There was a wake disguised as a CFL playoff game yesterday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
The chilling winds were appropriate on a day when the Stallions were getting blown out of town.
They won their 11th straight game to advance to their conference championship game, but the event was diminished, to say the least, by the news of Baltimore's expected return to the NFL tomorrow.
Minutes before kickoff, owner Jim Speros stood on the field with the Colt band blaring behind him and said with a wry smile, "Maybe I should move to Cleveland. They have 72,000 fans who need a team there."
Speros will move the team somewhere, that's for sure, if the Browns come to town.
"Maybe Miami, maybe Portland [Ore.], maybe Los Angeles," Speros said as his team warmed up.
"He better not go there," said Duane Meekins, a Stallions season-ticket holder. "With him coming from Baltimore, they'll put a gun to his head."
Laughter, tears, it was all there yesterday. No one knew how to act or what to say. It was a great day for Baltimore and a terrible day for the Stallions. The city's die-hard fans were thrilled at getting a team back after 11 years, but, in many cases, almost embarrassed at having stolen one as established as the Browns.
Only in the Stallions' locker room was there no wavering of emotions.
"We're trying to win the Grey Cup right now," running back Mike Pringle said after the game. "I'll run just as hard regardless if the Browns show up today or don't come at all. That's not our business, really."
But it is their business, of course, because it means they'll leave town.
"I have very mixed emotions," said Rick Walston, a Stallions fan sitting in the loge level.
It wasn't hard to tell. He joined the chorus of a defiant "C-F-L" chant that briefly erupted in the stands before kickoff, then confessed that he would have no problem switching allegiances.
"I had a lot of fun with [the Stallions], but I love the NFL," he said. "I like Speros. It's been nice watching a championship-caliber team. I'll be sorry to see them go. But the NFL is great. I'm still mad at Irsay and Tagliabue, but I'll support a Baltimore team."
If there was a surprise yesterday, that was it. The stadium has been a bastion of anti-NFL sentiment for two years, but few fans said they would go down with the ship. The atmosphere was flat yesterday. It was almost as if the lawsuit over the Colts nickname had never happened.
"There are a lot of things the NFL did that I'll never forget, but you can't stay mad forever," Meekins said. "I was down [about the Stallions' future] when I came out here today. But I'm excited about the Browns coming. I just hope I can get tickets. It was no problem here [at Stallions games]."
That's for sure. Although the Stallions have drawn well by CFL standards, the level of interest they generated was always debatable. They drew 21,040 yesterday, the smallest crowd in their history.
"We did a lot of things right," Speros said, already speaking in the past tense. "The only thing we couldn't do is change the letters from CFL to NFL."
Looking at the sea of empty seats before kickoff, he shook his head and turned skeptical.
"Personally, I don't think you're going to see 72,000 people pay an average of $38.50 eight times a year," he said. "I believe more like 55,000 will come out. That's the size of the core of football fans in this town."
It was the sound of an owner with one foot already out of town, an owner resigned to ripping his city. In his defense, he was speaking mostly out of frustration.
"The reason I came here in the first place is I thought it would be at least another 10 or 12 years before the NFL came back," he said. "Not until 48 hours ago did I see this as an option. I'm still trying to build an organization. But I do know now that [the Browns' arrival] is a reality and we better start talking about an exit plan. It isn't just stunning; it's earth-shattering."
Meanwhile, as the freezing wind coursed through the rows and rows of empty seats that the Browns probably will fill next year, fans tried to reconcile their football pasts and futures, caught squarely in the middle of the economics lesson that professional sports has become.
"It's going to take me awhile to get over what the NFL did to us," said Greg Stupi, a fan from Aberdeen. "Personally, I'd rather follow the Stallions. But if the NFL really is coming back, I'm sure we'll get into it. If the Colts come to town for a game, I won't ## know whether to cheer or cry."