Echoes of Colts-Rams swap can still be heard here 20 years later

PRO FOOTBALL

July 26, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

Twenty years ago today, pro football in Baltimore and the NFL changed forever.

On July 26, 1972, the Baltimore Colts called a news conference at the Chesapeake restaurant to announce that a Chicago businessman named Robert Irsay had purchased the Los Angeles Rams and traded them to Carroll Rosenbloom for the Colts.

The trade was a coup for Rosenbloom, who managed to sell the Colts and buy the Rams without paying any capital gains tax.

The neat maneuver, though, had far-reaching ramifications that nobody could have imagined.

It's difficult to judge which move had more impact on the NFL -- Rosenbloom's move to Los Angeles or Irsay's arrival in Baltimore.

What Irsay did in Baltimore is well-documented. In the four years before he bought the team, the Colts went to two Super Bowls and the AFC title game.

They also had become a part of the fabric of the city of Baltimore, as Barry Levinson captured in his movie, "Diner," after they won back-to-back titles in 1958 and 1959 and helped fuel the pro football boom.

It took Irsay just 12 years to destroy all that and move the team to Indianapolis. Not that the team has changed much since the move. The Colts are still looking for their first playoff victory in the 20 years he has owned the club.

Meanwhile, Rosenbloom's arrival in Los Angeles also had dire consequences for the league. He made a deal to leave the Los Angeles Coliseum for Anaheim, Calif., before he drowned at his Florida winter home in 1979.

Once Rosenbloom died, Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, set his sights on Los Angeles and fought a pair of bitter court battles to move there. Had Rosenbloom lived, it's unlikely Davis would have challenged him on his turf in Los Angeles. Davis understood Rosenbloom was one owner as cunning as he was.

While the league was fighting Davis, it delayed expansion, and Davis' victory set the stage for the Colts' move to Indianapolis and the St. Louis Cardinals' move to Phoenix.

Instead of getting expansion teams that might have thrived, Indianapolis and Phoenix were stuck with Irsay and Bill Bidwill and their mediocre teams.

All of this stemmed from that fateful day when Rosenbloom engineered the swap with Irsay.

In the long run, though, Baltimore might have made lemonade out of this lemon of a situation.

Without Irsay's move, it's unlikely Camden Yards would have been built. Now the city has a good shot at an NFL expansion team, which would lead to the construction of a second stadium.

If the two stadiums are well-maintained, Baltimore should have a bright baseball and football future for the next half century or so.

The Irsay era was a sad sports story for Baltimore that could well have a happy ending.

The settlement talks

The NFL owners came up with a public relations ploy last week when they voted to give commissioner Paul Tagliabue power to settle the antitrust suit filed by the players -- a deal that would need approval of only four of the seven members of the Management Council instead of 21 of the 28 owners.

The idea was to counter the players' contention that Tagliabue couldn't get 21 votes for a settlement. They also added Al Davis of the Raiders to the Council in the hopes that he could talk his former player, Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFL Players Association, into making a deal.

The problem was that the owners still didn't have a good deal to offer on the key issue of free agency. So, it wasn't surprising that talks broke off Friday and that the trial will resume tomorrow.

The sticking point is the players' quest for free agency after four years. The owners did go down from six to five years, but they wanted one player on each team to be exempt and two other players to be subject to the right of first refusal. In effect, that would mean denying the league's top 84 players free agency.

The difference between four and five years for free agency is also a major one because most of the top players coming out of college sign four-year deals. In a five-year plan, they would still be subject to the old rules when their contract expired.

Since careers are so short anyway, the players figure they're better off taking their chances in court than agreeing to anything more than four years.

Even Davis couldn't talk Upshaw into taking that. Upshaw thinks he has too good a case in court to cave in now.

All this probably means that unless the owners win in court, expansion will be delayed. If the owners lose, they'll probably appeal and put expansion on the back burner.

The players finish their case this week and then the owners present their side. It's likely to go to the jury in late August or early September.

Expansion odds

According to Roxy's Line in the Daily Racing Form, Baltimore is a 1-2 favorite to get an expansion team. St. Louis is the second favorite at 4-5, and Charlotte, N.C., is 3-2, Memphis, Tenn., 2-1 and Jacksonville, Fla., 4-1.

Those odds reflect the fact that Baltimore and St. Louis are the only cities with public funding for new stadiums.

Battling the billionaire

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