The last dress rehearsal done, Baltimore formally embarks on its Canadian Football League journey tonight with an historic first step at Toronto's SkyDome.
Historic, but somewhat incomplete.
Baltimore's expansion team still will be without its name of choice -- the CFL Colts -- when it plays the Toronto Argonauts in the 7 p.m. season opener.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago yesterday denied a motion to stay the June 27 injunction imposed by an Indianapolis federal judge in the trademark rights dispute with the NFL.
Team owner Jim Speros said the litigation was a distraction from the milestone his franchise is about to reach.
"We're making history, and this is overshadowing the team," Speros said. "Those guys who made the team . . . deserve the attention."
Minus an identity, Baltimore's professional football team makes its debut in a town the city's fans are familiar with, at least. The CFL is eager to create a rivalry between Baltimore and Toronto much as the Orioles and Blue Jays have enjoyed in baseball.
"I think this particular matchup in the [Eastern] division is to help establish a new rivalry," said Bob O'Billovich, Argonauts coach. "Don [Matthews] and I go back a long ways. We've had some pretty good games over the years. It will be exciting to start a new rivalry."
Matthews, the Baltimore coach, replaced the fired O'Billovich in Toronto in 1990, but stayed only one season. O'Billovich returned to Toronto last year after the Argos got off to a 1-9 start.
In the off-season, O'Billovich addressed several deficiencies -- a poor offensive line, a weak secondary, and lack of overall team speed. What he has now, he said, is a "much improved team" that won both its preseason games.
While O'Billovich rebuilds in Toronto, Matthews builds from the ground up in Baltimore. Matthews also tailored his team to suit the CFL's quicker pace, loading his defense with speed and experience. Baltimore also went 2-0 in the preseason, beating the Shreveport Pirates, 33-18, in a sloppy affair, and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, 45-43, in an overtime thriller.
"Now that we're down to the 37-man roster, everybody gets more reps in practice and all the teams get more polished," Matthews said. "There should be less mistakes and less penalties on both teams."
In more than litigation, Baltimore has been adjusting on the run. Two of the team's starting receivers, wide-out Walter Wilson and slotback Chris Armstrong, arrived in camp after getting cut elsewhere. Despite the late arrivals, Wilson had eight catches and one touchdown in the preseason, and Armstrong six with one touchdown.
The team's place-kicker, Donald Igwebuike of Nigeria, had to scramble at the last minute to get his immigration papers in order to enter Canada. Igwebuike was 9-for-9 in field-goal attempts in the two games.
Then there was the offensive line. Tonight's starting lineup will have a center, Nick Subis, who signed after the first game, and a guard, Diego London, who was cut a week ago, then recalled.
Not surprisingly, Baltimore's running game has been negligible.
been terrible, and we want to be able to run the ball effectively," said offensive coordinator Steve Buratto. "We had too many assignment errors. Part of it was mental, part of it timing. There's more margin for error in the pass offense than the running game."
Quarterback Tracy Ham, the team's marquee player, completed 20 of 39 passes for 354 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in his two halves of action. He sees the lack of a running game as a matter of recognition.
"I think it's a product of having inexperienced linemen," Ham said. "It takes time to read and make calls on the move. Right now, we lack that extra step of aggressiveness."
Toronto will counter with a young, but improved defense. For O'Billovich, the key is containing Ham.
"If Tracy gets to where he can roam around and make big plays on his own, then they'll give us a lot of problems," he said. "If we do a good job of containing him and keep him in the pocket, then I think we have a good chance of winning the game."
Baltimore vs. Toronto
Site: SkyDome, Toronto
Time: 7 p.m.
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM)