NFL has turned off juice of what once was electrifying expansion

November 30, 1993|By Bill Tanton

The NFL owners who met near Chicago today to vote on expansion would be surprised if they knew how Baltimoreans have come to feel about all this.

"I don't think anybody cares any more," says Chris Hutchins, who owns and operates Bacharach Rasin sporting goods.

Hutchins is no disinterested bystander. Not ordinarily. This man loves sports.

He put up his money last summer to buy club seats in case the NFL does come back. He went to the USAir Arena last Friday and was thrilled by Maryland's upset win over Georgetown in basketball -- even though he's a North Carolina grad.

But suffer from anxiety over this expansion decision? No way. Not now.

"The process has been so drawn out," Hutchins says. "The whole thing's been disgusting."

Then there's Mike DeLuca, a businessman in Columbia. DeLuca is a onetime college football player who has grown daughters and a teen-aged son. He -- the father, not the teen-aged son -- was so excited on Oct. 25 he couldn't sleep.

He was that charged up because the next day the NFL was going to tell us whether pro football would be coming back to a city that once embraced it like no other.

"My whole family was so excited, watching the announcement on TV that night," DeLuca says. "It was like watching your team about to kick a field goal in overtime that would win a championship. Then when the commissioner said it would be delayed until Nov. 30. . . ."

And now that Nov. 30 has arrived?

"I'm exhausted from the whole thing," says DeLuca, who thought he would sleep just fine last night. "I just can't get psyched up to be rejected again."

The average fan here is hopeful that things will turn out well for Baltimore, but doubts that it will. He (or she) talks about the fix being in for St. Louis. He wishes we were on the proverbial level playing field.

If ever a city's sports fans have been put through the wringer, Baltimore's have over this.

There were the delays. The changes in plans. The sellout of an NFL exhibition game no one here wanted in the first place. The selling of all those high-priced luxury boxes and club seats for an imaginary team.

And then to have to sit there that night and watch as Paul Tagliabue anointed Charlotte -- Charlotte, for Pete's sake, where the Orioles used to have a farm team -- it was more than most of us could bear.

A while back I told Herb Belgrad, the lawyer who is point man in our expansion effort, that I'd have thrown up my hands in disgust.

"You don't accomplish anything that way," he said, smiling benignly.

This is a patient man, this Belgrad. It was six years ago that Governor Hughes handed him this task. If anyone should want to throw up his hands, it's Belgrad. Remember, he hasn't been paid a penny for this.

But he goes on, remaining positive in the face of predictions of gloom and doom.

One thing Belgrad has gotten from all this is a new body of detractors.

Some blame him for having gone too far with two prospective owners (Boogie Weinglass and the Glazers) when the other competing cities had one. Many are angry over his part in the dumping of local favorite Weinglass at the eleventh hour, even though it was Governor Schaefer who decided to endorse Cleveland's Al Lerner.

You can't blame Boogie or the Glazers for being upset over the treatment they received after sticking it out for two years. But the feeling within the Maryland Stadium Authority is that we improved our chances by going with Lerner, who is a 5 percent owner of the Cleveland Browns.

"I feel good," says Ernie Accorsi, former Cleveland general manager now working with Baltimore's expansion effort. "We have a quarterback now.

"I know Al Lerner. He's very smart and very effective, and he's successful in everything he does. If he gets the franchise, this town will have its best owner since Jerry Hoffberger."

Lots of people in our town know Lerner. He has been coming to Baltimore on business probably once a week for 20 years. Those I've talked to have a high regard for his effectiveness, including one who said: "Al Lerner's objective in life is to become a billionaire, and he's three quarters of the way there."

You have to wonder why a man like Lerner would have jumped into this at the last minute unless he thought Baltimore had a chance.

Belgrad was asked before he departed for Rosemont, Ill., how he thinks our chances are of getting the NFL here either through expansion or by getting an existing team.

"Excellent," he said, but the public whose interest Belgrad and the governor serve is not so sure.

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