Pigeons gotta fly, losers gotta try it's Super Sunday End of olesker3

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 31, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Into each hustler's life, an occasional pigeon must fall. On Light Street now, by the Cross Street Market, sits Eddie from South Baltimore, the semi-well-known bookmaker, for whom, lo and behold, two pigeons have appeared.

"The fat one," he declares. "Never gets off the ground." "Says who?" asks his friend Irving, who makes his living running a dice game on Patapsco Avenue when nobody important is looking.

The two of them, geniuses both, have been staring for several minutes at these two actual pigeons doing their little pigeon minuet in front of the market, where someone apparently dropped something considered edible by birds.

"The fat one," Eddie says again, "never flies. I don't care if a truck comes up behind it, he ain't leaving the ground."

"How much?" says Irving.

"Couple of bucks," says Eddie.

The bet is simple and quick: Of these two pigeons pecking along the Light Street sidewalk, which one has the staying power to hang in there, ignoring passersby, clinging to its little part of the pavement.

"The fat one," says Eddie, who is feeling somewhat fat himself lately. This being Super Bowl week, when the nation's amateur bettors arrive like pigeons, he has been a busy man. People who never dream of placing a football wager all year long, or even watch a television game consisting of fat men throwing forearms into each others' Adam's apples, suddenly find themselves caught up in the American gambling passion.

To wager is to belong, to feel a part of something tribal that sweeps the country at such times as the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness or Super Bowl. But mainly, it is to give oneself a reason to care about something that so inexplicably absorbs the national psyche.

"I've got some people betting $200 on this game," says Eddie from South Baltimore, referring to today's Buffalo-Dallas Super Bowl. "A couple, $300. And they don't know no more about football than the man in the moon."

Many, he says, are betting Buffalo. Maybe they remember the old gamblers' maxim from some years back: In pressure games, always bet against the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco Giants and Germany.

Or maybe they agree with the sentiment felt in this man's corner. Buffalo is coached by a man named Levy, and we don't get too many Levys coaching Super Bowl teams. (Plus, face it, even 30 years after the fact, Dallas is still the place they killed Kennedy, so the hell with them.)

Most likely, though, people bet Buffalo for the point spread, and they bet at all for the same reason Eddie and Irving are now standing on Light Street and watching these pigeons hold their ground: They like a little action. A pigeon's just a pigeon, but put a couple of bucks down, and it becomes a momentary lift out of boredom.

"Gimme $10 on Buffalo," says a guy Eddie knows, practically breaking his concentration.

"Ten?" says Eddie.

"Just something to let me watch," the guy says.

The message is clear: The game itself inspires no passion around here. Placing a bet gives a little rooting interest, which nobody has had since that morning nine years ago when the Colts departed.

"Used to be," says Eddie, not removing his eyes from the two RTC pigeons in front of the Cross Street Market, "people followed football because it was football. You woke up on a Sunday morning, and right away you felt a gnawing in your stomach for the Colts.

"Now, if people follow the games at all, it's to follow their money. You take the betting out of football games, you take half the audience away. Maybe more than half."

Around here, we still wait for a team to call our own.

The National Football League talks of expansion, and then backs off, and then talks again. St. Louis is called a lock, and then not, and then called a lock once again. Charlotte, nobody seems to know the money situation.

And then there is Baltimore, with its stadium plans in place, its three groups of potential investors in place, its Colt history writ large and indelible, if only the NFL owners still care.

The owners recently took a major legal loss on free agency for the players. In defeat, they must pay $195 million in damages. Some insiders believe this speeds up the expansion process, since owners, not wishing to reach into their own pockets, will instead let the entry price of two new teams take care of it.

"If that happens," says Eddie, "then people will follow the game again, and not just bet for the sake of betting."

But this a bettors' week. Eddie and Irving stand here on Light Street, waiting to see which pigeon will take flight for a couple of bucks.

And, any moment now, somebody will come along with another bet to make on today's football game -- which, to Eddie, is just one more pigeon arriving in his life.

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