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Stallions get fun start for their uphill fight


"Got another name?" the concession worker cried, laughing as he dragged a sausage cart through the lower deck. "How many names does this team have?"

Four at last check, but who's counting?

Not the fans.

They wore their Colts T-shirts, their Baltimore Football Club T-shirts and their Grey Cup T-shirts.

They lined up at the ticket windows, rushed the concession stands and spelled S-T-A-L-L-I-O-N-S without incident.

Score one for the city that reads.

For those who must know, Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier also led the C-O-L-T-S cheer, ensuring that the republic would not crumble.

Yes, the Eastern Division champion Stallions returned to Baltimore last night, and their hard-core fans were in full roar during the team's 50-24 victory over San Antonio.

The crowd of 31,016 at Memorial Stadium was the smallest in the team's two-year history, but only by 156. No matter what obstacles this team might face, last night was an encouraging start.

A half hour before the game, vice president of business operations E. J. Narcise said the crowd would be between 26,000 and 28,000. No one expected the walk-up to be so large.

How many tickets were given away? Owner Jim Speros said the number was approximately 2,000, including 1,200 to charities. Last year, it often was 7,000.

Clearly, Speros can take comfort in the fan base he established last season, the 20,000 or so who bleed blue and white, and can actually name three players on his team.

Betty Loomis, 66, wore a T-shirt that said, "To hell with the NFL, Baltimore is Colt Country."

"That's the truth," she said.

Betty carried a Baltimore Colts satchel that dated to the late 1970s. She and her husband, Bob, attended Colts games for 25 years, and can even remember going to All-America Football Conference games from 1947 to '49.

Do they like the CFL?

"Not particularly," Bob said.

"Yes," Betty replied.

It is like this all over Baltimore. Some people just want to see football. Others believe the CFL can never fill the void created by the Colts' departure.

Whatever, the ticket windows were busy all day. Fans stood five deep at 6:45, 45 minutes before game time, and 10 deep at 7.

Once again, the crowd was far more racially mixed, and far more representative of Baltimore, than crowds at lily-white Camden Yards.

Lemuel Aulton, a Baltimore County police officer, scanned the fans gathering in the parking lot.

"It's catching on," said Aulton, who attended the game with his wife, Yolanda, and 10-year-old daughter, Alecia.

"Plus, they've got a name now," he added, chuckling. "That helps."

Two others buying tickets, David Burgess and Coleman Hill, were attending their first CFL game.

"We live right down the street," Hill said. "We just walked down."

These are the people the Stallions must hook.

Their existing fans can't get enough.

The team sold souvenirs at a 20 percent discount last night, and stands all over the stadium quickly sold out of the white Stallions caps that list for $18.

"They're going out of here like crazy," said merchandise manager Jason Friedman, who predicted he would sell 300 to 400 caps at the team's lobby store by the time the night was over.

Three different Stallions T-shirts were available -- one showed the team's horse logo coming out of the American flag, another proclaimed, "This horse has a name."

Of course, the team wasn't above selling its old Baltimore Football Club shirts, just in case anyone wanted to relive a glorious past that lasted all of one game.

The defunct AHL Skipjacks attracted this kind of rabid following, and so do the indoor soccer and lacrosse teams, though on much smaller scales.

It's a cult following.

It's not enough.

"We've got our work cut out for us," Narcise said. "This is a three-to-five year project. We know what we've got to do."

For starters, they've got to win. The average attendance would not have been 37,348 last year if the team was a dud. And an 0-2 rTC start this season would have been near-disastrous.

It didn't happen. The Stallions built a 27-10 lead by halftime.The atmosphere was similar to last year -- hokey, yet passionate, frivolous but fun.

Midway through the first quarter, a white stretch limousine rolled behind the Stallions' bench. Several cheerleaders hopped out, followed by the Stallions' new mascot.

No, he doesn't have a name.

Another identity crisis.

Joe Smith was there. Speros presented him with a new Stallions No. 32 jersey at halftime, and Smith gave him a red Maryland No. 32 jersey in return.

Gee, wonder which is worth more?

There were the usual pregame fireworks, and the Baltimore Colts Marching Band. The new Diamond Vison scoreboard worked. And the increased corporate presence was obvious -- Narcise said stadium signage was up 30 percent.

Big Wheel brought out a sidekick named Hub Cap, who held a hand-made sign that said, "Baltimore Colts, thanks for the memories." They led the new cheer. They led the old cheer.

Fifteen minutes after the game, the fans were still chanting C-O-L-T-S outside the stadium. They never stop, these people.They won't let football in this town die.

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