With wooing over, all Schaefer can do is wait with fingers crossed NFL: THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

October 26, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

On that bitter morning 9 1/2 years ago, the proud mayor of Baltimore stood on his front steps to face the reporters assembled in the gray drizzle. "I'm trying to retain what little dignity I have left in this matter," he said. "And I hate to see a grown man cry."

The Colts were gone, abducted overnight, and all William Donald Schaefer could do was lose sleep and listen to the grim news on the radio.

It was 1984, in the days when renaissance Baltimore was making magazine covers and Mayor Schaefer was being hailed as the do-it-now guy who could conjure miracles. Still, the owner of a football team proved more powerful.

Bob Irsay, who said he'd call City Hall before he'd move, never did. While Mayor Schaefer was waiting for the phone to ring, Mayflower vans moved the Colts out of town.

Nearly a decade later, Mr. Schaefer is waiting on football still. Today, in Chicago, National Football League owners are poised to award two cities expansion teams. And Mr. Schaefer, now governor of Maryland, will be there for their vote.

"I know what the Colts meant," he said. He liked the tradition, the big wins. "When it was very close, I couldn't stay. I'd get too nervous. I'd have to leave."

In Chicago, he expects the decision to be very close and he offers no predictions. Rejected once before, the governor insists he's prepared in case he's rejected again. "Someone's going to lose," he said in his State House office last week. "I don't want to lose. But if we lose, the world isn't going to collapse. When the Colts left, the city didn't collapse."

He'll be talking today to league officials and team owners who know him. "That's an advantage. They know I've been a pro-sports man in 15 years as mayor and in seven years as governor."

In fact, sports issues have dogged him throughout his career. The public debate goes on: Can the city and the state afford to spend millions on teams? Can they afford not to?

Mr. Schaefer has presided over losses -- the Colts move. And wins -- the raves when Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened. The public continues to debate whether he's spent too little time and money dealing with sports or too much.

"Many people didn't understand that a city and a state need all sorts of things," he said. "They need an art museum. They need a symphony. They need a football team. They need a baseball team. It's part of a fabric of a total city."

The Colts departure came eight years after Mr. Irsay began flirting with other cities. He wanted a new stadium. By 1979, Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams had bought the Orioles. He wanted a new stadium, too. The city had no money. The legislature was not interested in footing the bill.

Mr. Schaefer coaxed legislators into paying for renovations at Memorial Stadium. But Mr. Irsay refused to sign a long-term lease. In a final two-month crisis, Mr. Irsay watched Baltimore, Phoenix and Indianapolis try to outbid each other for the pleasure of his team's company.

In the end, Mr. Irsay left for a new sports palace in Indianapolis.

Mr. Schaefer wouldn't give up. He launched an unsuccessful court battle to get the team back. He charged a corporate commission with finding ways to secure a new team. And he began to notice that the Colts' leaving, an occasion of civic despair, had changed the public's view of government's role in sports.

"Interestingly enough, after the team left, the new thinking started: 'Let's not lose the Orioles.' "

That helped Mr. Schaefer in 1987, his first year as governor, persuade the General Assembly to approve construction of two downtown stadiums. The Orioles signed a 30-year lease for Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The football stadium could be built if the National Football League awarded the city a franchise.

For Mr. Schaefer, there was no other way to guarantee sports in the city's future. "If I could not build a new stadium, the Orioles would now be in Washington," he said.

The success of Camden Yards, he said, is part of the state's sales pitch to the football owners. The loss of the Colts is not. "There is no longer a moral obligation on behalf of the NFL to get a franchise for Baltimore," the governor said. "It's strictly: who's the best. It's the bottom line."

He says he wants to let the owners know "that Baltimore does not deserve a team just because we lost a team, that we have been doing our best to get a team for eight years, that the people are fired up, that we have the best presentation.

"We're a good TV market. The fans really want it. We've proved we can certainly build a stadium on time and under budget. We have everything in place."

Speculation is rife in Baltimore that Maryland's efforts are for naught, that the league has already decided to put new teams in Charlotte and St. Louis. If Mr. Schaefer fears that's true, he is not willing to say it publicly. "I have great faith in Commissioner [Paul] Tagliabue," the governor said. "I think he's straight as an arrow. He's assured us this will be played fairly."

In the years since the Colts left, the Maryland Stadium Authority has made several presentations to league officials and team owners. Marylanders have carted crab cakes to hotel hospitality suites in an effort to make the best impression for the city.

When it's time to vote, the governor says, Maryland's graciousness won't matter. "Tagliabue told me once, 'Governor, you can bring out all the crab cakes you want. You can bring out all the shrimp you want. You can bring out all the people you want. But in the end, it's the bottom line."

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