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Irsay's legacy: blackmail, bullying that taint sports

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first time Robert Irsay met William Donald Schaefer, he brought his priest and his accountant with him. Schaefer thought, I understand the accountant, but why the priest? Later, he found out. They were already performing the last rites over the Baltimore Colts.

Now someone will pronounce all the officially respectful words over Irsay, dead nearly 13 years after he committed the most infamous act in Baltimore sports history. But nobody's lighting candles around here. Irsay, dead at 73, is more unwelcome proof that the good die young.

Indianapolis can keep him now. And those slugs from the National Football League, searching for language to launder the true Irsay, should save their breath. The guy didn't just steal from Baltimore, he helped create a posture of bullying in pro sports that infects the entire culture. He destroyed the myth of the two-way love affair between a community and a team.

Irsay legitimized the role of blackmail in the life of modern sports. You want a ballclub now, you pay the Irsay price. All the years of fan support count for nothing since Irsay's odyssey. Ask those not only in Baltimore, but in St. Louis or Oakland or Los Angeles or Houston. Or in Cleveland.

A new stadium, the ballclub's owner says. We can't afford a new stadium, the leaders of the impoverished city reply, not with our schools, not with our exhausted cops, and with underpaid teachers and firefighters and mottled highways and decayed houses.

A new stadium, the ballclub's owner says again, appearing not to hear, and it's got to have luxury boxes and personal seat licenses and ticket prices to match the size of my ego.

Or else? the city leaders ask.

Or else, says the owner, I pull an Irsay.

Harry Hughes doesn't remember the first time he met Irsay, but he recalls all the times thereafter. "It was like you hadn't had the previous meeting," Hughes said yesterday. "You had to start all over. And you had to meet with him early, before his drinking started. God, I remember one meeting we had, where he came out and told reporters, 'Good meeting. No booze or broads.' I wrote a long, blistering letter to him, but then I stuck it away in a drawer."

Those who would soften the history of the Colts' departure could not have been in Baltimore 13 years ago. Some mention attendance figures in Irsay's final years here and hint that they justify his exodus. This is a denial of the full Irsay experience, which transcends numbers.

Soon after his arrival, the threats began, and then his trips to various cities to see how sweetly they might seduce him. The wooing was sometimes telecast back to Baltimore, surrealistic scenes in which Irsay, surrounded by suitors, showed us how little we mattered to him, how all the years of embracing this team counted for nothing.

Of course, we began staying away. You remove the heart and the games lose all meaning. Irsay thought he could bully a whole town, so the town turned its back on him. So he left.

And got away with it, partly because his fellow owners didn't know how to stop him and partly because, at some level of their psyches, they were thinking: Aha! A loophole!

So today we have NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue calling Irsay "a loyal and devoted member" of the league family, and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt calling him "an asset to the league."

Do they understand how they mark themselves as idiots with such language? Their league is awash in troubles today, and the Irsay mentality's at the heart of it: In the past 10 years, five franchises have moved from bigger to smaller markets. The smaller cities think football's a plus, even if they have to mortgage their souls.

But the TV networks hate it. Ratings are down on both networks carrying pro football, which means advertising dollars tremble, which means TV contracts have less value. Since players' salaries do not diminish, the difference has to be made up somewhere. Ticket hikes, anyone?

When Irsay arrived here, you could still pick up your season tickets on the 50 for about $12 a game. Yeah, inflation's everywhere. But who ever imagined personal seat licenses for $3,000, and $75 game tickets?

They're the legacy of Irsay, and of owners watching him and seeing how they could intimidate entire communities.

State Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller remembers. Yesterday, he recalled meeting with Irsay about stadium improvements. "It had to be in the morning," he said. "In the afternoon, after the drinking, you couldn't get a read on him."

And Del. John S. Arnick recalled, "I saw him in a pinochle game one night, not long before he left. He was drinking scotches, I think. He was jovial and nice, and then the cards went bad and the scotch got heavy. And the mood changed."

The other day, Peter O'Malley, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, announced he was selling the team. He's the son of Walter O'Malley, the other great villain of modern sports, who took the Dodgers out of Brooklyn.

When Peter O'Malley announced he was selling, the New York newspapers talked of Brooklyn's buying them back. Nice dream: The Dodgers go back to Brooklyn. Irsay's heirs realize the damage the old man did and offer to bring the Colts back here, freeing Art Modell to return to poor Cleveland, which is building a new ballpark.

We can dream, can't we? We can dream of a time before we'd heard of Robert Irsay, before we imagined a team called the Colts might leave town.

We can hear the news of Irsay's death and light a candle, or curse the darkness he brought to an entire community.

Pub Date: 1/16/97

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