TORONTO -- Playing a strange new game, a "race horse" form of football, in a different country, Canada, is where a Baltimore team without a nickname finds itself tonight under circumstances that are foreign to a city which helped shape the popularity of another league that slapped it in the face and then humiliated it without showing an iota of compassion or consideration.
Baltimore, with no other alternative, makes its official Canadian Football League debut in the glorious facility known as SkyDome, considered the finest and most revolutionary stadium on the North American continent. It will encounter one of the oldest franchises in all of sports, a club that dates its origin to 1873 and carries the name Argonauts, which it took from Greek mythology, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece.
When the Baltimore Colts were pilfered away in 1984 for a place called Indianapolis, it meant a franchise that had been in business for 35 years was left with no recourse. It applied for an expansion club but the NFL rejected the effort.
Enter an entreprenuer, one Jim Speros, who joined up with the Canadian Football League and put a franchise in Baltimore. The official league opener is being played with Toronto and 17 more games will comprise the regular season that ends Nov. 5, with the championship, known as the Grey Cup, staged Nov. 27 in Vancouver.
A Baltimore team thus makes its fourth start in a new league. First it was the All-America Conference in 1947, then the NFL in 1950, then a return after a two-year hiatus and the short-lived U.S. Football League experiment in 1985.
Baltimore, despite being told it can't use the name Colts, unless a higher court reverses the decision, is playing without any other identification. But, temporarily, at least, that's how it has to be.
One Toronto newspaper, the Globe and Mail, to be flippant, referred to the Baltimore club as the "Thingamajigs." Did you ever think it could come to that? Thanks again, NFL.
The Argonauts, which first started as a Toronto rowing club well over 100 years ago, decided to turn to football to keep the oarsmen in shape. It has been the most successful of all CFL teams, winning 12 titles (seven of them before the Colts were even born).
Last year was a dismal experience for the Argos, as they're called for headline purposes. The team won 3, lost 15 and was sold by Bruce McNall, John Candy (the actor who has since died) and hockey player Wayne Gretzky to Labatt Communications, Inc., which owns The Sports Network, Canada's only all-sports television company.
It was here in SkyDome, last October, where Speros saw the Argonauts beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and decided he was going to try to get a CFL franchise for Baltimore. He accomplished it, mostly on his nerve. How does Speros feel as he awaits his first official kickoff as an owner?
"It's like anticipating your first Christmas," he said. "I never played quarterback but the role of an owner is comparable to that. You're involved with the entire operation."
Speros feels the Baltimore home opener, against the Calgary Stampeders on July 16 at Memorial Stadium, will draw between 38,000 and 40,000. But it could be better than that and Speros admits, for once, he's being conservative in his guess.
How good is the CFL? It doesn't rate with the NFL, which everybody knows. Ticket prices for tonight are listed at $10, $18, $27, $40 and $45 with a turnout of between 20,000 and 30,000 forecast. The Argonauts had only 12,000 on June 28 against the Shreveport Pirates, an expansion club they waffled, 24-1.
The CFL is appealing to watch but the NFL, of course, has far more exposure, even in Canada, thanks to television. A freelance cameraman, Willie Lypko, who was raised in nearby Hamilton, was asked for an evaluation of the CFL.
"You have to take it for what it is," he said. "It's fun to watch. But just like Canadian college football and the college game in the states, the CFL doesn't rate with the NFL.
"This is a major market, meaning Toronto, and more people are oriented to the NFL. Now if you go out to the prairies, like in Alberta and Saskatchewan, they may not feel that way. But around Toronto and the eastern provinces we're oriented to the U.S. and what's going on there."
The Baltimore CFLers are embarking on a new mission. They are a part of history. Enjoy the ride, Baltimore, because you're overdue for a good time with a football team you can call your own.