Baltimore players take field Group of ex-Browns visits new home, fans, in effort to win hearts

February 14, 1996|By Brad Snyder and Jon Morgan | Brad Snyder and Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

*TC They don't have a new stadium, a name or even team colors.

But Baltimore's NFL team has players. And you're likely to see more of them in coming weeks as the team formerly known as the Cleveland Browns emerges from its three-month legal hibernation.

"All they've heard about are lawsuits, they've heard about stadiums that aren't built and coaches they haven't met, but they haven't heard about the players," said Kevin Byrne, the team's vice president and public relations director.

The team yesterday launched its battle for the hearts of local sports fans, rather than just the attention of lawyers. Five players -- including quarterback Vinny Testaverde -- made a highly public pilgrimage to "Orrsville," the Memorial Stadium end-zone corner where Johnny Unitas threw so many touchdown passes to Jimmy Orr, the fans named it for him.

Also on yesterday's photo-friendly itinerary: a visit to an elementary school, a Waverly diner and a community center. At each stop, players signed autographs, mugged for the cameras and joked with kids.

Such events had been disallowed by court order. Cleveland, trying to force the team to play through the end of its stadium lease, got a judge to issue a temporary injunction preventing any steps toward moving to Baltimore -- including promotions -- until the lease case was settled.

But Cleveland agreed Thursday to drop the lawsuit in exchange for a team by 1999 and the NFL's financial assistance in building a stadium.

Now the team has to make up for lost time in Baltimore. And the work is considerable: It needs to sell tickets, the season-ticket fees known as permanent seat licenses, choose a name, decide on a coach, endear itself to fans, and head off a challenge to stadium funding in the General Assembly. Oh, and the preseason kickoff is six months away.

So it was more than the attention of the students the team was seeking when Mr. Testaverde, running back Leroy Hoard, offensive lineman Tony Jones, safety Eric Turner and linebacker Pepper Johnson dropped by the lunchroom at Waverly Elementary School.

The players were accompanied by team vice president David Modell and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Each player told the students a little about himself, answered questions and signed a lot of autographs.

Travon Stith, a fifth-grader at Waverly, had met a few of his football heroes and was impressed.

"I think they're going to make it to the playoffs," Travon said. "I have very good dreams of them bringing a big trophy home. I hope they make it to the Super Bowl."

Wallace Beal, who has three grandchildren at Waverly Elementary, walked over to the school to check out the players. "It's a wonderful thing, their coming to Baltimore," Mr. Beal, 73, said of the new NFL team. "It's nice for the neighborhood, the fans, everyone."

Mr. Beal said he used to go to watch the Colts play, and he can't wait to show his grandchildren what the NFL is all about.

The team will need thousands of fans such as Mr. Beal. It's facing a number of marketing challenges, said John Antil, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Delaware and an expert on sports marketing.

"They need to put the past three months behind them. You promote the players and the team and pretend the rest didn't happen," Mr. Antil said.

Picking a name should be job No. 1, Mr. Antil said. You can't build brand identity without a brand name. And the name will be integral to the rest of the advertising and marketing.

"That's a decision that they need to make very soon. I would make it into a promotional event," Mr. Antil said.

Mr. Modell, the son of team owner Art Modell, said he's not sure when the name will be picked, but is more concerned about getting the right name rather than the quickest name. Until then, he's stressing the team's history of community involvement -- such as 1,200 player appearances in Cleveland last year.

"The fans are our 12th man on the field. We can't play without them," said Mr. Jones, standing in the CFL Stallions' former locker room at Memorial Stadium, dressed in a black-and-white pinstripe suit and a black hat.

"From what I've heard, these fans are dying for a football team. That's a great situation. I'm hoping they'll be out there," he said.

In addition to their visit to Memorial Stadium, where they will play the next two seasons until their new facility is built adjacent to Oriole Park, the players stopped at Pete's Grill for lunch, and then visited The Safe and Smart Center, a local community center, trailed the whole way by reporters and television cameras.

"Each of these guys are real good guys who are interested in this community," Mr. Byrne said. "We cultivated that in Cleveland. It's not something in the water. And we'll cultivate it here, too."

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