"Big, Bad and Blue. Not Brown."
That was the slogan on the sign carried by Judy Huntley as she entered Memorial Stadium before yesterday's CFL playoff game between the Stallions and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and it seemed to be the sentiment shared by many Stallions fans concerning the possible move of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore.
"Having football to watch with the Stallions has been great," said Huntley, a Stallions season-ticket holder who has traveled to Calgary and Hamilton to watch her favorite team. "I'm crushed that [Stallions owner Jim] Speros will have to move. I'm disappointed that the city and media didn't support them better."
Huntley, who also had a sign that said "Modell = Irsay," has a unique perspective on the situation. She moved from Cleveland to Baltimore 11 years ago, arriving as the Colts were leaving.
"I can really sympathize with the Cleveland fans," she said. "I didn't go through the Baltimore move to Indianapolis, but I saw the impact it had on the Baltimore fans. I've called the family a lot in Cleveland this week, and their motto is, 'Let them go.' "
Pat Geiger of Darlington also entered the stadium with a variety of anti-NFL, pro-CFL placards.
"We're very disappointed and disillusioned. I don't think anyone's been at all fair to Jim Speros," Geiger said. "He's brought a good product here. He's done everything he could for the fans, and we feel like we've been sold out. I wouldn't go to an NFL game if they paid me. Never ever."
Joe Blinke, a Baltimore Colts season-ticket holder for 22 years, also praised Speros' efforts.
"This owner knows how to operate a team," said Blinke, 45. "He knows that fans are their lifeblood, and he works to get the fans in this town. No NFL owner has ever done that."
Vernon Wallace of Baltimore took his loyalty to Speros a step further.
"We've been talking about taking road trips to Virginia or wherever Speros moves the team," Wallace said. "We're going to follow. The man gave us something and I think he deserves a chance.
"He gave us ticket prices that families can appreciate and afford. We're being sold out so some big-name people can make money."
Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier, who works for the Stallions and strolls the sidelines urging the crowd to spell out various cheers, said he will not be spelling out B-R-O-W-N-S.
"I won't be leading Browns cheers," said Burrier, who led the C-O-L-T-S cheer in the 1970s. "I wouldn't come to a Browns game if they paid me to come, and the people of Baltimore aren't going to be able to afford to come to a Browns game.
"The NFL has played Baltimore for a patsy since our Baltimore Colts left. And they're still playing us for a patsy."
There were some Stallions fans willing to embrace the NFL.
John Weisengoff said: "The proof is in the numbers here today [the crowd of 21,040, lowest in the team's two-year history]. If there's such a great loyal following for the Stallions, there should be 60,000 people here, knowing they could be leaving.
"And who would you rather watch play -- Reggie Slack or Troy Aikman?" With the Browns apparently poised to return Baltimore to the NFL, the Stallions players have been challenged like never before to maintain their focus.
Baltimore owner Speros said he will move the Stallions if the NFL comes to town. The talk in Baltimore's locker room after yesterday's victory ranged from gallows humor to stark realism.
"Hey, when does the [Stallions] dispersal draft begin?" offensive lineman John Earle said.
"We certainly can't compete with the NFL, and we've never tried to do that," quarterback Tracy Ham said. "I don't think the talk [of the Browns move] is bad. . . . It's the timing of the talking, from a box-office standpoint. Hey, we're opening the playoffs."
Linebacker O. J. Brigance said: "Whether it happens or not, we still have the opportunity to win the Grey Cup. All we can control is how we do the rest of the way. While we're still the Baltimore Stallions, we have to play the best football we can play."
Even though she was dressed warmly in a winter coat and gloves, Michelle Beasley, 30, was shivering in the shady mezzanine section of Memorial Stadium as she watched the Stallions game. She became a football fan while studying at the University of Virginia and said she would be delighted to see an NFL franchise come to Baltimore. But already before a NFL team has arrived, she's worrying about it moving on.
"I'd love to have the Browns," she said. "But the sad thing about sports nowadays is it's just about who has the best deal, who has the most money. Sure, there's a great deal of concern that they'll pack up and move after they get here to a stronger, more sports-oriented state."
Entering a different era
Baltimore may embrace the Browns, said Colts Hall of Famer John Unitas, but it won't be the same as when the Colts were here.
"It was a different era," Unitas said.
Unitas even seemed resigned to the idea that someday Baltimore fans might forget the Colts.
"Everything changes," he said. "Most of those people [Baltimore Colts fans] are dying off pretty soon. The young people only know about the NFL teams of today."
However, one of Unitas' former teammates, Tom Matte, said those memories never will die.
"That's a tradition that will always be remembered by the people of Baltimore," he said. "It will never be forgotten."
As for the Browns, Matte said: "I have real mixed emotions. First of all, I grew up in Cleveland. They were my heroes when I was growing up as a kid. Losing the Browns would be a tragedy to the city."
Matte, a Stallions vice president, expressed regret that the CFL team could be leaving town.
"I just feel very badly for all the [Stallions] ballplayers," he said. "Not to be endorsed by the city, the state, the stadium authority. It's a shame."