Colts' final days: The inside story Behind-the-scenes wrangling proved Baltimore's undoing WHEN THE COLTS LEFT BALTIMORE

October 24, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer Staff writer Sandy Banisky contributed to this article.

Painful, provocative memories take us to the last day in the life of the Baltimore Colts. Who can forget the green-and-yellow trucks glistening in the snow? The trashed training facility? The domed stadium that beckoned Bob Irsay?

The Colts' departure is well-documented in newsprint and on film. But there were other events, behind the scenes, that led to that point, events that may fuel your anger once more.

Events such as Baltimore's 11th-hour legal bid to take the Colts from Irsay, an attempt that backfired. Events such as a secret meeting in Skokie, Ill., where the Colts owner made certain proposals to Baltimore officials and never followed up.

Events that led to the darkest chapter in Baltimore sports history. Events that led to March 28, 1984. That was the night 22 Mayflower moving vans uprooted 31 years of tradition and boxed it for delivery to the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.

By dawn the next day, the tawdry deed was mostly done. As the last van pulled away from the lower parking lot about 7:15, John Lopez, the team's trainer, noticed something lying on the ground. What he found jolted him. There, on the snow-covered driveway, was a T-shirt bearing the team's blue-and-white insignia.

There were tire tracks on the chest of the shirt. Right across the name Baltimore Colts.

It was as if this night of sheer madness needed a defining moment, as if it needed a sad snapshot instead of 1,000 angry words.

Nearly 10 years later, Baltimore is still trying to replace the Colts. The city's relentless campaign to gain an NFL expansion team goes to Chicago this week, where a final verdict is expected to come Tuesday.

If the NFL does award a franchise to Baltimore, perhaps only then will the city be able to distance itself from the nightmare of March 28, 1984.

The Irsay era in Baltimore was punctuated by a dozen years of acrimony, threats and outlandish public appearances by the owner. Within four years of acquiring the club in 1972, Irsay began to entertain offers for relocation. They came from Phoenix and Indianapolis. From Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla. From New York and Los Angeles.

He solicited offers on the run and, for the most part, kept on running. Until the winter of 1984, when he perfected the art of solicitation to a science. By then, events here and nationally had created a window of opportunity:

* The NFL was so entangled trying to send Al Davis' Raiders back to Oakland after they had moved to Los Angeles that it was powerless to prevent another move.

* Indianapolis was nearing completion of the 63,000-seat Hoosier Dome.

* Irsay was troubled by the lack of improvements to Memorial Stadium and by his rapidly deteriorating image here.

What was it, then, that caused Irsay to make the leap?

David R. Frick, an Indianapolis attorney who negotiated the Colts' move, says Irsay didn't jump as much as he was pushed.

"I've always felt that Baltimore lost the franchise," Frick said. "Even though the negotiating process was getting firmer with Indianapolis, the real trigger mechanism for departure was eminent domain."

Acknowledging that Baltimore had submitted a better economic package to Irsay, Frick called the legal gambit "a strategic error."

Although Frick had held most of his negotiations with Michael Chernoff, the club's legal counsel, he sensed in Irsay a reluctance to leave Baltimore.

"Bob had an attachment [to Baltimore]," Frick said. "That decision to move came very hard for him. I watched the man in the process. While the stadium was not the quality stadium that other teams were playing in and fan support had declined dramatically at the end, that was a long-standing franchise, and it troubled him to move it."

Eminent domain was a legal process by which Baltimore believed it could condemn the Colts franchise and take the team from Irsay. It was a move of desperation the city had saved until all hope seemed lost, according to Mark Wasserman, who was chief aide for then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

Cat-and-mouse game

"When the situation was so ridiculously deteriorated, it seemed like that was one option that ought to be thought through carefully and maybe considered seriously," said Wasserman, who is secretary for the state Department of Economic and Employment Development. "My sense is that there was a lot of shifting sands. All signs pointed to a certain level of disingenuousness. It became a cat-and-mouse game. 'Should we make a move or not? If we do, what will the reaction be?' Unfortunately, we found out."

Schaefer, the governor now, refused to second-guess the city's strategy, using the analogy of a Monday morning quarterback.

"Well, you can be [Johnny] Unitas on Monday," he said.

On March 27, the Maryland Senate approved a bill on eminent domain. It would not be enacted, however, until it passed through the House of Delegates and was signed by Gov. Harry Hughes. On the fateful morning of March 28, Frick read of the eminent domain development.

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