OAKLAND, Calif. -- On June 23, 1995, Al Davis was a hero again in Oakland. That was the day the enigmatic Raiders owner signed a letter of intent to bring the Raiders home, the day he ended a 13-year fling with Los Angeles and remarried Oakland. The celebration was epic. The Silver and Black were back.
But as the Raiders open their second season as Oakland's team against the Ravens at Memorial Stadium on Sunday, it appears this second honeymoon is over. The return has been met with surprising apathy. Approximately 20,000 personal seat licenses -- good for 10 years -- remain unsold. The San Francisco 49ers, who have sold out every game for 15 years, dominate the local scene.
Yes, the Raiders are back in Oakland. But they are a team led by Davis, whose image as a football genius is crumbling. They're a team that lost its final six games last season and could be hampered this season by injuries and the shocking resignation Aug. 17 of defensive coordinator John Fox. They're a team that has struggled to command respect, both around the league and in Oakland.
That Silver and Black mystique is gone.
"Everyone knew the old Raiders were the dominant team in the NFL," said Raiders guard Kevin Gogan, who grew up across the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. "Obviously, we'd like to take that attitude on the field with us. But we haven't been able to."
"Their presence beat a whole lot of teams," Raiders defensive end Aundray Bruce said. "We're not there yet."
It's a tough act to follow. Davis built a formidable and colorful empire, one that won two Super Bowls while in Oakland. His team pounded opponents on Sunday afternoon and partied to (( the wee hours of Monday morning with their fans.
"It was very much that way," said Daryle Lamonica, Raiders quarterback from 1967-74. "Remember, the salaries weren't like they are now, so we went out, number one, to get a free meal and, number two, to be part of the community. We'd go have a few drinks with the fans and they got to know us as people, not just numbers on a uniform."
The original Raiders are a stark contrast to today's team. Those Raiders appeared in three Super Bowls and 10 AFC title games in 14 years. These Raiders have missed the playoffs three of the past four seasons.
Those Raiders had Al Davis, who had a reputation for collecting talent and was "easy to play for," said former Raiders tight end Dave Casper. These Raiders also have Al Davis, but his image now is one of a greedy recluse whose sense for football has waned.
"Al's taken the credit for winning," said Casper, a Raider from 1974-80 and again in 1984. "He's got to take the blame for losing."
Davis, who was unavailable for comment, is at least partly responsible for the loss of rapport with fans, which took its biggest hit when he moved the team to hated Los Angeles. While the Raiders were gone, the 49ers dominated the NFL and converted many jilted Raiders fans.
Some came back when the Raiders returned.
"The hard-core fans that have always wanted us to come home have stayed with us," said Raiders coach Mike White. But many others have stayed away, mainly because of the high cost of personal seat licenses.
PSLs were unleashed on Oakland's blue-collar community shortly after the return. Raiders fans pay up to $4,000 to the Oakland Football Marketing Association, an agency independent from the Raiders, for the right to buy a ticket. The money goes to public agencies and helps finance the Raiders' return deal.
Despite the steep price, OFMA expected to sell out. Newspaper ads called a 1995 preseason game the last chance for fans without PSLs to see the Raiders for 10 years, but only 35,000 of about 55,000 PSLs have been sold for the 62,500-seat stadium. Don Perata, the highly paid consultant hired to sell tickets, recently quit, saying the OFMA was a "public relations disaster."
Taxpayers, originally promised no public money would fund the Raiders' return, might have to chip in as soon as next year. Some fans blame Davis and the Raiders, who received $22 million for the first round of PSL sales, for demanding too rich a return deal.
"What they are now is just another franchise," said Joe Debro, a lifelong Raiders fan who headed a group opposing the return deal.
Debro said the deal, in which public agencies paid $64 million to the Raiders up front, seemed like a ransom. Judging by the empty seats, many agree with him.
Davis has had other public relations nightmares since the return. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, he was portrayed as a destructive force whose abuses of power were ruining the Raiders.
Then, Fox's abrupt departure sparked speculation that Davis demanded his resignation. Raiders defensive tackle Chester McGlockton fumed the next day, "I'm sure Al had something to do with it." The Raiders said McGlockton was wrong.
Such controversy, coupled with last year's 8-8 season, hasn't helped the Raiders rebuild their mystique. But the team insists it will return.
The real mystique, said former and current players, will only return when Davis fields a winner.
"They've got to get good players, they've got to draft and take a long-term approach," said Casper, now an insurance salesman in Minnesota.
The Raiders looked mediocre in the preseason, going 2-3. While the additions of first-round draft choice Rickey Dudley at tight end and cornerback Larry Brown offer promise, the roster is loaded with potential disasters. New tackles Lincoln Kennedy and Charles McRae, former first-round draft choices, busted in Atlanta and Tampa Bay, respectively.
Starting quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who is 35, will miss Sunday's game with strained ligaments in his right knee. And since the offensive line has only one completely healthy tackle, Hostetler's health will be at risk once he returns. In the past three seasons, the Raiders are 1-5 without him.
Worse still, the Raiders have had trouble finding a reliable second receiver to complement Tim Brown. Rocket Ismail was )) traded last Sunday to Carolina and James Jett, a former sprinter, has a reputation for dropping passes.
White admits the offense needs fine-tuning. So does the Fox-less defense, which allowed 29.8 points per game while losing the final six games last year.
If one or both units falter again, Davis might want to think about moving back to L.A. He and the Raiders certainly can't live in the past anymore.
"We've got the past to build on," Gogan said. "But we've got to focus on the present. They built us a wonderful legacy. Now we have to build one of our own."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Oakland Raiders
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Site: Memorial Stadium
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Coming Tomorrow: Ravens Extra starts a 17-week run with a profile of safety Eric Turner.
Coming Saturday: NFL '96 features Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda, a position-by-position breakdown of the Ravens and a look at the league.
Pub Date: 8/29/96