Browns touch down in their new hometown Announcement makes the shift to Baltimore official

Feelings mixed about move

'I did not have a choice,' says club owner Modell

November 07, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

On a day to recall painful moves of the past and present, Baltimore's pro football future arrived yesterday.

Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell made official what has become Baltimore's worst-kept secret: He is moving his team here, uprooting it from its home a year shy of 50 seasons there.

Mr. Modell, perhaps the least likely member of pro football's gray-headed oligarchy to forsake loyal fans for out-of-town riches, made clear his pain.

"This has been a very tough road for my family and me. I leave my home of 35 years and a good part of my heart there," said Mr. Modell, 70, who intends to move his family to town with the team.

But Cleveland lacked the capability to build him a new stadium in addition to the baseball park and arena it recently constructed. And he was losing millions in outdated Cleveland Stadium, he said.

"Frankly, I did not have a choice," Mr. Modell told a crowd of reporters, supporters and a few protesters gathered on the site where, in 32 months, a new stadium is scheduled to rise from a parking lot across from Oriole Park. The stadium will complete the twin complex funded by the General Assembly in 1988.

For the next two seasons, the team will play at Memorial Stadium, on the grass that John Unitas once ruled. Then, it's on to a new, $200 million football field, packed with sky boxes, club seats and maybe some high-tech gadgetry, such as seat-back televisions, for fans. Tickets aren't on sale yet, but fans can get in their requests by contacting the Maryland Stadium Authority.

"This is a great day for Baltimore, this is a great day for the state of Maryland, and, personally, this is a great day to be governor," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

He and other Maryland officials brushed off the expected challenges from Cleveland, such as a temporary court order granted yesterday, saying they are confident not only in the binding lease the team has signed, but also in assurances from Mr. Modell that the league will not and cannot stop him.

Cleveland is claiming in court that the Browns' old lease requires them to play in Cleveland Stadium through 1998. The team says it can pay off the last three years and move.

Holding up a copy of the 31-page lease agreement signed Oct. 27, Mr. Glendening said, "The Browns are indeed coming to Baltimore."

Other than a smattering of boos and a few signs -- most taking the governor to task for paying millions of dollars for football while cutting the state's aid to the disabled -- the reception was warm and enthusiastic.

The bright, fall afternoon contrasted starkly with the slushy spring night in 1984, when a fleet of Mayflower moving vans crept out of town with the Colts. Several veterans of that day said the memories tempered their joy.

"I know that the people of Baltimore are not unmindful of the hurt felt by the people of Cleveland," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said.

Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Glendening said they spoke with their counterparts in Ohio yesterday and offered condolences, advice, but no apologies. Mr. Schmoke had breakfast with Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White, an old friend who was cordial enough to pick up the tab.

"I told him I would, if I were him, begin preparing the case for why football should come back to Cleveland," Mr. Schmoke said. "He made it clear that he was still going to fight."

Touching on the lingering skittishness in Baltimore, where hopes repeatedly have been raised and --ed, Mr. Schmoke said, "I think it's really time to start getting excited about football."

Mr. Glendening said he also spoke yesterday with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who offered no opinion on the move, but assured the governor of a speedy hearing and decision by the Super Bowl in late January. The move will be discussed at a meeting of NFL owners today in Dallas, but a vote is not expected.

The governor said he has spoken with other team owners in the league and is sure they will not try to block the move of Mr. Modell, a league stalwart who helped negotiate its lucrative television contracts and navigate its treacherous labor relations with players.

With Mr. Glendening on the dais was stadium authority chairman John Moag, the lawyer/lobbyist who succeeded with quiet wheeling and dealing where the passionate appeals of the city's power elite repeatedly had failed.

Prominent among the crowd was one of the men instrumental in making it happen: William Donald Schaefer, who, as mayor, cried when the Colts left and, as governor, fumed when the NFL rejected his offer of a lucrative stadium for an expansion team.

Mr. Schaefer pushed for and signed the stadium funding that made the deal so lucrative.

Mr. Schaefer did not speak at the event, but was applauded as loudly as Mr. Modell when introduced. Afterward, he said he wasn't sorry to see his efforts pay off after he left office.

Hebert J. Belgrad was away on business. The lawyer was the first stadium authority chairman and fought to convince a wary legislature that only two stadiums would do, that they should be downtown and that it would have to enrich the richest of team owners if Baltimore was to return to the NFL.

"It wasn't any one person. It was the Colts band that never gave up, it was the business community that bought all the seats, it was Herb Belgrad, and it was the General Assembly, and the fans that kept the faith," Mr. Schaefer said.

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