After rousing show of spirit, Baltimore fans must be content to play waiting game Minneapolis jury holds expansion key

PRO FOOTBALL

August 30, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

All Baltimore's frustrated pro football fans can do now is wait.

From the press box to the owner's box, the Baltimore fans wowed the pro football world with their enthusiasm at the preseason game Thursday night at Memorial Stadium.

"You could spot it right away that they're sophisticated football fans," said a New Orleans reporter. "It must be all those years of tradition."

An owner, who watched the ESPN telecast that captured only a glimpse of the scene in the stands, said, "That was some show."

If nothing else, it helped wipe out the memories of the empty seats in the last days of the Bob Irsay regime.

Even Neil Austrian, the NFL president, said, "I think we think the situation is probably vastly different from what it was in 1984."

The timing couldn't be better for Baltimore now if the league expands by the end of the year.

That's the big if.

If nothing else, Baltimore fans should know in two or three weeks whether to get their hopes up or not.

It was a relief that Austrian said the league will expand "fairly quickly" if it wins the trial in Minneapolis.

Finally, a top league official gave a definitive statement on the matter. It has been assumed the league would go ahead if it won, but the league had never confirmed that.

Austrian conceded that the case is going to a jury. There was virtually never a chance the case would be settled before a jury verdict. Salaries are escalating so fast that the players have virtually nothing to lose in court, so they have no incentive to settle.

Winning the trial will be no easy task for the owners. The first hurdle will be the instructions of Judge David Doty. His rulings have been generally favorable to the players. If he tells the jury that the Plan B system isn't the least-restrictive system the league needs, it's more likely the eight women on the jury would rule in favor of the players. If he's more neutral, the league has a better chance with the jury.

Unfortunately, if the players win, all Baltimore will have is memories of one golden night. Expansion will be so far on the back burner it would be in danger of falling off the stove.

In the event of a player victory, the so-called "hawks" among the owners would be in favor of a so-called "scorched earth" policy that would lead to a drastic reduction in player rosters.

All Baltimore fans can do now is wait for the outcome. They have a lot of practice. They've been waiting for 8 1/2 years.

Grading the expansion derby

When Chris Berman of ESPN told the national audience that the "word" is that Baltimore has moved into the top two, he was simply reflecting the consensus of opinion around the league since the May meeting in Pasadena, Calif.

That's when the owners got the first look at the numbers that showed the St. Louis and Baltimore bids -- backed by public financing for new stadiums -- were the most lucrative of the five finalists.

Charlotte's private financing plan for a new stadium put it at a disadvantage, which is why that city is scrambling to come up with an alternative. Neither Memphis nor Jacksonville is even offering to build a new stadium.

Another signal of how important the public financing plans are came last week in Los Angeles when a letter written by Spectator Management partnership on July 29 to Raiders owner Al Davis was made public.

The letter said the group has concluded that "because of current economic conditions . . . there is no longer a role for a for-profit developer" to renovate the Coliseum.

On Sept. 11, 1990, Davis signed a deal with Spectator, which operates the stadium, for the company to finance a $116 million renovation of the stadium, but it wasn't feasible to do it with private funds.

Just as he did when the Irwindale deal fell apart, Davis will collect $10 million, but he's left in an aging stadium in which the seats are too far from the field. Davis also gets no luxury-box revenue.

That's why public financing is so critical. It's unlikely a privately financed deal will work these days.

What's next for Al?

It's uncertain what Davis' next move is now that the renovation plan has collapsed, but defensive lineman Howie Long has recommended he bolt the Coliseum.

"It's a terrible place to play, the parking is terrible, the neighborhood is terrible and the facility is terrible," Long said. "There's no atmosphere. I wonder why the fans show up at all."

On top of everything else, it's located in south central Los Angeles, a short drive from the intersection of Normandie and Florence where Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck when the riots started after the Rodney King verdict.

The neighborhood probably isn't as bad as its reputation. There are homes with neat lawns and trimmed bushes close to the Normandie and Florence intersection, but perception is everything, and many fans are reluctant to go there.

It's hard to believe in retrospect that Davis had to go through two federal trials to win the right to move to the Coliseum in the

first place. He outsmarted himself.

Gambles

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