Political Football Comes to Annapolis

January 16, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Kick-off time in the Great Stadium Tussle arrived last week in Annapolis. After the first few minutes of action, the tally board read: Schaefer 7, Cooke 3. This could be a high-scoring affair.

Rapidly moving the ball down the field on his first possession, quarterback William Donald Schaefer connected with Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman on a fly pattern that split the defense and resulted in the first score. Mr. Braman let the whole world in on a little secret: Two NFL owners he knows have told him they are serious about wanting to move their clubs to Baltimore.

Touchdown!

Not to be outdone, Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke sent his prize fullback, Mike Miller, on a draw play that got him close enough for a field goal. The trick: A well-publicized Senate briefing arranged by Senate President Miller to let the Cooke crew cast their magnetic spell over senators.

Three points for the Cookes!

All this would be quite amusing for the next month or so if it weren't such an explosive -- and potentially destructive -- issue. As new House Speaker Casper R. Taylor tactfully noted, the stadium controversy ''has the potential for having an inordinate impact'' on the General Assembly session that began Wednesday.

If lawmakers get carried away, here's one bleak outcome:

* The Redskins build a $160 million stadium in Laurel.

* Baltimore's dream of a stadium is shattered. The legislature revokes the authority to build such an edifice and eagerly plunders the cash set aside for a new stadium for a variety of election-year purposes.

* The legislature also refuses to invest any money to fix up Memorial Stadium for the Canadian Football League. The ball yard just sits there and slowly rots.

* Maryland gets a bill for building additional access roads to Cooke Coliseum that exceeds $100 million.

* The legislature makes room in the capital budget for those roads by eliminating plans to build a new international terminal at BWI Airport.

* Abe Pollin abandons his USAir Arena in Largo for a state-subsidized home next to Cooke Coliseum, leaving Prince George's County officials with a multi-million-dollar deficit in their tax-revenue base -- and a white elephant of a building.

* Mayor Schmoke's goal of a new and larger Baltimore arena is snuffed out because the legislature refuses to put up money for more than one arena.

* Horse track owner Joe De Francis, having sold off land for the Cooke Coliseum and Arena in Laurel, uses the proceeds to help build a Virginia race track. He then closes Pimlico except for a brief springtime meeting leading up to the Preakness. Much of the horse-racing business -- and the jobs and tax revenue -- flee Baltimore and flow across the Potomac to Virginia.

And that's not all. Once the ''get Baltimore'' movement begins, Mr. Miller may have trouble stopping it. And once the city is deprived of its sports venues, city legislators will look for ways to get even. So will the governor. Yes, indeed, the stadium controversy could have an ''inordinate impact'' in Annapolis.

One of the driving forces behind this ''let's strip Baltimore of the ball'' movement is the fall elections. Suburban lawmakers -- who previously had voted approval of the Camden Yards complex and basked in its success -- now see support of it as a liability. It sounds better on the campaign trail to say, ''Enough money spent on sports; let's use it to build more prisons!''

But sports is a major economic-development industry. For doubters, just look at the enormous revenue spinoff from Oriole Park at Camden Yards for local restaurants, hotels and city and state coffers. It has vastly improved the region's sense of pride and has added to the area's quality of life. A stadium in Laurel doesn't do that, especially one that hosts a team alien to (and disliked by) many Baltimoreans.

Another scenario is possible, but it would require politicians to sit down and put aside selfish interests for the moment. It would involve a ''Greed is Good for Maryland'' strategy that would be aggressive on all fronts:

* Win an NFL team for Baltimore and sign on the dotted line with the Laurel Redskins.

* Partially underwrite two new arenas -- one in Largo and one in Baltimore (this bigger indoor facility could be linked to expanded convention business).

* Strike a deal with Joe De Francis to help him upgrade his two Maryland tracks in exchange for abandoning his out-of-state ventures.

Sports and entertainment are Big Business in America. Smart politicians ought to be able to seize the opportunity to make the most of the current situation to turn Maryland into a thriving sports mecca: the Redskins in Laurel; the Caps and Bullets in a rejuvenated Largo palace; the Orioles and Rams/Raiders/Buccaneers/Patriots in Camden Yards; the Laurel and Pimlico supertracks; the new and improved (and busy) arena in Baltimore.

Why not have it all?

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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