Good riddance

Photos: Colts leave Baltimore
Browse photos of the Colts leaving Baltimore for Indianapolis in the middle of the night on March 29, 1984.

March 29, 1984, remains the most infamous day in Baltimore sports history. Ask longtime residents about it and they'll practically spit the words "Irsay" and "Mayflower."

As the moving trucks rolled out in the snow that morning, they carried away the blue-and-white Colts gear that had meant so much to Baltimoreans in the John Unitas era. Surely, that legacy had no place in Indianapolis. Worse still, the departure left city residents to confront their fears that Baltimore was a third-rate town.

With 25 years of perspective, however, it's possible to argue that March 29, 1984, was actually a good day for Baltimore sports. It allowed the city to cut ties with a desperately flawed franchise and a deeply unpopular owner. It spurred elected officials to get serious about plans that would keep the Orioles in Baltimore and attract a new NFL team. Those plans bore fruit in Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, beloved facilities that are now as intrinsic to downtown as the Inner Harbor. The Ravens arrived in 1996 and won a Super Bowl six years before the Colts brought Indianapolis its first Lombardi Trophy.

So, perhaps, crazy as it might sound, Bob Irsay did everyone a favor when he suddenly ordered his franchise packed into green, yellow and red trucks.

"It was very, very painful," says John Moag, who ultimately lured the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore as chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "But as painful as the result was, it was a good one for the city. It gave us Oriole Park at Camden Yards, because we were not going to make the same mistake with the Orioles as we did with the Colts."

The Colts' dissatisfaction at sharing a stadium with the Orioles also factored into the plans to build two stadiums instead of one.

"Without Irsay leaving, I doubt that we would have two stadiums," says former state Sen. Cathy Riley, who pushed for both while in Annapolis. "And without the second stadium, I don't think we would have a football team."

To understand why breaking up with Irsay was a blessing in disguise, it's important to remember how thoroughly Baltimore fans loathed the Colts owner. He was perceived as irascible, often drunk and disloyal to Unitas and other Colts heroes. The team became a laughingstock on the field, and attendance plummeted. Rumors of a franchise move swirled almost from the moment Irsay took over in 1972.

"How can you say we'll build a new stadium when he's selling players left and right, he's on the headset telling the coach what plays to call, he's drunk and cussing on live TV?" says John Ziemann, who kept the Baltimore Colts' Band together in the years after the team departed. "How can you have respect for someone like that? How can you have respect for a man who would take the greatest quarterback in world, John Unitas, and ship him to the worst team, in San Diego? How can you have any respect for a man who would go to any city in United States and say, 'You want my football team?' "

As rumors of a move intensified at the close of the 1983 season, fans showed their hatred for Irsay with signs and chants at the home finale, a win over the Houston Oilers.

"I do reflect, and ... it felt like it wasn't going to get any better," says offensive lineman Chris Hinton, a first-round draft pick that season. "It was sort of like a relationship. It was at the point where both parties needed to move on."

Safety Nesby Glasgow had played five seasons in Baltimore and says the city deserved some of the blame for the fracture.

"It's not like the community was supporting the team," Glasgow says. "You can say it was a lack of winning games or hatred of Bob Irsay. Didn't matter. If fans support the team, no way they let them leave. ... Fans would tell me the stadium was good enough for Johnny Unitas. That should tell you something."

The distaste for Irsay extended to the city and state leaders who were trying to keep the Colts in town.

"We lost the Colts, plain and simple, because the people in power could not stand Bob Irsay," Moag says. "He had no political capital, not even enough to get a $50 million loan for some renovations at Memorial Stadium."

Former Baltimore County Executive Don Hutchinson remembers his inability to steer Irsay toward a compromise during a secret meeting in Skokie, Ill. He walked out of the March 11 meeting believing the negotiations were beyond salvage.

The divorce went into high gear March 27 when the Maryland Senate passed a bill saying the state had "eminent domain," or the right to annex the Colts for the public good. The legislation needed approval from the House of Delegates and the governor, but Irsay did not wait for those shoes to drop.

On the afternoon of March 28, his son, Jim Irsay, gathered the team's coaches and ordered them to have all of the Colts' equipment and files ready for loading that evening. Word leaked out after the trucks showed up, but fans and elected officials could only watch in muted anguish as the process unfolded.

"Nausea," Moag says of his feeling upon hearing the news. "It's one of those few moments in life that you vividly remember. I remember the nightgown my wife was wearing, the pink color in the room. The next morning, people had their headlights on like someone had died."

Hutchinson woke up early and flipped on the Today show, where he got his first look at the shadowy images of trucks rolling away from the training complex. "It was surreal," he says. "I almost felt like I wanted to go back to bed. I didn't understand all the implications of it at that particular moment."

After a few days, the move felt "like a slap, like the world was telling us, 'You're not important enough.' "

No one felt more anguish than Baltimore's William Donald Schaefer, who had doggedly pursued an agreement with Irsay. But the heart-on-his-sleeve mayor was also among the first to see an opportunity in the mass sorrow. Above all, he wanted to make sure Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams would not follow Irsay out of town.

"While the rest of the town pulled out its hair and vilified Irsay, Schaefer was acting," Peter Richmond wrote in Ballpark , his book about the building of Camden Yards. "He saw, finally, a chance to get Williams his new stadium by appealing to the panicked climate in the city -- and with it, an opportunity to finally get Williams' signature on a long-term lease."

In 1985, Schaefer created a task force to study possible renovations at Memorial Stadium. A report from the architectural firm HOK concluded such renovations would be prohibitively expensive but listed Camden Yards as one of three ideal sites for a new baseball stadium. That idea had bobbed around since the 1960s, but the Colts' departure added urgency to the discussion.

"Without Irsay pulling the plug and leaving behind so much bitterness, I'm not sure it would have happened," Riley says of Camden Yards. "We weren't going to let the same thing happen again. Some of the public maybe didn't like it, but they understood."

Herbert Belgrad, who as the first chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority led the quest for Camden Yards, says agony over the Colts was the undercurrent to every meeting and conversation he had. Williams didn't have to threaten a move; the fear was already in every heart and mind.

"There's no question that the shock waves caused people to think about what we did wrong and about how to keep the Orioles from being on the next Mayflower," Belgrad says.

The Colts' gripes about sharing Memorial Stadium pushed Belgrad away from a multipurpose facility and toward the two-stadium concept. Camden Yards would never have become a trendsetter without that philosophical switch, he says.

The baseball park had long since emerged as an architectural and financial success when Moag took over the Stadium Authority in 1995 under a mandate to bring the NFL back. He began the job carrying the same bitterness as many Baltimoreans. But as Schaefer had with the baseball stadium, Moag saw opportunity in the wounds left by Irsay and by two failed expansion bids.

"We had a huge communal chip on our shoulder and a widespread cynicism and distrust regarding anything NFL," Moag says. "The benefit of that psychology was that I didn't have a lot of reporters and people from the community crawling all over me while I looked for a team. It allowed me to do the job quietly."

Moag had the deal with Art Modell essentially completed by the time the public got wind of it. Though some Baltimoreans expressed discomfort at doing to Cleveland what had been done to them, affection for the Ravens grew rapidly. Modell put down roots in the community, the team won a Super Bowl in its fifth season and, essentially, everyone has lived happily ever after.

"For those us who survived it, life is roses," Hutchinson says. "Everything we have today is better. I don't even think of the Colts anymore."

Except when the Indianapolis version comes to town, that is. When the Colts arrived for a divisional playoff game in 2007, Ravens fans unleashed an unprecedented level of vitriol. Many had not let go.

As clearly as policymakers see the benefits that flowed from Irsay's move, some can't keep the old anger from bubbling up.

"It still galls the hell out of me," Riley says. "Especially the fact that he took the name with him. I mean, I respect Peyton Manning's skills and the deference he has always given to Unitas. But I can't root for him. I can't possibly root for them. I don't care who they're playing."

Baltimore Sun reporters Ken Murray and Kevin Van Valkenburg contributed to this article

More on the move
David Steele: Hey, Baltimore, Jim Irsay's not the villain. And, Cleveland, leave Art Modell alone. PG 6

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