Hey, NFL: Let's hear it for a home team

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 26, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Friday, Jan. 24, 1992, a guy in a gray sweatshirt heaves a football through the frosty morning air on 33rd Street, across the Memorial Stadium parking lot, and it lands in the arms of some guy waiting since the late afternoon gloom of Dec. 18, 1983.

That's the last time a professional football game was played in Baltimore. But two days ago, at 4 o'clock in the morning -- a full day before tickets would go on sale -- the line began to form for seats at this summer's exhibition game here between Miami and New Orleans.

''Tremendous,'' said Herb Belgrad when he arrived at 5:45 Friday morning.

He said it with a sigh of relief as he looked at one guy who'd pitched a tent for protection from the cold and a bunch of others who'd begun throwing a ball around, and dozens more who'd arrived at the stadium by dawn's earliest light.

Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, wants Baltimore football people to be able to walk into this afternoon's Super Bowl in Minneapolis and declare to various team owners, ''That exhibition game of ours? We sold it out in a few hours.''

Many said it couldn't happen, but Belgrad wasn't one of them. For a few years now, he's been talking to groups around town about the Orioles and their brand new baseball stadium. And when he finishes talking, Belgrad asks for questions.

''What about a football team?'' people ask.

''Can we get the Colts' name back?''

''What's the date on expansion?''

To Belgrad, it's sounded like an obsession. It's a long time now since Baltimore's had a pro-football team, and longer still -- let's be honest about this -- since the pre-Robert Irsay era when Colt tickets were as cherished as family heirlooms.

When they announced this summer's exhibition game here, more than a few wondered: Do we still have the old passion for pro football, or has much of that fabled generation of fans faded away without leaving a trace of their lust for the game?

We have to get something straight here about Baltimore's football history: Today's team owners don't remember 1958 and 1968 as much as they remember 1978 and 1983. They don't remember John Unitas and Gino Marchetti as well as they recall Irsay and unsold tickets.

''It's not the ghosts of the '50s we're fighting,'' one boardroom insider said the other day. ''Today's football owners weren't there during the '50s. It's the Bert Jones era we're up against, when the Colts were still winning but the city was getting turned off.

''You can say Irsay's a jerk, and he is, and the owners know that. But they also know that when they came here to play, the stadium wasn'tfilled. And they were taking home a lot less money than they wanted to take home.''

Some say it's a demeaning process we're going through now, and I wouldn't argue with them. We still remember Sundays with the stadium at full roar, still remember telling friends, ''I got two in the upper deck'' as if it made us part of some exclusive fraternity, and we still remember the '58 Sudden Death game that gave America its first big emotional fix on pro football.

In the face of all that, we ask ourselves, why do we have to prove our commitment to football all over again by buying tickets to an exhibition game nobody cares about?

In New York several weeks back, the three potential Baltimore ownership groups made their pitch to the National Football League's expansion committee and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

''If I'm chosen, I'll give the owners a lot of laughs,'' joked Leonard ''Boogie'' Weinglass, the irrepressible Merry-Go-Round clothing outlet owner.

''Mr. Weinglass,'' chuckled Tagliabue, ''it's said around the league that [Cleveland Browns owner] Art Modell is the only owner who's intentionally funny.''

The one who's unintentionally funny is Irsay, only not to Baltimoreans. The NFL owners are a sober, buttoned-down lot who don't want to hear about moral obligations and got into the game less for the laughter than for the loot.

Baltimore has to prove it still has the loot. The ghost of Irsay hangs more heavily than the memories of Unitas and Marchetti. To sell out the stadium this summer keeps us alive, though it doesn't ensure a thing.

A few weeks ago, George Young came to town for a dinner honoring his old friend Joe Brune, who's coached the Loyola High football team for the past 25 years. Young's now general manager of the New York Giants.

''Are we getting a team in Baltimore?'' Young was asked.

''Not even God himself knows,'' he replied.

In Charlotte, N.C., they talk of Jerry Richardson's efforts that have roused huge community enthusiasm. But the money in Charlotte isn't Richardson's, it's a bank's. Does the NFL want a bank owning a team?

In St. Louis, they talk of Augie Busch's beer money guaranteeing a franchise. But, when St. Louis hosted an exhibition game, they didn't manage to sell out the place until the week of the game, and there are reports even now of difficulties raising money for an expansion team.

And, around here, we have people tossing a football on a parking lot 24 hours before tickets even go on sale.

Will it matter? The guys with the football remember Unitas throwing deep to Lenny Moore and Jimmy Orr. The guys who own football teams still have memories of Robert Irsay and empty seats.

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