In the NFL's new game, this city has gone from martyr to pawn THE BROWNS' MOVE TO BALTIMORE

November 07, 1995|By John Steadman

No longer a martyr. Baltimore, once so pure and sanctimonious, has blood on its hands. The aura of pseudo-purity has been stripped away. There are regret, shame and embarrassment on an occasion that should be one of explosive elation. Euphoria is conspicuous by its absence. Rightly so.

Under a Colt-blue sky on a glorious November day, the Cleveland Browns became the Baltimore Browns. And quickly, just like that, Baltimore became another stop on the NFL's floating craps game. The man who appeared to be suffering the most during this historic moment was Art Modell, who turned his back on Cleveland, where he lived for 35 years, walked away and took his football team with him to Baltimore.

Never again will he feel welcome enough to go back there and sleep in his own bed. He'll be selling his house and forming new friends. An emotional man, he was a study in dejection as the welcoming news conference droned on and the governor offered self-serving comments before introducing Modell as the newest citizen of Maryland -- the reason being that he can't go back to Ohio because of the backlash he created.

Baltimore wanted to regain its stature in the NFL, but not at the expense of the Cleveland Browns. When Bob Irsay deserted Baltimore and went to Indianapolis under the cover of darkness in 1984, he didn't have the vaguest idea what he was doing.

But with Modell, it's different. There's no way to compare him to Irsay in substance and talent. But the deeds of Modell and Irsay, taking away something we used to hear was a public trust, are precisely the same. His friend who welcomed him to the NFL in 1961, the late Art Rooney, the gentleman owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, would be disappointed, even if Modell is complimenting Baltimore by bringing it a franchise.

We remember so well that afternoon in 1951 while visiting with Rooney at Pimlico and awaiting his answer on how he felt about transferring the Steelers to Baltimore. He admitted considering it for weeks but finally said, "I can't do that to my town."

When Baltimore was violated by Irsay, Rooney often mentioned, in that wry way of his, "the man isn't wrapped too tight." Modell is the antithesis of Irsay. He's smart, alert, articulate, humorous and knows that 11 players constitute a team on the field. Some of his Cleveland chums will be crossing to the other side of the street if they see him coming. Not good.

Modell was one of the first citizens of Cleveland, involved in worthwhile civic projects, decorated with more awards than he has space to display them and a nonstop giver to charitable causes. So it's totally out of character for him to deprive Cleveland of what's so dear to its affections.

Yes, yes, Baltimore wanted to be accommodated in the NFL, but not this way. Cleveland feels abandoned, angered with Modell and down in the psychological dumps that its team of 50 years, the Browns, has taken it on the lam. Baltimore offers empathy to its Ohio neighbors. There's no rejoicing in Maryland . . . certainly not the kind you'd expect to accompany what could have been a momentous moment.

Seated on a platform in the middle of the old railroad property that is Camden Yards, where the new, $200 million rent-free stadium will be erected for him, he appeared to be the loneliest man in all the world. He signified by his presence that he wanted to be in Baltimore, but it appeared, under the trauma of the moment, it was not exactly a comforting experience.

He had to be recalling all the good times he had known in Cleveland. Modell, though, found it impossible to resist the lure of the Baltimore deal -- which is profitable for him, costly to Cleveland and expensive to the Maryland Stadium Authority with its free rent for 30 years, plus the right to charge a permanent seat license (otherwise known as an act of extortion) before a fan is entitled to buy a ticket.

The NFL owners will have to vote on the Cleveland-to-Baltimore move, even though Modell is committed to taking up residence on the crab flats of the Chesapeake. Approval or rejection from his fellow NFL owners won't happen until mid-January, and some of them are not too happy.

There's a feeling the NFL will launch into damage control and try to repair the breach. One way would be to get Modell to go back to Cleveland or take over an expansion club in Los Angeles, and let his friend, Al Lerner, who is a part of the Browns' ownership, own a Baltimore expansion franchise that would be absolutely committed . . . in writing . . . while getting on with construction of the new football facility.

Advisers to commissioner Paul Tagliabue on the expansion effort in 1993 obviously gave him bad advice that is now traumatizing the NFL. Instead of first putting expansion teams in Baltimore and St. Louis, two cities that had lost their clubs and deserved to be cared for, the recommendations were ill-conceived.

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