KONA, Hawaii -- Herbert J. Belgrad is trying not to become too optimistic this week.
That's because he still remembers the frustrating experience three years ago, when he thought Baltimore might get the Cardinals and they wound up in Phoenix.
"I'm careful, because I don't want to work up enthusiasm or expectations at home, as we did once before with the Cardinals," he said yesterday.
But the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority was having difficulty containing his optimism at the National Football League's annual March meeting.
Even the rainy, chilly weather couldn't dampen the good spirits of Belgrad, who will leave today without getting a chance to see much sun all week.
Belgrad, who's attending his fourth March meeting, called it "the best meeting yet" for Baltimore's expansion franchise effort.
"There's name recognition and face recognition across the board. People know us as the Baltimore group. It's taken four years to achieve. The bottom line is that, for the first time since we've been making the effort, I feel that it paid off. We used to joke about the fact that people came to see us because of our crab cakes. But there are no crab cakes," Belgrad said.
Because commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked the potential expansion cities not to open hospitality rooms, Baltimore didn't serve crab cakes this year. But the three members of the Baltimore delegation -- Belgrad, Henry Butta and David Julian -- got warm receptions from the owners.
"People will say [to them]: 'Baltimore is entitled to a franchise. Baltimore has earned a franchise, and we're with you.' That's not vote, but those kinds of comments are not being solicited. Those are spontaneous comments that are coming from a number of owners," Belgrad said.
Belgrad said he hasn't asked for any votes and doesn't feel he has any firm commitments, with the possible exception of Robert Tisch, the New York businessman who was interested in owning a Baltimore franchise before he bought half of the New York Giants.
"He's shifted from an outsider to an insider, and he's indicated he hasn't changed his views toward Baltimore at all. This is the first time we've had somebody in the ownership ranks who's personally committed to work for our expansion efforts," he said.
Belgrad said he was asked by several owners about the impact of Tisch's purchase on Baltimore's expansion hopes.
"Nobody came to the conclusion that Tisch buying the Giants was a negative [for Baltimore]. They just asked if it was going to make a difference," he said.
Belgrad said he is hoping that at the May meeting in Minneapolis, the owners will set up the mechanics for expansion.
He said he won't be too concerned if the owners put the expansion teams on the field in 1994 instead of 1993. He'd just like a long lead time to work on the proposed new stadium.
Belgrad is putting all his effort in getting an expansion team now. He said he doesn't think there'll be much enthusiasm in continuing if Baltimore is bypassed this time.
"I just think this is it for the NFL in our community. If we're not good enough to be selected at this point after we got the legislation and funding for a stadium firm and in place, I'm just not sure," he said.
Butta said: "If we're not selected in this go-around, I think the public support will cease and so will the legislative and government support. We've been going on eight years, and I think the community is saying this is it."
"The impetus and real strength behind the effort has been Governor Schaefer [in his last term]. There's no saying the next governor is going to have the commitment. I'm talking about the personal commitment. Governor Schaefer's is not a political commitment. It's a personal, deep-felt commitment. I feel if there's one thing he'd like to deliver to the fans before he leaves office, it's the return of NFL football. That would make up for a lot of reverses," Belgrad said.
* The expansion and realignment committee will probably meet in April in New York to review an internal report being compiled by the league office.
* At the May meeting in Minneapolis, all of the owners will review the internal report.
* The owners will have to decide whether to expand by two teams in 1993 or delay it.
* If the owners decide to go ahead, they will get written reports from the cities. The cities also will make presentations.
* If they expand for 1993, they probably will name the teams at the end of this year or by March 1992.
* Once the two cities are selected, the owners will decide which groups will be named owners of the new teams.