E-Day The Sequel nothing like original

November 28, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

And so, we approach another E-Day. Expansion day. Another Tuesday waiting for the NFL owners, that lovable Gang of 28, to deign to make a call.

Can't wait, huh?

You remember the last one, right? Sure, who doesn't? It already has a place in our history, as the Night Our Stomachs Hurt. The tension. The waiting. The absurd scene on TV. A weird thing happened: People who stopped getting excited years ago discovered that their hearts were hammering. The decision, after all, had been a decade in the making.

E-Day II won't be the same. Not nearly. It won't come close to matching the original version for tension or excitement or sheer civic jumpiness.

There's a little problem: People don't care anymore.

Well, wait, that's not right. People still care a great deal about getting an NFL team to replace the Colts. Of course.

"But we're just exhausted," Joe Contino was saying yesterday in his confectionery store in South Baltimore. "The whole thing has just gone on too long."

Contino is such a pro football junkie that he sat down and wrote a poem about Baltimore getting the ball back. When it was published in his neighborhood newspaper, he was so proud that he sent a copy to The Sun. Contino is 69 and lives on Patapsco Street. He still gets hot when he talks.

"I got people coming into the store all day, and I listen to 'em," he said. "They want a team real bad. I don't think we can live without one. This is a sports town, a good one. But what they really want, one way or another, is for those [owners] just to make up their darn minds. I mean, how much are we supposed to take?"

Understand the history here. When the Colts left town a decade ago, people were disgusted and furious at first, and then, after awhile, they just didn't care. They learned to live without those madhouse football Sundays. Life went on -- and it was fine. But then the expansion circus started up, with all those hoops to jump through, and our itch began to tickle again, and we started jumping.

We had a franchise virtually in hand in the summer of '92, when Charlotte's bid was a mess and we put on that emotional, knockout preseason game. What happened? The league postponed the call. Then, with the city about to blow apart last month, another postponement.

That last one was too much. That, plus the evidence that the fix was in, plus the unfortunate but necessary maneuverings that pushed out Boogie Weinglass. At that point, it no longer took much intuition to recognize the process for the shabby, deceitful endeavor it is.

Who could be that excited? As much as Baltimore wants the ball, the chase has become more unseemly than the potential goal is attractive.

"The carrot has just been dangling out there too long," said Gary Beach, the manager of Balls sports bar.

On E-Day I, Beach ran a special and planned to give away drinks if Baltimore got the team. He's doing the same thing again Tuesday, but he's not expecting the uproarious crowd that showed up before.

"You never know, but I don't think people are as fired up," he said.

That's because they aren't.

"They're just tired, that's what they are," Joe Contino said.

One reason for the lack of electricity is, of course, the lack of expectations. The addition of Alfred Lerner as a new owner gives Baltimore a seamless bid, but, as we have learned, the quality of the bid isn't necessarily what matters. Geography could mean more. Market demographics, whatever they are, could mean more.

Another reason for the lack of electricity is the possibility that another team might move here. No longer is expansion the end game. (No, it's not the way we want to do it, but if the Rams are as miserable as they sound, and there's still another team in L.A. anyway, we don't have to feel too guilty, do we?)

Sure, if somehow Baltimore does wind up with the franchise, there will be joy and dancing and much to anticipate. In the long run, the long, dirty business of angling for the team will be forgotten. The bitter memory of E-Day I will fade.

But it's going to take time to forget. Even if the news is good on E-Day II, there is this unalterable truth: The chase for an expansion franchise has embittered and alienated a city of good football fans. You can't quantify it. But all you have to do is ask someone.

Ask anyone.

"Personally, I'm mad as hell, and as near as I can tell, everyone else is, too," Contino said. "It's a totally ridiculous situation. Twenty-eight men of that caliber, and they need to sit around this long? Give me a break, you know?"

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