Actually, It's Not Better than Nothing

February 02, 1994|By JACK GILDEN

Living the bachelor's life, I tumbled out of bed late a couple of Saturdays ago and walked out into the bitter January air, a sharp beard bristling from my face and breakfast on my mind. Arriving at the Grand Opening of the new Super Fresh on 41st Street, I found myself in a virtual mob wedged next to Mayor Schmoke.

His Honor was cutting ribbons, smiling blankly and shaking hands with eager patrons. When he turned toward me, I responded like any good Hampdenite; I bored him. ''Nice to meet you Mr. Mayor,'' I murmured. And then, while his guard was down, ''Please don't go with the Canadian Football League. Hold out for the NFL.''

His brow furrowed and his smile drooped slightly. Before he could respond, the crowd swelled and we were separated. Having had my moment next to greatness, I walked away in search of Cocoa Pebbles and milk. Just as I was about to hit the cereal aisle, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the mayor.

''What should I do if the NFL won't come to Baltimore?'' he asked me. ''What then?''

That is the question.

The Canadian Football League has granted tentative approval for a Baltimore franchise to Jim Speros, a Maryland businessman from the Washington suburbs. The league has already expanded into the United States with fledgling franchises in Sacramento and Las Vegas.

Mr. Speros seems genuine in his concern to bring football back to the frustrated city, talking for a while of galloping out the proud ''Colts'' name and even offering to pay for renovations to Memorial Stadium.

Some citizens, members of the media and politicians, apparently driven temporarily insane by the state's ridiculous dalliance with NFL expansion, have been receptive to the notion. Mayor Schmoke has flirted openly with the idea; Governor Schaefer seems almost resigned to it; and newspaper columnists and radio talk-show hosts have suggested that it's better than nothing.

Actually, it's not better than nothing. In fact, a CFL team in Baltimore would be extremely damaging to the city and the state.

One of the most persuasive arguments for dedicating so much time and money in the pursuit of an NFL expansion franchise was that a ''big-league'' team makes Baltimore a ''big-league city.'' It would stand to reason, then, that a small-time team makes Baltimore look small-time.

Image is most assuredly not everything. It is enough, however, that virtually all major businesses spend millions of dollars each to create an image and then millions more to jealously guard it. In some sense the Baltimore metropolitan area too is a business, one that succeeds by attracting residents and commerce.

So what kind of positioning does Baltimore versus Ottawa accomplish? It transforms the sublime home of Unitas, Marchetti and Shula -- site of epic battles versus Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh -- into the ridiculous playpen of also-rans, fighting for back-page headlines.

Who will know about the major manufacturing town, the important seaport, the dignified old city, or the legendary sports town? They'll only think of Baltimore, the bitter rival of Saskatchewan. That is, yawn, if they think of Baltimore at all.

Worse yet, the Canadian league plays its games through the summer, the heart of the Orioles season. Given the choice of minor-league football or the pennant-contending Birds, the fans will understandably flock to Camden Yards. That's when the ultimate indignity sets in: Robert Irsay and Paul Tagliabue telling the NFL and the world, ''I told you so.''

Not that it matters. Canadian football at Memorial Stadium is a final death knell for Baltimore's National Football League ambitions no matter how well the team is supported. Once Mr. Speros signs a lease, it will be almost impossible to keep Jack Kent Cooke out of Laurel. With his team so close, it's unlikely that an existing franchise would come here.

In response to the mayor's question, the best thing Baltimore can do is keep its vulnerable but valuable territory safe from looters -- either Redskins or maple leafs. He should fight hard with the state legislature to keep funds already earmarked for the new Camden Yards facility in place. And he should continue to negotiate with seducible National Football League teams.

Even if an NFL team never comes . . . well, as any good marketer would advise, a low profile is better than a poor image.

Baltimoreans were treated like ham-and-eggers by the NFL. That doesn't mean they should settle for Canadian scrapple.

Jack Gilden writes from Baltimore.

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