A tale of two cities without football

December 16, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

"I didn't know that we used to have a pro football team here in Baltimore, Grandpa," the boy said.

The old man smiled. "Once upon a time, child," he said gently. "Years and years ago."

They were standing in the parking lot of the second-largest Wal-Mart in Maryland -- on 33rd Street, at the site of old Memorial Stadium. Laid into the macadam was a small bronze plaque celebrating the memory of the Colts. "So our history is marked," read the inscription, signed by the mayor of Baltimore, Calvin Ripken, son of the legendary shortstop.

"Tell me about our football team, Grandpa," the boy said.

"Well, the team was called the Colts and they played right here," the old man said, tapping his cane on the ground.

"Right here in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart?" the boy asked.

"No," the old man said, laughing. "There used to be a stadium here. A fine, old stadium. And it was filled every Sunday afternoon with great, noisy crowds. The team was extremely popular."

The boy wrinkled his nose. "What happened to them, Grandpa?" he asked.

"It was a sad story," the old man said. "A bad man bought the team and ruined it, then moved the team to Indianapolis in the middle of the night."

The boy's eyes grew wide. "But isn't that stealing?" he asked.

The old man laughed. "Some people said it was," he said.

"When did this happen?" the boy asked.

"My gosh, it's been almost 50 years now," the old man said.

"And that was the only pro football team we ever had?" the boy asked.

"Well, not exactly," the old man said. "Ten years after the Colts left, the Redskins moved to Laurel, which is in between here and Washington, D.C."

The boy shook his head. "But I don't understand," he said. "That's not Baltimore."

"No," the old man said, "and that was the problem. The man who owned the Redskins wanted a new stadium and got one built there. But the move made the fans in both cities mad. There was a big mess about tickets that wound up in court. The people in Washington felt they'd lost their team. And the fans in Baltimore couldn't root for the Redskins."

"Why not?" the boy asked.

"Because the Redskins weren't their team, never had been their team and never would be their team," the old man said. "The owner of the Redskins sold a few tickets here and changed the name of the team to the Maryland Redskins. He tried to tell us that it was our team, too. But he didn't understand that you just couldn't create loyalty like that."

The boy stood silently, staring down at the plaque.

"And the real shame was that there was still a chance that Baltimore would get a team until the Redskins moved to Laurel," the old man said. "Not a great chance, but a chance. The Maryland Redskins killed it, though. It was the death of pro football in Baltimore."

The little boy looked up. "But the Redskins play in Virginia now," he said.

"Right," the old man said. "See, not enough people went to the games in Laurel, because the team belonged to neither city and the price of a ticket was very high. So the owner left Maryland after 20 years and built another stadium in Charlottesville, Va. He was over 100 years old at the time. He renamed the team the Commonwealth Redskins and sold a million T-shirts in a week. The stadium in Laurel was converted into the largest Wal-Mart on the East Coast."

The boy shook his head. "Wow," he said. "I just can't believe there used to be an NFL team in Baltimore. That must have been really cool."

The old man nodded.

"Did you ever see a game, Grandpa?" the boy asked, looking across the parking lot as he envisioned a stadium.

"Yes, when I was a boy myself," the old man said, smiling at the memory. "My father took me once. It was quite a scene. Everyone knew the people sitting around them in the stands. Every game was like a birthday party. You stood and yelled the whole time. It was great fun."

The old man paused, remembering. "I also went to a Maryland Redskins game once," he said. "But it was terrible. No one cheered. The people were in shock from having paid so much for a ticket."

He shrugged. "And then after a while Baltimore lost all its excitement for pro football," he said. "Too many bad things had happened. And this has been a pro football ghost town ever since."

The boy stood silently for a long time before speaking. "I guess that was kind of sad, huh, Grandpa?" he asked.

The old man nodded. "Yes, child, it was a shame," he said.

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