Tears That Scald Like Molten Lead

December 12, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Now more than ever, our William Donald Schaefer has become Maryland's King Lear. The play in which he remains the star is nearing an end, but he still stands at center stage, this furious old man, and holds our attention as never before.

He is enmeshed in troubles. His powers are slipping from him. Old friends have become open enemies, and lackeys who once leaped to do his bidding now snicker at him mockingly from behind his back. Yet as oblivion approaches, he shakes his fist and fights on.

Sometimes he's effective, sometimes almost ludicrous. The spectacle lurches from sad to comic, from magnificent to pitiful. At one moment he's on the right side, at another on the wrong.

But none of that seems to matter any more. All that really counts is the struggle, and his dogged refusal to give in.

Over the years, Mr. Schaefer has been occasionally wounded when it was brought to his attention that not all of his subjects loved him as much as he wished. The fact is, he's never been very lovable. But he deserves respect, and he deserves it especially now.

The struggle over professional football which has so dominated the news this past week provides a fitting backdrop as the Schaefer drama slowly plays itself out.

As we understand the plot out here in this part of the forest, an elderly Canadian named Jack Kent Cooke wants to move the Washington Redskins -- a professional football team he owns -- to beautiful Laurel, Maryland. This proposal has turned out to be highly controversial.

It's been made clear enough why it might well bother a true Baltimore professional football fan. If the move took place, it would presumably end Baltimore's hopes of ever getting another National Football League team of its own. But those hopes have already been all but extinguished, and in any case it's less clear why the rest of us, who can take professional football or leave it, should care one way or the other.

Yet Governor Schaefer, who still seems to think of himself as the mayor of Baltimore, cares deeply. Politically speaking, he has thrown himself onto the tracks to block the Cooke train from pulling into Laurel. There may have been some tactical reasons for doing this, but it's obvious that his motives were primarily emotional. It was, and remains, a matter of personal honor.

Mr. Schaefer loves Baltimore, and if Baltimore still wants another football team to replace the departed Colts, he wants to win one for her. At the same time, he despises Jack Kent Cooke, whom he blames to some degree for the National Football League's decisions to choose Charlotte, and then Jacksonville, over Baltimore for a new football franchise.

To a rational person detached from the personalities of the issue, Schaefer is just plain wrong in his opposition to the proposed move of the Redskins. He's the governor of Maryland, and if such a move took place, it would almost certainly be in the direct interest of the people of his state, and even work to the benefit of Baltimore.

Professional football teams generate money for the jurisdictions in which they play. Sometimes they generate a lot of money. The problem is that in order to play they require expensive facilities, which is why taxpayer groups tend to be unenthusiastic about underwriting football with public money.

Mr. Cooke proposes to build his own stadium, thus saving Maryland taxpayers the considerable cost of borrowing a couple of hundred million dollars to do it for him. This saving, plus the revenues a Maryland-based football team produced for the state, could be enormously helpful to future governors as they sit down to write a budget.

Mr. Schaefer would be long gone, it's true, long before any economic benefits from Redskins football were realized. But that's not behind his opposition to Mr. Cooke's football team. His reasons aren't based on political calculation, they're based on old-fashioned human emotions -- on love and hate, on passion and pride.

That's why, in what's probably the last great fight of a long turbulent career, a quixotic battle he probably won't win, he suddenly seems such an appealing figure.

''You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,/ As full of grief as age,'' said Lear. And also: ''I am bound upon a wheel of fire; that mine own tears/ Do scald like molten lead.''

Mr. Schaefer's own drama hasn't yet quite played out. The final act's balance of triumph and tragedy is still unknown. But when the curtain comes down at last, an ovation will surely be in order for this strange and tortured man, who made plenty of mistakes but never ceased to care.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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