Expansion know-how gets you nowhere

JOHN EISENBERG

October 15, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

Sports Illustrated showed up in the mailbox yesterday with good news inside: In the Scorecard section, Baltimore is listed as the most likely of the NFL expansion candidates to get a franchise.

Before you get too excited, though, remember that just six weeks ago in the same magazine a writer predicted Baltimore wouldn't get the ball. Charlotte and St. Louis, the man said.

As emotionally invested, increasingly paranoid, heart-flutteringly nervous lead characters in the cast of this expansion play, should we read any significance into this prominent changing of opinion?

Does it mean, as it would appear, that our chances have dramatically improved in the past six weeks? Or just that someone somewhere isn't doing their homework?

We'd like to believe the former, of course. We'd like to believe that the league sources from whom such opinions flow are now, unlike six weeks ago, whispering the good, sweet word: Bawlmer, hon.

But the unfortunate fact is that we don't know what to believe.

It's funny. We know more about this stuff than anyone anywhere. Look at us, for crying out loud. We're at ease discussing permanent seat licenses, after-tax leverage and dome feasibility. We know all about Jerry Richardson, James Busch Orthwein and such esoterica as the planned Liberty Bowl renovation. We're expansion Einsteins, people. Yet, for as much as we know, we don't know diddly.

It has been the case from the beginning of the process, and, 11 days before the decision comes down in Chicago, it's still the case. We don't know what to think, or whom to believe, or what's going to matter, or, most importantly, which of the many criteria will ultimately make the difference.

Will it be the financial package? (We hope so.) Geography? (We hope not.) Stadium status? (We hope so.) The desires of the commissioner? (We hope not, although we're not sure.) Sentimentality? (We hope so.) A good nickname? (Goodness gracious, we hope not.)

We're clued in, and clueless. News comes rattling across the expansion wire every day now, and we nod knowingly, and we don't know what it means.

Take, for instance, the expansion committee's decision to vote on a two-team package instead of two cities individually. Maybe you saw that in the paper yesterday. What in the world does it mean? Or does it mean anything?

OK, here goes. The general thinking is that it could hurt us if (stay with me here) we're the No. 1 choice, but the owners don't like the No. 2 choice and end up voting down the package and turning to two other cities.

Of course, we also could benefit by the same token, if (stay with me, still) they turn down two other cities because they don't like ++ one, and turn to another package of which we're a part.

So, is it good news? Bad? The guess here is that it means nothing. The guess here is that the league will take the two cities it wants, no matter the method in which it votes. We just need to hope, paraphrasing Sally Field, that they like us.

But that's just a guess. So it goes in expansionland. Everything is a guess.

Did it matter when Orthwein pulled out of the St. Louis group, costing it invaluable political clout and forcing the leaders to scramble for investors at the last minute? It sure seemed to set them back, possibly decisively. But what if the league decides that business is business and it has to pay back the city with the brewery that practically floats the league? Then the Orthwein stuff didn't matter.

Does it matter that the Charlotte people are still fiddling with their financing plans, that sometimes their bid seems held LTC together by baling wire? You'd think so. But it doesn't matter if the league is set on going to a "new" city, of which Charlotte seems the most promising.

Does it matter what Jack Kent Cooke thinks about a new team landing in Baltimore? Does it matter that Jacksonville can match our per-game payout to the visiting team? Does it matter that Charlotte has that deal with the NAACP?

We think we know. (No, no and no.) But we don't know for sure.

Some things do seem obvious beyond reproach. Baltimore's stock clearly rose, and St. Louis' clearly fell, at the September meetings in Chicago. St. Louis is struggling to the finish line. Baltimore is breezing. There is reason for optimism. It would appear the league has discovered what we knew all along, which was that we had the best bid.

The owners have a long and grand history of following the money. Which means us.

We'd like to think.

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