Two Old Titans, Mano a Mano and Claiming Victory

March 13, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

OK, sports fans. It's time out at the Schaefer-Cooke football showdown. It sure has been a rollicking game so far, so engrossing that virtually everything else of import has come to a standstill in political Annapolis.

This obsession with the crazy bounces of professional football has Governor Schaefer and the billionaire Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke locked in a mano a mano duel of power and wits. For both, it's their swan song, and each wants to go out a winner.

XTC So far, Mr. Schaefer retains the stronger hand. Last week he headed off bids to strip the stadium authority of money for a football coliseum at Camden Yards. He switched strategy and enlisted Orioles owner Peter Angelos to aggressively try to steal a team from another city. And last week's middle-of-the-road consultant's report on infrastructure costs for Mr. Cooke's proposed Laurel stadium allowed both Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Cooke to declare victory.

For his part, Mr. Cooke has waged a colorful and zesty publicity campaign to win over journalists, legislators and just plain folks to the idea that a Cooke Pleasure Palace near beautiful downtown Laurel would be a boon for all Maryland.

He's been cheered as a conquering hero in Frostburg for promising to shift the Redskins' training camp to that isolated mountain community west of Cumberland. He's tried with mixed success to woo the folks from Laurel to his cause. And he massaged the egos of state legislators in hopes of putting pressure on the governor to embrace the Laurel stadium.

But despite last week's progress in Annapolis, time is not on Mr. Cooke's side. He is 81 years old. Mr. Schaefer still may pose problems before he leaves office next January. The next governor might not be receptive, either. Civic gadflies promise bureaucratic and court fights over stadium zoning issues that could last three years. It could take another two years after that before the stadium is ready to open.

Moreover, there's still a chance Mr. Angelos and his investment group could land an NFL football team for Baltimore from either Los Angeles or Tampa Bay. It's not an impossible dream. As the governor is learning, what counts with NFL owners is ruthless aggressiveness and cold, hard cash -- and the forceful Mr.

Angelos is dangling gigantic gobs of dough (try $200,000,000).

If the Angelos-Schaefer combine succeeds, Mr. Cooke's lucrative dream of capturing both the Washington and Baltimore sports markets would evaporate. He'd have a hard time filling those 300-plus sky boxes at the Laurel stadium without corporate help from Baltimore firms. He'd have to re-evaluate the financial gains from a Laurel stadium versus a Loudon County (Va.) site. Why, he might even do the unthinkable and reopen negotiations for a Cooke coliseum next to RFK Stadium in D.C.

This clash of the titans has been a sight to behold. Both men can be gruff and overbearing, playful and humorous, charming and persuasive, demanding and stubborn, petulant and parochial. They're the Stadium Twins, joined at the hip in this struggle, yet forever at odds. This town ain't big enough for the two of them.

Or is it?

By working out a compromise with legislative leaders, Mr. Schaefer robs Mr. Cooke of any leverage in Annapolis to force the state's hand this year. He also gets what he wanted most -- nine months to pursue and land an NFL club for Baltimore. Yet he still was able to throw out a welcome mat (albeit without much warmth) to the Redskins, claiming a great economic development victory for Maryland -- the future home of two NFL franchises.

As for Mr. Cooke, he didn't score a knockout punch by any means. But he has now effectively removed Mr. Schaefer from the stadium equation (as long as he doesn't tangle with Mr. Angelos' NFL efforts in Baltimore). He can move on to what may turn out to be a far bigger obstacle -- winning zoning and environmental approval. Best of all, his Laurel stadium dream is very much alive.

If he's got the stamina, Cooke Stadium could open by the end of this century. By then, the Baltimore Rams/Buccaneers may be happily ensconced at Camden Yards. And the CFL Colts will be playing at Memorial Stadium. This region could be the envy of every pro-football fan in the country.

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

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