Memories, fun, thrills and all without the NFL

July 19, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The traffic was backed up on 28th Street when we pulled off the Jones Falls Expressway. Can't be stadium traffic, we said. Gotta be something else. Can't be football traffic, because Artscape's here all weekend, and everybody in the city's down there. Can't be stadium traffic, because nobody knows this Canadian football game yet, and nobody's embraced this team yet, this Baltimore CFL Whatevers.

But it was the Whatevers. It was the lure of a pro football team of our own, at last, and it had traffic backed up on 28th Street, and backed up on Charles Street when we tried to make a left toward 33rd, and backed up so badly when we finally turned onto Calvert Street that we simply parked the car when we got to 31st Street and walked the rest of the way, and found the sidewalks filled with more walkers, people who'd parked their cars, who'd never imagined the crowds, who were making this pilgrimage into Baltimore's football past and stayed for a ripping, exhilarating look into the future.

We walked into the ballpark just as the old, treasured Baltimore Colt Marching Band was bounding onto the field and playing the ancient fight song. Let's go, you Baltimore Colts. If you didn't have a lump in your throat, then you weren't alive back when that song was the municipal battle hymn.

When the band finished, the big crowd bathed them in affectionate applause. From our seats, we could see the band members pretty well. A lot of them looked too young to remember the glory days, but they looked up when they heard the crowd's roar, and some of them had looks on their faces that said, "So this is the thing we've heard about all these years, this emotional link between a town and a team."

The man on the public address system played to our hearts. "The Baltimore CFL . . . ," he intoned, and each time he did, the crowd cried back, "Colts!" It felt like comic anarchy. It felt as if we were a collective government in exile spitting in the eye of the militaristic incumbents -- the running dogs of the National Football League -- who didn't want to give us a football team, and now don't want to let us have our name back.

So "Colts" it was, again and again, and what are they gonna do about it, sue all 40,000 people who showed up Saturday night? And CFL it is, too, and you know what? The NFL can keep their game; this one's more exciting.

The field's wider, the passing longer and more frequent, and there's motion everywhere. Tired of third-down, short-yardage halfback dives into the line? Saturday night, on the few occasions when Baltimore or Calgary dived off-tackle, fans good-naturedly sneered, "What is this, the NFL?"

What this game needs, more than anything, is simple exposure. If they can put together some sort of television contract, they'll attract millions of NFL fans who follow the older league mostly out of habit, and not because they still find the game interesting.

Nobody understands this better than the CFL itself. One week after Baltimore opened its regular season in Toronto, in front of only 13,000 fans there, the CFL has to be salivating with glee after Baltimore drew three times that figure Saturday night.

But the key is television. The hope, not too far into the future, is to develop a television contract in the United States based on eight American cities playing CFL football, and eight in Canada. With a serious TV contract, this is a football game for the 21st century. Without a contract, it fights for a sense of legitimacy.

For the moment, though, this is fun. Part of it's the link with the past -- Who was this No. 81 who kept catching passes for Baltimore? By me, 81 is Ordell Braase. Who was this No. 7 making tackles? Bert Jones? -- but it's not just the past.

The ballgames become a common denominator for the whole community. They bring a sense of life during a time when the city seems edgy with itself. While the football team played, there were hundreds of thousands more people near Bolton Hill, for the annual Artscape Festival, people from all backgrounds, and a sense of general good nature was in the air. We need such things; we're hungry for signs of civility.

At the ballpark, the scoreboard clock showed 1:21 left to play, and Baltimore was trailing 32-16. But most seats were still filled, and there were still cheers: "C-O-L-T-S." It was an echo of yesteryear, sure, but also a sign of life in the here and now.

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