A lesson to be learned from Speros

November 22, 1995|By John Eisenberg

Here is a way to settle this thing: Let the Stallions and Browns play one game in early January at Memorial Stadium. Call it the Irsay Bowl. Give the first 25,000 fans in the door a free rubber chicken and a coupon for $2 off the price of a permanent seat license.

The stakes? Losing team has to leave town.

But wait. We can't do that, can we? The Stallions might win. (Ham or Testaverde? Pringle or Hoard? Matthews or Belichick? Think about it.) And that would be a problem. Because with all due respect to the Stallions' loyal following, the vast majority of Baltimore's fans would take a mediocre NFL team over a championship CFL team. In a heartbeart, they would.

Stallions owner Jim Speros is going around saying we could support both teams, of course, or at least that is the position he is taking this week while he tries to get the governor or mayor to give him some money for his time and trouble. Good luck.

Me? I'd love to see two teams in two leagues playing here next year. Why, it would be fun just watching the grounds crew at Memorial Stadium reconfigure the field every week. Imagine if they got mixed up one week and the Browns and Bengals had to play with a 55-yard line and "singles." Vinny Testaverde might not be able to figure it out.

Anyway, the Stallions are fun and successful and the perfect vehicle for more than a few fans around here in an age of creeping fan cynicism. Who wouldn't want to keep them around? And although Speros talks out of every side of his mouth, the other owners in town could learn from his example of how to build a winner. He hired a good coach and a smart personnel man and left them alone. Let them do their jobs. That's what a smart owner does.

The Grey Cup he won was no coincidence. Championships are always more likely when the owner doesn't meddle.

Yes, the CFL is a minor-league operation and Speros has exaggerated everything from his ticket sales to his biography, but he has run the on-field end of his organization in a major-league manner. That'll be his legacy if he leaves town.

Make that when he leaves town.

Because he will.

Because as much as it would be goofy and fun to have two teams in two leagues here, it won't work. There just isn't enough support.

The Stallions' core following dropped from 25,000 to 20,000 this season even though the team improved, and Speros was begging that many to come to playoff games at the end. The Browns' arrival would shrink Speros' core even more. A choice between a major-league product and a lesser one really is no choice at all for most consumers. Remember when the Baysox spent the summer at Memorial Stadium a few years ago? Everyone thought they'd flourish as a cheap alternative to the Orioles at Camden Yards. They didn't.

Sure, the Browns will be much, much more expensive than the Orioles ever were, but still, the Stallions would be in trouble once the enormous quality difference between the NFL and CFL became painfully obvious at Memorial Stadium. And remember, the Stallions have yet to experience the inevitable disappointing season, which always shrinks interest.

It's a shame because the Stallions deserve a home here and the CFL is nothing if not entertaining -- the Grey Cup was a fabulous game -- but Speros really doesn't have a choice. And, frankly, it's hard to feel sorry for him. He took the absence of the NFL in our town and played it liked a violin, summoning all the old ghosts and squeezing every dollar he could out of the fans' warm memories. It was as calculated as it was shrewd.

Now, that same absence of the NFL -- which resulted in the lust that led to the offer Art Modell couldn't refuse -- has brought a team back to town. In other words, Speros' greatest marketing ploy has turned on him. What goes around comes around. He says he has six cities interested in him. He had better start crunching the numbers.

It's no surprise that Speros is refusing to go without a fight. He never did know how or when to keep his mouth shut. It's part of his beauty. He is a hustler and a fighter and one of the last people in the world who still believes that any publicity is good publicity. He will be missed.

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