Seven years after the Colts rolled out of town on a sleet-slickened interstate, Baltimore still is trying to gets its feet back on solid NFL ground.
The USFL Stars rushed to fill the void in 1985, but before they reached city limits their league folded. Bill Bidwill romanced the idea of a Harbor Dome in late 1987, then decided to move his St. Louis Cardinals to sun-drenched Arizona instead.
Now Baltimore figures to get its best -- and probably last -- chance at replacing the Colts. In the next 10 days, spread over two different meetings, the NFL will try to come to grips with the slippery issue of expansion.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who advocates adding two teams by 1993, will attempt to convince the seven-member expansion and realignment committee of the financial wisdom of expansion in a one-day meeting at the league's New York offices tomorrow. JTC The committee then will carry a confidential recommendation to Minneapolis for the league's two-day spring meetings, which begin the following Wednesday.
Raymond "Chip" Mason, a Baltimore businessman actively involved in the bid to replace the Colts, didn't want to hazard a guess yesterday on the outcome.
"I don't have the foggiest idea what will happen," said the chief executive officer of Legg Mason Inc., and the chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee's NFL expansion committee. "Until those meetings take place, it's very unclear."
What is clear, though, is that patience is beginning to grow thin, and the frustration level high, in those cities hopeful of gaining a team.
"I understand a lot of [league owners] don't want to expand," said Pepper Rodgers, spokesman for the Memphis effort, "but a lot of us are worn down by this thing.
"Just give us an answer. That's all I say."
Arthur "Chick" Sherrer, president of Jacksonville's expansion group, said any further delay "would make it very difficult to maintain enthusiasm over a period of time."
And in Baltimore, Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, points to the bottom line.
"We've expended a lot of money and time on marketing surveys and purchasing property for stadiums," Belgrad said. "It's very difficult to see how all that can be ignored."
Time is money and in seven years Baltimore has invested a lot of both. By rough estimate, Bob Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said his organization has put $750,000 toward getting a franchise. That doesn't include an approximate $500,000 that went into the GBC's original study on the issue of separate stadiums for baseball and football. Or the $80,000 to $85,000 the Maryland Stadium Authority has spent on stadium planning and financial analysis.
That's approximately $1.33 million invested in an NFL future. That's comparable to the $1.2 million that Rodgers estimates Memphis interests have spent trying to attract the NFL.
"We think of this as an economic development project," Keller said. "You need to buy land and hire architects before you ever know if you'll get a building up.
"If an NFL team is here in 10 years, nobody is going to remember we spent $750,000. If we don't have a team, there will be a lot of second-guessers out there. It's one of the risks we feel we have to take."
Keller said the bulk of that money went to marketing studies and attendance at league meetings, where Baltimore has maintained hospitality suites to present its case to various owners. "But we haven't done the lavish entertaining that some cities have," he said. "It's a relatively surgical expenditure of money for us. When the sweepstakes begin, that's when it'll be a bigger slug of money."
Similar risks are being taken in a number of other cities.
Whether Tagliabue can persuade the owners that expansion is in their best interests is the more pressing question. But Fran Murray, a minority owner with the New England Patriots and prospective co-owner of a St. Louis expansion franchise, thinks logic and Tagliabue will prevail in the upcoming meetings.
"The league is going to take the lead in presenting to the membership the information it has developed in support of expansion," Murray said. "Until the membership hears that, people are in the dark.
"I am personally convinced expansion is both timely and important to the future of the NFL."
Belgrad sees this as a critical time in Tagliabue's reign. "This is a test of how strong this commissioner is," he said. "The public feels he has committed the NFL to expansion and not in the indefinite future. We all recognize he's not an owner and doesn't have a vote. But if he doesn't get the support from the owners, it wouldn't be a good message they'd send."
Baltimore's hopes for an NFL franchise hang in the balance. Mason says there's little the city can do but sit and wait for a commitment from the league to expand.
"I think we're moving in the right direction," Mason said. "We've done everything we could have done as a city . . . we've done it by the numbers. We've done exactly what [the NFL] wanted."