A last love-in for team, fans out of past


An hour after the game, the lobby at Memorial Stadium was packed. Fans and players, relatives and friends, huddling together in Baltimore for probably the last time, celebrating the Stallions' return to the Grey Cup.

One by one, the players emerged from the locker room -- Baylis, Armstrong, Ham, Pringle. Kids jumped up and down in excitement. Stars and scrubs, they all stopped to sign autographs, to chat, to mingle.

"Thanks for coming out," slotback Gerald Alphin told one fan.

Defensive end Grant Carter, standing a few feet away, signed a boy's jacket.

"Hey, Grant, you're going get that little boy's butt whipped, writing on his clothes!" hollered his roommate, offensive lineman Robert Davis.

It was a scene out of 1955, not 1995. It evoked the community's long, lost relationship with the Colts. And, in all likelihood, it was a farewell.

"Hopefully, we can win the Cup in Regina, and then they can call us and tell us where to show up next year," Carter said, laughing.

Carter isn't happy with the prospect; none of the Stallions are. They love their fans as much as the fans love them. Their bond represents everything that is right about sports, even if the 'C' in CFL stands for Crumbling.

"I would love to sit here and play for these 25,000 fans for the rest of my career," offensive tackle Shar Pourdanesh said.

It's football in a time warp.

No luxury boxes. No club seating. No permanent seat licenses.

No guilt.

You can reach out and touch the Stallions. The same won't be true with the NFL Browns. Which isn't to say the CFL is preferable. But this team was a reflection of one Baltimore. That team will be a reflection of another.

What can be more grass-roots than fans signing petitions to keep their team? The Stallions' fans did that yesterday as they entered the stadium. The crowd was announced at 30,217, but that figure seemed preposterously high, unless owner Jim Speros was using the Canadian exchange rate.

The petitions, distributed by the Stallions' booster club, the Special Teamers, said the fans "want an affordable alternative to NFL football games." Presumably, the Special Teamers will present them to Mayor Schmoke and Gov. Parris Glendening, a symbolic gesture if nothing more.

"Thanks Stallions, it's been fun," said one banner that hung from the upper deck yesterday.

"Stay," another said, simply.

They're not going to stay. Speros wants a guarantee of 20,000 ticket sales per game. The state is giving Art Modell a $200 million stadium, and maybe helping Jack Kent Cooke build another. What Speros really wants is a nice little check to compensate him for the money he put into Memorial Stadium, and he'll be on his way.

The sad part is, this is a wonderful team, a team that never gets fully appreciated because of the ridiculous league in which it plays. CFL commissioner Larry Smith this week mused about a return "to our Canadian roots." In other words, he's ready to ditch the American operation.

"You wanted a close game," a Stallions official groused to Smith on the sidelines when San Antonio scored a touchdown to make it 21-11 with 2:11 remaining.

"Got to keep the ratings up!" Smith replied, as if he was Pete Rozelle.

The ratings?

Easy there, Larry.

The game was only on Canadian television.

Indeed, it was a ridiculous thing, hearing the fans at a game between Baltimore and San Antonio exhorted to cheer so they could be heard "live across Canada."

Smith will get his.

This is Baltimore, land of revenge.

The Stallions, jobbed by the referees in last year's Grey Cup final, will pound Calgary so unmercifully, Quebec will wish it had seceded from Canada.

Yesterday's victory was the Stallions' 12th straight. The last time they lost was Aug. 12, back when the Orioles were collapsing in Boston. They're now 17-3 on the season, and 31-10 in their two years in Baltimore.

The news of a potential move didn't stop them.

Nothing does.

"We addressed that on Monday," coach Don Matthews said. "The Browns had said last week that they felt they were distracted. We said, 'If you allow yourselves to be distracted, you're giving yourselves an excuse to fail.' "

The Stallions would have none of it.

"Hey, the bureaucrats are going to do what they're going to do," Jearld Baylis said. "If they want to bring in a loser and leave out a champion, that's their prerogative."

These are working men, not millionaires. They're accustomed to the usual detours of life.

Neal Fort, the offensive tackle with the beer-guzzling fan's body, worked at Home Depot in the off-season.

"This is what the city of Baltimore is to me -- old steelworkers, old blue-collar workers, people who can afford to see our games," he said.

People the NFL doesn't want, cheering players the NFL doesn't want. Is it any wonder the fans are so fanatically loyal? Or that the players are so deeply appreciative?

When the final gun sounded, Baylis, Carter, rush end Elfrid Payton and wide receiver Shannon Culver raced over to the stands and shook hands with fans in the front row. Baylis and Culver later climbed on top of the first-base dugout to mingle with the crowd some more.

"They make our players feel very, very special," Matthews said. "Our job now is to show them how much we appreciate it by bringing the Cup back, and making them feel special."

Not to worry, their mission already is accomplished. As the celebration began and the late afternoon sun faded, one fan held a sign conveying the sentiments of thousands.

"Thank you," it said.

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