Though dying Irsay's still an easy target, it seems hatred disappeared in the night

March 04, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

I READ THE NEWS the other day about Bob Irsay's failing health. And I felt . . . nothing.

This caught me completely off guard.

I come from a family where blood feuds are not only tolerated, but actively encouraged. But here was the great enemy of my people lying deathly ill and I had nothing going.

I couldn't even come up with a decent pull-the-plug joke.

Was I, God forbid, showing latent signs of maturity?

Had I learned, when I wasn't looking, and when I certainly hadn't meant to, something about the merits of forgiving and forgetting?

Or was I just -- and here was the scary part -- losing my edge?

I know. Irsay is a sick old man. It's been many years since his great crime. We've got a new team here. It's time to let go.

But let me tell you about my family, which the Montagues and Capulets would have admired. My grandmother, just for one example, did not speak to one of her brothers -- we'll call him Uncle Bennie -- for 50 years.

There was no death-bed reconciliation either. My grandmother didn't buy into the never-speak-ill-of-the-dead-or-dying school of etiquette. We didn't call her the Ayatollah for nothing.

It's like I can hear her now (actually, I can; she's alive and well in Miami): "I should like them better because they're dead?"

Maybe you'll understand if you hear the story. Once upon a time, my grandfather owned a small construction company. Uncle Bennie was out of work and begging for a job. My grandfather, who was barely scraping by, couldn't afford another employee, but he took him on anyway. Family, you know.

A month into the job, Uncle Bennie didn't show up to work one day. Aparently he had other business. This business involved turning my grandfather in to the authorities: for paying him less than the minimum wage.

That's how blood feuds begin. But it takes real talent to nurture them. The Hatfields and McCoys didn't become enemies at the first shotgun blast.

In my family, hate was nearly as important as love. Certainly, they were connected.

Here's how I was raised: We loved the Dodgers and hated the Yankees. Loved Adlai Stevenson, hated Richard Nixon. Bought Fords, not Chevys. Jelly doughnuts, never glazed.

(Our latest shared hate interest, by the way, is Pat "Lock and Load" Buchanan. He's perfect, because, like Nixon, he hates you right back. In fact, Buchanan was apparently involved in creating Nixon's enemies list. Now, he's content to demonize immigrants -- he calls Mexicans "Jose" -- and you'd never guess that his housekeeper is -- oops -- Chilean. Letterman said that Buchanan pledged to put a fence around her. I love to hate this guy.)

I came to be a Colts fan early in life, even though I didn't live in Baltimore. I grew up in Virginia, in what was Redskins country. But we hated the Redskins because of their racist owner, George Preston Marshall. Meanwhile, the Colts had Johnny U and Lenny Moore and Big Daddy Lipscomb, and they became our team.

As luck would have it, I finally got to town just as the Colts left. There were only two rooting interests here that mattered: for the Orioles and against the Irsays.

Being anti-Irsay was what defined you as a Baltimorean. (After his mother called him a "devil on earth," I once jokingly wrote that she had taken out an 800 number: 1-800-HATE-BOB. And people actually called it).

Hating Irsay was one of the few unifying principles in town. The other was sitting on benches with William Donald Schaefer's name on them.

Eventually, Irsay-bashing became a nostalgia sport. It was like listening to an oldies station. Like, how many times can you listen to the Singing Nuns before you automatically hit the button?

The funny thing was, last year when the Colts almost made it to the Super Bowl, I knew people who, in spite of themselves, in spite of who they believed themselves to be, couldn't help rooting for them to win.

It was a time of healing.

It was a time when the Cleveland football team was moving to town. And a time when Irsay just didn't seem to matter anymore.

That doesn't mean I forgive him -- not until we get the Colts' name back, anyway -- but there's no point to hating him now. There's hardly any point in even remembering him.

If that sounds mature, well, I'll just have to live with it.

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