A decade later, the pain still throbs

March 28, 1994|By John Steadman

Never has a city been wounded so deeply. A keepsake was stolen under the cover of darkness as a thief came during the night and took the Baltimore Colts away. The pain of emptiness continues unabated.

It was 10 years ago, March 28, 1984, an infamous date, when Baltimore suffered the loss of what could be considered a natural resource or historical landmark. Comparable, perhaps, to Chesapeake Bay and Fort McHenry. The Colts were kidnapped the same as a bandit in the night would make off with diamonds, pearls or a rare work of art.

In this case, it was a birthright. To add to the indignity, the franchise and its footballs, helmets, blocking dummies and lockers, were packed into moving vans, and hauled to Indianapolis.

It's a move that further degraded the perpetrator, Bob Irsay, but also embarrassed the National Football League because no governing body in all of sports has ever permitted such grand larceny to occur and not rectified the heist.

The shame of what happened has been perpetuated. Compounding the robbery, commissioner Paul Tagliabue could have corrected the wrong, but didn't. In the expansion process last November, he selected Jacksonville, Fla., over Baltimore, which tells you about his compassion, understanding and awareness of tradition. Baltimore, its people and the grand achievements of its team for 35 eventful years meant nothing.

"I don't feel Indianapolis will have any luck with the Colts because deep within my soul I believe God, in His infinite wisdom, will see that doesn't happen," said Tom Clancy, a noted Baltimore author who grew up with the Colts.

Another strong perspective is offered by the most superb on-the-field performer the Colts ever had, John Unitas, a storied Hall of Fame quarterback. He talked of the loss by saying, "The Baltimore fans were robbed. It's a sin. Tagliabue could have earned respect all over the country had he put a team back in Baltimore, but he failed. This tells you all you need to know."

After the Colts had been insensitively trucked off to a place that didn't deserve them, then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle was visibly upset. Rozelle and staff members were so far removed from knowing what was happening to one of their own teams they called a sportswriter to learn if Irsay was still in Baltimore and, furthermore, hopefully to gather a hint of his plans since he was acting without their approval.

After the defection, Irsay insisted the actions of the mayor, now governor, William Donald Schaefer, triggered the move. It never would have occurred, according to Irsay, except for Schaefer's actions.

"He stabbed me in the back," Irsay commented, a claim we heard him utter during a sobering moment at the team's initial training camp in Andersonville, Ind., four months after he plundered Baltimore.

During the acrimony that preceded the abandonment, Schaefer defended Irsay, insisting the man was misunderstood. This came off as rhetoric and was interpreted by those watching and listening that Schaefer wanted to soften criticism of Irsay with the hope he could keep dealing with the unpredictable owner, who knew zero about football.

Before the pull-out, Schaefer approved the city delegation to the state legislature to ask for the creation of eminent domain laws to stop the Colts, a 35-year Baltimore institution, from going anywhere. Irsay reacted in a matter of hours. He went to Indianapolis. Would it have happened without the belated legislation?

On another matter, the legislature also granted Baltimore, as an appeasement to Irsay, the right to begin Sunday games earlier than 2 p.m. Baltimore was the only NFL city where such a stipulation prevailed, preventing the Colts from gaining additional national television exposure. But Irsay left before the revised regulation could be utilized.

Odd, but in Baltimore you could play golf, tennis, ride a bike or horse, jog, visit a public park, enter a saloon and get roaring drunk, but, no, a game dare not commence before 2 p.m. Sunday. The legislature finally voted 116 to 12 to erase the law.

Baltimore deserves a team, but the NFL doesn't care. Only 10 games a year are played in a city so, economically, a franchise has little tangible impact. Baltimore had a love for the NFL, contributed richly to its acceptance, but was ignored twice -- by Irsay, who raped the city, and Tagliabue, who ignored the crime.

Ten years of heartbreak continue. The robbery of a civic treasure. Baltimore cries because it cared, something the selfishness of Irsay and Tagliabue would never allow them to even remotely understand.

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