Football back in Baltimore, Canadian-style

February 16, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

After months of deliberation, negotiation and speculation, the Canadian Football League is sitting at Baltimore's doorstep.

When the CFL formally approves the franchise application of Virginia businessman Jim Speros in a cross-continent conference call today -- as it is expected to do -- Baltimore will be back on the football map.

Now what?

Training camp opens in mid-summer. The season starts in July and ends in late November with the Grey Cup, the league's championship game.

And before then, the team should have a nickname. Although Mr. Speros had announced it would be the Colts, after the NFL team that abandoned Baltimore 10 years ago, he is reconsidering in the wake of a lawsuit threatened by the NFL.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who signed a five-year lease to allow Speros' team to play in Memorial Stadium yesterday, threw the city's support behind Colts.

"The name of the team is up to the owner," Mr. Schmoke said to Mr. Speros, "but we're ready to fight for the name Colts if you're ready to do it. A number of law firms have said they will donate the cost of legal fees."

That pronouncement drew loud cheers in the mayor's ceremonial room.

Fans already have placed 25,000 reservations for tickets, according to team officials.

The team still has a roster to fill, a coaching staff to complete and a marquee player to sign.

Don Matthews, the coach of Baltimore's CFL team, promises to hit the ground running.

"As soon as we all get together, as soon as the press conference [tomorrow] is done, we'll be talking about players," Mr. Matthews said yesterday from Regina, Saskatchewan, where he coached the Saskatchewan Roughriders the last three seasons. "Then we'll be contacting players."

Once the franchise is awarded, Mr. Speros will file his own negotiation list of 52 prospective players with the CFL office. The list is confidential, but Speros said the name at the top is quarterback Tracy Ham, 30, a seven-year CFL veteran, and, more importantly, a free agent as of midnight.

Mr. Speros said he hopes to make Mr. Ham his marquee player, a player whose salary does not count against the team's $2.5 million salary cap.

"Tracy Ham is the prototype Canadian quarterback," Mr. Speros said. "He runs a legitimate 4.4 [second] 40-yard --. He has excellent vision. He can find his second and third receivers. He's durable, he's got a great arm. He's one of the better quarterbacks in the league."

Mr. Ham was the Most Valuable Player in the CFL in 1989 when he played for the Edmonton Eskimos. Mr. Matthews was a defensive coordinator on that team. Last year, Mr. Ham was the key figure in the biggest trade in CFL history. In an eight-for-eight player swap, the Eskimos sent him to the Toronto Argonauts.

It was less than a perfect marriage. The Argonauts installed the ++ run-and-shoot offense of Mouse Davis and Mr. Ham never got untracked. "That's not his game," Mr. Matthews said of the offensive system the Argos used. "In essence, they were trying to put a square peg in a round hole."

What Mr. Matthews remembers about Mr. Ham is how his running ability tortured CFL defenses.

"He was first CFL quarterback to rush for over 1,000 yards," Mr. Matthews said. "He may be the best running quarterback ever in the league."

Steve Buratto, who was on Mr. Matthews' staff in Saskatchewan and will become the team's offensive coordinator in Baltimore, raves about Mr. Ham's improvisational skills.

"He's awfully good at making something out of nothing," Mr. Buratto said.

Other players who might find their way to Baltimore include Canadian receiver Jeff Fairholm, nose tackle Gerald Baylis and cornerback Barry Wilburn, a former Washington Redskin. All three played under Mr. Matthews in Saskatchewan last year and are free agents.

Mr. Wilburn, 31, will attempt to catch on with an NFL team first.

CFL rules dictate that each team has rights to a list of non-veteran players who are on a negotiation list. Because Baltimore will have an expansion team, it will have a list of 52 players, Mr. Matthews said, compared to a list of 35 players allowed existing teams.

There's a CFL draft, too, but the U.S. teams don't participate. That includes the Sacramento Gold Miners and the Las Vegas Posse. Along with Baltimore, Shreveport, La., is expected to be awarded a franchise today.

Although Canadian teams have a quota of 17 American players -- or "imports" -- there is no limit in the States.

And that means local players will be welcome when the team holds its tryout camp in March.

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