For the guys at Club 4100 in South Baltimore, pining for the return of the NFL used to be a staple of conversation, right up there with Korean War service and the future of Social Security.
But now that the city is back in the league, some of the guys, who thrilled to the acrobatics of Raymond Berry, can't quite connect with the team wearing the unfamiliar purple-and-black uniforms.
"I can't put my finger on it. We've all talked about it and we can't get enthused," said Michael Cox.
Cox, who attended the very first Colts game in 1947, gathers with many of his childhood chums the first Wednesday of the month at Club 4100 in Brooklyn, a restaurant/bar where Johnny Unitas is immortalized in a framed portrait.
The Ravens are, by most objective measurements, a success. The team has sold out all of its home games this season. An average of nearly 60,000 fans has packed Memorial Stadium for each game, with about 4,500 no-shows each Sunday. That's still better than the Colts did in their first, or final, year.
And the fans who turn out are pumped up, just like the old days, except they are wearing black beaks instead of No. 19.
But across the region, some of the die-hard footballers are learning a fundamental truth: You can't go home again. The Ravens may be a team with plenty of talent and a strong future.
But it's just not the same.
A guy named Vinny is standing in for Johnny. A garish, purple-and-black winged logo has replaced the familiar bucking bronco. And the championships aren't a matter of distant memory, but of a hopeful future.
There are some more pragmatic reasons too, like a record of 4-11. Or a requirement that fans buy permanent seat licenses that average $1,100 before they can buy a $400 season ticket. And there are the multimillion-dollar-a-year salaries, which are alien to fans once accustomed to seeing their heroes clipping coupons at the neighborhood grocer.
And the fact that the franchise belonged to another city certainly complicated the equation.
"It's hard to replace something that you rooted for for years and years," said Bill Snyder, a retired contractor and Club 4100 denizen.
The players seem wealthier, less inclined to play hurt, and less connected with the community, he said. "It's just not the same type of game," he said.
Retired stevedore and machinist Walter Henderson, however, said he doesn't think it's fair of his Club 4100 friends to compare the new franchise with the old. He is enthusiastic about the team.
"It's too soon to tell. You have to give them a chance. They didn't have a great year. But I like rooting for my own team," said Henderson, who once tried out for the Philadelphia Eagles. "I think time will make it better."
It's not just the senior fans who are having a hard time getting into the team. John Pica, the retiring state senator from Baltimore who fought for the stadium funding that attracted the Ravens, bought a dozen season tickets. But he hasn't been motivated to go to many games and has a hard time finding people who are, he said.
"I don't think anyone will doubt my loyalty to football. But it was a loyalty to simplicity and to winning. This logo looks like it came off a pinball machine," said Pica, who recently has rejoined the law firm of Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
"I just can't get into them," Pica said.
Local TV ratings have been respectable, but underwhelming. Ticket brokers report a plentiful supply of Ravens tickets on the resale market, and the prices don't compare with, say, a Redskins game at RFK Stadium.
"It wasn't a huge ticket, but it was a good ticket," Marc bTC Matthews, of the Washington-area Ticket Brokers Association, said of the Ravens. "People wanted to get to the games, but they didn't want to pay a lot to go."
Nationwide, sales of Ravens merchandise is ranked in the middle of the league's 30 teams, down with the Rams and Redskins.
"We're still seeing the Ravens as a strong local team, a strong regional team, but they have yet to develop a national footprint -- one that would break into the top 10," said NFL Properties spokesman Chris Widmaier.
It takes time for a franchise to capture the heart of its city, even a city that yearned for a team for as long as Baltimore.
The original Colts were slow to get off the ground. The team's first season drew an average of 14,261 fans to each home game. Control of the money-losing franchise was passed around for a few years until, in 1951, with attendance under 16,000 a game, the franchise folded.
The Colts were reborn in 1953 with a new owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, and soon were on their way to championships and history. Between 1964 and 1970 the team sold out every home game, a record at the time.
The enthusiasm died down under the ownership of Bob Irsay, however. The team's final season, 1983, saw an average of less than 42,000 fans at the home games.
"It's definitely a different crowd now," said John Ziemann, director of the storied Baltimore Colts' Band, which kept the embers warm during the city's 12-season football winter. The band will be renamed the Ravens Band at the end of next season.
"In the old days people were into cheers and everything. Now it's more of a rock crowd. Everyone dances. You've got to move with the times," Ziemann said.
Still, he wouldn't trade it for anything.
"Win or lose, they are my Ravens. I can finally relate to the NFL again," he said.
Pub Date: 12/22/96