Seize this day by forgiving past 12 years

February 10, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

CHICAGO -- Where was ours? Baltimore fans can't help but ask that question today. Cleveland got the promise of a new team three months after losing its old one. Cleveland got to keep the Browns name, colors and records. Cleveland even got a loan from the NFL, to be repaid by its new owner.

Where was ours after the Colts left? Don't even ask, because the sports world has changed dramatically. The price of the Orioles went from $12 million to $173 million in a 14-year span. And the issue of franchise free agency became so threatening to the NFL, Cleveland was in position to cut a deal that would have fTC been unimaginable for Baltimore in 1984.

It's unfair, knowing it took Baltimore 12 years to return to the league, while it will take Cleveland only three. It's unfair, knowing the Colts' heritage went to Indianapolis and the Browns' heritage will stay in Cleveland. It's unfair, knowing that fan support in the two cities was comparable, until owner Robert Irsay ran the Colts into the ground.

Still, how long must we seethe? We've got a new team, a team that will start its own tradition, a team that owner Art Modell promises to overhaul. Let the NFL worry about the implications of lending one city between $28 million and $48 million for stadium construction.

The Browns are coming.

We've got ours.

"To go over past history is to deny reality," said Herb Belgrad, the former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "A tremendous amount has happened between 1984 and 1996. The whole climate in the NFL has changed substantially.

"The revenues have changed. The competition among cities for franchises has changed. And the expansion process cost the new teams dearly -- they lost half their TV revenues for three years, and paid exorbitant fees for the franchises.

"To try and look back and compare with 1984 will leave you very unhappy, very dissatisfied. It's apples and oranges."

Such is life with the NFL -- precedent is a relative term, because the league makes up the rules as it goes along. Several owners yesterday were quick to dismiss the idea that other abandoned cities would automatically get the same deal as Cleveland. The Bank of Tagliabue is open, but only for selected clients.

"This hadn't been done before, and might not be done again," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "But Cleveland was special."

Cleveland did more than its share, supporting the Browns faithfully, then providing $182 million in public funds for a new stadium. A Seattle or Houston probably would need to match that package to earn the same consideration from the league. Don't count on it, with Seattle building a new stadium for the Mariners, and Houston trying to save the Astros.

It's a whole new world now, in large part because of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Major League Baseball is a dinosaur on many fronts, but it started the trend toward high-revenue, state-of-the-art stadiums. In city after city -- Baltimore, Cleveland, Seattle, Phoenix -- the NFL is desperately trying to catch up.

None of this was the case when the Colts left in 1984. Heck, the state took three years to pass its twin-stadium legislation. The national outcry wasn't as great, because the fan support wasn't as rabid, and perhaps because the media coverage wasn't as intense. The truth is, Cleveland had a more emotional case, one that unsettled fans throughout North America.

But now what? Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis said the league "destroyed" his attempt to secure a new stadium in Los Angeles; now it's subsidizing one in Cleveland. The league wouldn't allow former New England owner Victor Kiam to move to Baltimore; now it has given that approval to Modell.

The guidelines for relocation are a joke. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue conceded yesterday that the Browns met only some of them, but secured league approval through their settlement with Cleveland. Modell joked that his moving vans would leave the Browns' training facility in Berea, Ohio, "when they come back from Los Angeles."

Guidelines for cities in need? Don't hold your breath waiting. The NFL will take a case-by-case approach, doing whatever it wants, whenever it wants. As Davis knows, the only policy is to have no policy. "It's selective, it's discriminatory and someone is going to have to answer for it," he said, in his usual threatening tone.

Solve one problem, create another. What happens in 1999 if the league doesn't want to expand, and can't find an owner willing to pay off a $48 million loan in Cleveland? Arizona's Bill Bidwill, the leading candidate to move, might be in a position of unique strength. "I'll go," he could tell Tagliabue, "but you repay the loan."

Of course, an owner such as Bidwill could use permanent seat license revenue to help reduce his stadium debt, but he isn't guaranteed that funding. Tagliabue can't even think about it; that problem is three years away. There might be a half-dozen more franchise shifts by then, complete with their own peculiar arrangements.

Where was ours? Don't bother asking; it's too late now. We were one of the first cities to lose a team in this era of relocation. No one knew how to react. No one grasped the psychological impact. No one understood what it would cost to get a team back.

As of today, it's all behind us.

We've got ours.

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