There was rich irony in a scene two months ago that perhap best portrayed Baltimore's bid for an NFL expansion team.
The scene unfolded in a Minneapolis hotel as NFL owners bolted en masse from meetings behind closed doors to lunch behind more closed doors. When Robert Tisch, the newly minted, 50 percent owner of the New York Giants, spied Herb Belgrad of the Maryland Stadium Authority in a corridor outside the meeting room, he strolled past and offered this piece of encouragement:
"Herb, I'm in there working for you."
The owners were discussing the wisdom of expanding their 28-team, 26-city monopoly. Later that day, they passed a cautious resolution to add two teams in 1994, provided legal and economic circumstances are right.
Irony? As part-owner of the Giants, Tisch represents one expansion vote in Baltimore's behalf and as many others as he is able to sway. But having the former postmaster general as the centerpiece in Baltimore's expansion picture probably was worth, oh, 26 votes, or five more than the 21 necessary to put the city back on the NFL map.
Until last February, when he became Wellington Mara's Giants partner in New York, Tisch had been campaigning for ownership of a new team in Baltimore. President of Loews Corp., he had the requisites for ownership: deep pockets and NFL connections.
His loss obviously wounded the Baltimore effort. And in what seemed a delayed reaction last week, Gov. William Donald Schaefer expressed public concern about the city's ability to replace those deep pockets and NFL connections. Schaefer, an impatient man, wants badly to make up for allowing the Colts to flee to Indianapolis in 1984 during his mayoral watch. He wants a franchise now, even if the NFL is not awarding franchises now. The pullout of Tisch weakened Baltimore's ability to get a team, he felt.
Indeed, there were legitimate reasons for Schaefer's pessimism.
Just last month he saw how baseball's expansion race swung on the hinge of H. Wayne Huizenga's video empire. Huizenga, chairman of the board of Blockbuster Entertainment Corp., delivered major-league baseball to Miami on the basis of his financial clout. Washington, meanwhile, with the ninth-leading TV market in the country, had no comparable money man. Not coincidentally, Washington was squeezed out.
Now there are those who place St. Louis ahead of Baltimore in the race for NFL expansion because it has assembled an ownership team that includes the black (former NFL great Walter Payton), local (Jerry Clinton, chairman of Grey Eagle Distributors) and NFL communities (Fran Murray, minority owner of the New England Patriots).
If the NFL awards franchises to one new city and one city that lost a team, as expected, and the vote were today, then Baltimore might be squeezed out by Charlotte and St. Louis.
But it's way too early in the race to accurately handicap the contenders, let alone pick the winners. A lot can -- and will -- happen between now and next March, when the NFL reduces the expansion field to a short list of candidates.
"What we're going through now," Belgrad said yesterday, "is what they went through with the baseball expansion. There's a series of ups and downs. If we're going to succeed, we have to move forward aggressively and not worry about all the obstructions and obstacles that could delay expansion.
"It's easy to understand the governor's frustration. There isn't another Tisch. There was one Tisch and that's it. But the governor is very close to it and he wants a team in Baltimore before he's finished his term as governor."
Even without Tisch, Belgrad does not apologize for his list of three known ownership groups. Those groups are led by Bethesda real estate developer Nathan Landow, Baltimore Blast owner Edward Hale, and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr.
"Landow is still extremely interested," Belgrad said. "That group should have the financial wherewithal to buy a franchise and put together an organization."
The Hale and Starr groups, he added, were both committed and on track.
"We have benefited tremendously from the Tisch connection," Belgrad said. "Hopefully, if he lives up to his verbal commitments to us, he will be one of our strong advocates."
Belgrad is not deterred by the ongoing labor war between the NFL and the players association, either. The NFLPA scored three court victories in the space of 17 days this spring and will go to court again next February in search of free agency. That threat provides the owners with an excuse not to expand. But the league's expansion committee still is scheduled to meet later this month and all plans are on go. Belgrad says he simply wants to be ready.
"The day is going to come when we get a letter with the time and place for us to make a presentation [to the expansion committee]," he said. "What's important is, [when it happens] we're going to be prepared."