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Losing the Colts in '84 still hurts

Baltimore's exile from the National Football League ends its first decade today. And for Mark Sapperstein and thousands of fans like him, it's been a seemingly endless season on the sidelines, watching the city fight to get back into the game.

"I'm crazy," said Sapperstein, a 35-year-old businessman. "I'm happy that the Patriots can't build a new stadium and I hope the economy stays bad up there so they can't. I hope L.A. has 10 more earthquakes. Since this began I don't care about other cities."

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He was a Colts season ticket holder until the team moved to Indianapolis 10 years ago last night, and he can't wait to see Baltimore back in the league. He scours the newspaper, follows the talk shows and calls sports writers and Maryland Stadium Authority officials for details. He and friends swap rumors like precious trading cards. A wife of one friend has grown so tired of it that she hangs up when Sapperstein calls.

Sapperstein is not alone. In a handful of dedicated football-wannabe cities across the country, trying to lure the NFL has been a municipal obsession.

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Cities have sent delegations to gatherings of NFL team owners. They have planned stadiums, bought land and prepared lucrative offers to catch the attention of owners. Some have even used multimillion-dollar cash advances or constructed coliseums as bait.

More often than not, waiting for the NFL has been as futile as waiting for Godot. When the league added its 29th and 30th franchises last year, it was the first expansion in 20 years. Getting a team the other way -- convincing one to move -- is even harder. Among existing teams, there have been only 10 moves since the league was founded in 1920.

Community leaders preach a "keep the faith" gospel, insisting that the true believers will be rewarded with a franchise and all the recognition and economic benefits that ensue.

Cynics counter that the league's prosperity depends on the unrequited adoration of cities. Those cities up the ante -- and force the existing NFL communities to respond -- by offering the newest stadiums, best leases, richest ticket guarantees and other, often publicly funded, inducements.

"The NFL loves the Baltimores of the world because it knows they will always be there whenever a franchise needs a little competition to increase interest at home," said Charles C. Euchner, assistant professor of political science at Holy Cross and author of "Playing the Field: Why Sports Teams Move and Cities Fight to Keep Them."

Baltimore's effort has been especially dogged, beginning as soon as the Colts moved. First there was the pitch to the New Orleans Saints, who stayed put. Then to the St. Louis Cardinals, who went to Phoenix.

And of course there was the elaborate municipal mating dance of expansion, where Baltimore made it into the final five only to lose to a pair of Sun Belt upstarts, Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C.

"I'm a college-educated man and a businessman, but it's killing me. It's been a 10-year, arduous ordeal for me," said Thomas S. Wedge, another former Colts season ticket holder for whom football became "a religion," he said.

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He sent in his deposit for club seats in last summer's premium seat campaign, and hunkered down for the expansion decision. Friends jokingly warned him to stay away from sharp objects.

'Kicked in the teeth'

"I had waited for 10 years and I got kicked in the teeth," he said.

Over the past decade, the city's offer to the NFL has gone from a refurbished Memorial Stadium, to be shared with a baseball team, to a football-only, publicly financed facility at Camden Yards so packed with sky boxes and luxury concession stands that a tenant would quickly become one of the richest in sports.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer believes that deal is strong enough to win a team, and is focusing on three believed to be candidates for relocation: the Los Angeles Rams and Raiders, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He's willing to spend the better part of his last year as governor doing whatever it takes, even though many in the NFL say the already long odds only got longer with the announcement that the Washington Redskins will move to Laurel, 14 miles away.

State Sen. John Pica, the democratic chairman of the city's Senate delegation, supports the effort but doesn't want Baltimore strung along in a hopeless quest.

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"I don't think the city is willing to spin its wheels forever," he said. "I think there are opportunities we should pursue. There are three teams that may be moving."

A glimpse of what may be required can be found in Jacksonville. The city hit the jackpot last year, but not before years of humiliation. Before moving to Indianapolis, Colts owner Robert Irsay flirted with Jacksonville, at one point landing by helicopter in a stadium packed with tens of thousands of cheering fans who showed up just to demonstrate their enthusiasm.

The Colts were followed to Jacksonville by, in random order, the Houston Oilers, St. Louis Cardinals, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. Each time, hopes were raised and, until last year, dashed.

"It got to where Jacksonville was scared to get its hopes up," said Matt Carlucci, a Jacksonville city councilman. "A lot of people felt we were being taken for a ride.

"We always felt that we were getting used by teams because when they talked about coming here they always got a sweeter deal at home."

The Los Angeles suburb of Irwindale, Calif., had a shorter, but possibly even bumpier ride on the roller coaster. The Los Angeles Raiders announced in 1987 an agreement to move to an abandoned gravel pit in Irwindale, an industrial town of 1,000 residents.

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The city agreed to build a $115 million, 65,000-seat stadium and even forwarded $10 million of a promised $110 million loan to the Raiders. When the deal collapsed in the face of lawsuits and political infighting, the Raiders, legally, kept the money.

"We lost $10 million and then more trying to get it back," said Irwindale Vice Mayor Pat S. Miranda.

Before the deal fell apart, fans took to wearing Irwindale Raiders shirts and dreaming of the notoriety their town would gain from having a franchise, Mr. Miranda said. He now thinks the effort was a mistake.

"Some people would say that when we got into the league we would be put on the map," Miranda said. "I would say, from what I saw: Let them come but don't put any money in until they are there."

That message apparently was lost on St. Louis and San Antonio, two cities that applied for expansion teams. When St. Louis completes a downtown stadium now under construction, it will join its Texas counterpart in the dubious distinction of having an NFL-quality stadium but no NFL team. In both cases the domed structures were built with football and non-football uses in mind -- such as increasing convention center space -- although the number of events that demand 70,000-seat venues is limited.

"Most of the city leaders believe that in the future we will have an NFL franchise either by expansion mode or by getting a team to move here," said Roland Lozano, director of the San Antonio office of dome development.

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St. Louis, an expansion finalist, is seeking a relocation team, but officials there grumble that the effort has not been as active as Baltimore's and is hampered by infighting over who controls the lease to the new stadium.

Memphis, Tenn., may hold the record for pursuit of an NFL franchise. The city was a loser in last year's expansion and the one 20 years before. In between it played host to the World Football League and United States Football League, and now is trying to lure an existing NFL team to the Liberty Bowl.

"I think it's a long shot and everybody postures themselves," said Pepper Rodgers. An Atlanta native, Mr. Rodgers has been in Memphis since coaching the USFL there and represented the city in the latest expansion. "I just assume that people start out making the people they are with jealous, and if the people don't respond to the jealousy, then you think seriously about moving.


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