The football tie that binds a city isn't just a team

January 22, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I've been busting to tell you the stunning news in my life, but I'm afraid nobody out there will believe me. But I can give you witnesses. My wife saw it happen. My kids, raised to tell the truth, can testify. I'll swear to it on a stack of libels.

I watched two National Football League games last Sunday, and I didn't even fall asleep once.

Now, I know what you're saying.

You're saying: Liar.

You're saying: Nobody's stayed awake through one NFL game in the decade since the Colts left, so how come you, Olesker, a man who's practically a professional sleeper, a man who's turned snoring into a cultural art form, how come you managed to stay awake through two?

Answer: To prove it could be done.

Remember, this was a week ago, when the city still clung to hopes of getting an NFL team. I wanted to show that, sure, we really do care about football, we really do find the games exhilarating, we really do look forward to the prospect of sitting at the ballpark in December when it's 27 degrees and sleeting, and it's the third quarter and we're trailing 38 to 3 and they've called another in a never-ending series of TV time-outs, and. . . .

See, that's the dirty little secret of the National Football League.

It's a bore.

Yeah, we've wanted a team here ever since the Colts left. But, in the ensuing 11 years, we figured out the thing that the NFL only talks about in whispers: Without a rooting interest, the game is deadly dull. Without emotional pull, it's no more exciting than watching a bunch of schoolyard kids throwing a ball around.

Except, with the kids, they're not moving out of town if you don't build them a playground with sky boxes.

So the Tampa Bay Bucs, having terrified their fans and having been sold to the reptilian Malcolm Glazer, will stay where they are (until Glazer gets ticked off that the city won't build him a new ballpark, at which point he'll start getting estimates from the Mayflower moving people). And the Los Angeles Rams will now move to St. Louis, to replace the departed Cardinals. The Rams originally arrived in L.A. from the city of Cleveland, which is now hearing threats about moving from the Browns. The Cardinals, of course, vacated St. Louis a few years back for Phoenix, where their owner, the abrasive Bill Bidwill, is already threatening to move because he doesn't like the accommodations.

Where can he go? How about Los Angeles? With the Rams gone, there's room. L.A.'s other team, the Raiders, having pirated themselves out of Oakland, have dropped leaden hints about vacating L.A. as well. Peter Angelos has had talks with Al Davis, the Raiders' owner, and says he likes the guy.

Then you have the Cincinnati Bengals, unhappy with their ballpark and talking of looking for some new suitor to embrace them. Seattle's shaky, too. And then there are the Redskins, who belong to a locality known as Jack Kent Cooke.

When all this movement, and all these threats of movement, permeate the atmosphere, a murderous psychology develops. The unconditional love that exists between a team and a town goes away. That love doesn't mean every town regards every player uncritically. It just means that, as in a family, you clutch the team to your chest and embrace them. They do well, you feel great. They suffer, you suffer.

When you live in an atmosphere of threats, all that emotional business goes away. Baltimoreans didn't give up their Colts season tickets because the team stank. We'd been through days of ineptitude back in the early '50s. It was Irsay, foaming at the mouth and threatening to move, that disgusted everybody.

And the NFL let it happen, and in the ensuing years doesn't seem to have grasped the obvious: You need cities with deep emotional bonds. Without the emotion, without feeling that these guys are representing you, the game's interesting mainly to people who've laid a few bucks on point spreads. They're not following athletes, just arithmetic.

So there I was last weekend, watching the San Francisco 49ers play the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers play the San Diego Chargers, and vowing not to fall asleep.

And I noticed a funny thing. For years, I was a season-ticket holder at Colts games. Knew every player's name. Knew every number. Last week, there were 188 players on the four teams. I knew fewer than 10 of them. The other 180 or so, didn't know their names, never heard of them, didn't care.

Since the Colts left, I've learned to enjoy Sundays in other ways. I've watched maybe a dozen games, total, since they split. Life goes on.

A new football team for Baltimore? Yeah, sure, it'd be great. Everybody says so, don't they? Let's not get discouraged about Tampa Bay. Let's look elsewhere. Bring new life to the city. Bring in new money.

It'd be fabulous. It'd be exhilarating.

I'm pretty sure of this, when I manage to care.

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