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On location, Ham's a moving star


Tracy Ham did what he does best yesterday. He improvised on the run.

The marquee player on Baltimore's new Canadian Football League team hadn't yet seen where he'll play, met all his coaches or formally signed his three-year contract.

But in a news conference at a downtown hotel, he answered questions about the CFL, his new coach Don Matthews, and the art of quarterbacking.

When the subject turned to the style of offense his team will run, he scrambled around in the pocket.

"Right now, I haven't talked about X's and O's, or where people are going to be," said Ham, 30.

"Well," he said in mid-thought, "I'm the only player."

It was a quick -- and humorous -- start for an expansion team christened only last Thursday. As promised, the CFL crew has hit the ground running. It took owner Jim Speros just five days to bring his marquee player to town once Ham's contract expired with the Toronto Argonauts. The deal was struck late Friday night and gives some insight into how Speros will operate.

Ham's contract is loaded with incentives and perks, including a townhouse and a car. The three-year package, two years of which are guaranteed, is worth $865,000 in base salary. But he has performance and team incentives worth $270,000 that could bump him into the $400,000-a-year range. The average base salary is $288,000.

"It has a very reasonable base," the owner said of the contract. "If Tracy performs, with the incentives, he becomes one of the top-paid quarterbacks in the league."

Ham hasn't signed yet because the team won't receive standard-form contracts from the league until Tuesday. But attorney Dan Lawson of Toronto said the deal was final and that there was nothing left to be negotiated.

A seven-year veteran in the CFL, Ham accepted less money in Baltimore than he left on the table in negotiations with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The difference was "negligible," Lawson said. Speros said it was about $100,000.

"We're going to attract players for less money because people want to play in Baltimore," Speros said. "If you played college ball in the States, where would you rather play -- Calgary or Baltimore?"

Ham, whose wife, Valarie, and 13-month-old son, Tracy II, stayed behind in Georgia yesterday, clearly preferred Baltimore.

"As a kid growing up, you want to play in the States," he said. "This was an opportunity to get closer to home, to give my family the opportunity to spend summer vacations in the area and to see me play.

"I think the deciding factor was the location."

The quick agreement was expedited by Ham's participation in a play back home at Georgia Southern, where he is finishing up courses for a degree in recreation. The play, "A Raisin in the Sun," is about a poor black family living in Chicago. Ham, playing the role of Bobo, must deliver bad news to the family after the father dies and some money disappears.

"I sped things up more than [Speros] did in negotiations," Ham said. "I was committed to the people in the production."

In seven CFL seasons, Ham has thrown for 21,387 yards and 150 touchdowns, and twice led the league in passing efficiency. He has rushed for 5,043 yards, second highest in league history behind the Edmonton Eskimos' Damon Allen.

"Throughout my career, I've been moving the pocket around," Ham said. "I think any time you allow a defense to get an idea where you are consistently, then you become vulnerable. Play-action, roll-out, things like that will keep guys on the move and force defenses to cover the complete field and not cut the field off."

Matthews said that Ham will call his own plays and will have input on what offense he wants to run.

Ham had little input when he came out of Georgia Southern in 1987, a ninth-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams. In a three-week minicamp, he was converted into a running back. He stayed through the camp, then left to join the Eskimos, who held his CFL rights.

"I didn't even know where Edmonton was, until I got on a plane and it took me all day to get there," said Ham, who is 5 feet 10, 192 pounds. "The CFL offered me the opportunity to do what I do best, and that was play quarterback."

Ham's best season in Edmonton was 1989, when he threw for 30 touchdowns and was named the league's outstanding player. He took the Eskimos to the Grey Cup a year later.

A year ago, he was traded to Toronto to direct the Argonauts' new run-and-shoot offense. He spent most of the season in a revolving door with two other quarterbacks, playing behind an injury-depleted offensive line.

At Georgia Southern, he ran a version of the run-and-shoot and led the Eagles to Division I-AA championships in 1985 and 1986.

"Basically, I just didn't get to play," he said of the season he'd sooner forget. "I was never given the opportunity to settle into the offense. If a mistake was made, I would come out of the game.

"But that's behind me. Now I'm focusing on what's going on in Baltimore."

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