff's office, anticipating yet another vigil next month. "I feel this is just another way to give St. Louis more time because they really were not prepared for this today," he said.

"I don't know what to think," said John Ziemann, president of Baltimore Colts Band Inc., after a night of fielding calls from his players and then watching NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's announcement. "I kept waiting for 'Baltimore Bombers' to be the next words out of his mouth, but they never came."

Still, he said, the band will play on -- with or without the Bombers.

Westminster's staunch Colts fan, Romeo Valianti, who never missed a game in 19 years, saw the NFL owners' delay as "a dirty trick, not just to Baltimore, but to the other cities as well."

But it was not a reason to abandon hope. He held firm to the belief that the Bombers would be playing football on 33rd Street in 1995. "I'll make a bet that if we get a team, you won't be able to buy a ticket."

Even a downtown church got into the spirit yesterday.

The bells of St. Paul's Episcopal Church sounded a tune that had passers-by on Charles Street humming along.

The chimes rang out the old Colts fight song at noon and on the hour through the afternoon.

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