Baltimore Storage has been a fixture in town for more than a century, sited at Charles and 26th streets since 1923, and in his two dozen years there, President Jay Hott has done just about every kind of job.
But the most recognizable moment in the history of the company, which is a local agent for Mayflower Transit Co., and in Hott's career, is best summarized in a message scrawled on the side of a toy truck on display in his office: "We didn't know!"
On March 29, 1984, Hott, then 23, was a warehouse manager for the Baltimore Mayflower moving company, rising at the crack of dawn for work one icy morning when a friend "shoved a newspaper in my face." The news - and the photo of moving vans leaving the Baltimore Colts' training facility in Owings Mills under the cover of darkness and falling snow - "shocked me, and all of us, more than it did anybody," he says, his voice quavering despite the passage of nearly 23 years.
The city's beloved football team had left town for good, their gear stuffed in trucks emblazoned with the parent company's name: Mayflower.
If Hott still sounds more defensive than a beaten cornerback remembering that morning, it's not because Baltimore Storage Co. had anything to do with the move. Like a McDonald's restaurant, it's a locally owned franchise, one that uses the parent company's equipment, products and logo but operates on its own.
"At the time, Mayflower headquarters owned a company store in Alexandria, Va.," he says. "The whole operation was carried out there, with their people. It was top secret. We weren't told. We didn't know a thing about it."
That was by design.
Mayflower's national office decided to carry out the operation as if it were a clandestine military raid, leaving local agents out of the planning.
Haydon Hapak, president of Hogan Transfer and Storage in Indianapolis, worked for Mayflower's national headquarters at the time and was tasked with locating trucks along the East Coast that could gather in Alexandria for the mission the night of March 28.
Bosses told him explicitly to exclude the likes of Hott, Hapak told the Indianapolis Star this week. "When I was looking around for trucks, I was told, 'Don't contact our agents in Baltimore,'" he said. "We didn't want to risk it."
The next day in Baltimore - and for years afterward - a community spurned brandished its figurative pitchforks.
"I don't blame the fans for being upset," Hott says with a nervous laugh. "But man, that day started out bad, and it went downhill from there - people calling in, yelling all kinds of things, making bomb threats. It wasn't a good time to explain what really happened."
It took years for the hostility to abate. A decade afterward, Hott still had to explain to potential customers that, despite the Mayflower logo on his hat and his trucks, his only guilt was by association.
"You're the guys that moved the Colts," they'd say. "How can you look yourself in the mirror?"
The controversy did not hurt business much, according to company records. Hott and co-workers still hear a gibe occasionally - mostly in jest and mostly from older customers.
Carl Walter, vice president of UniGroup Inc., Mayflower's parent company, says from his St. Louis-area office that for a decade or so, Mayflower's drivers took verbal flak when they worked jobs near Baltimore, but that nowadays the episode feels like a fairly distant concern.
"All the interest in the news and on blogs this week tells you it still matters to a lot of folks, but to tell you the truth, we're a few states away, and a lot of time has passed," he says. "I've just come to see it as a colorful part of the folklore of our company."
Perhaps it helped Hott gain perspective by deciding where his loyalties lie. He has Ravens season tickets and yells himself hoarse at most home games. His basement is crammed with pennants, helmets and footballs signed by the team's stars. He even has stuff autographed by former Colts John Mackey and Tom Matte - not that he ever let on who he worked for as they signed his memorabilia.
He'll be there for the Ravens game against the Colts today, in Section 146, rooting for a Baltimore blowout.
"The people who are going to let things go have let them go by now," he says. "It's history. Time does heal a lot of things."