Speros hopes for replay in Montreal Owner tries to repeat Baltimore success

June 27, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In a scene lifted straight from Baltimore's 1994 introduction to the Canadian Football League, Jim Speros will roll out the red carpet tonight at Montreal's Olympic Stadium.

Stepping onto it will be local politicians, football heroes from the city's storied past, and, of course, the intrepid CFL owner himself.

All this pomp and circumstance will herald the return of the CFL to Montreal after a nine-year absence. What's more, it also completes the awkward transition for Speros from owner of the Grey Cup champion Baltimore Stallions to owner of the reincarnated Montreal Alouettes.

Sometime before the new Alouettes kick off against the Toronto Argonauts, Speros will sense his own brand of deja vu. It won't be just because the Argos' coach is Don Matthews, who happened to be the architect of Baltimore's two-year juggernaut.

"I don't think I can ever reproduce what I did in Baltimore," Speros said of the home opener two years ago, when 39,247 at Memorial Stadium watched a 42-16 loss to the Calgary Stampeders.

Still, he will try. There's a new head coach -- Speros elevated defensive coordinator Bob Price after Matthews left. There's a $1.5 million infusion of cash from the Molson O'Keefe Brewery in an unusual sponsorship deal.

And, tonight, there will be a parade of former Alouettes, including CFL Hall of Fame quarterback Sam Etcheverry and Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, who took Montreal to its last Grey Cup championship in 1977. In Baltimore, Speros held weekly Colts reunions and started a Ring of Honor for them on the facade of Memorial Stadium.

The biggest question facing Speros now is whether he can create passion in a town where indifference has languished since 1987, when the Alouettes disappeared from the Montreal landscape.

"This was not a city begging to have football back by any stretch," said Montreal native Rick Moffat, the radio voice for the Alouettes.

"The bottom line is ticket sales, and it's been real slow. It's been a lot tougher than they expected."

Speros, who had 17,000 season-ticket holders in Baltimore, said he has sold just over 7,000 in Montreal. A crowd of 11,500 turned out for the team's exhibition opener two weeks ago.

Ticket prices don't help, suggested Geoff Baker, who covers the team for the Montreal Gazette. The Alouettes are charging $15 for end zone seats, $30 for seats out to the 25-yard line, and $40 between the 25-yard lines

"They're throwing a lot of stuff together," Baker said. "It could be smoother."

Count Jearld Baylis among those who think Speros made a mistake in taking the team to Montreal. The veteran CFL tackle refused to accept a cut in pay from $130,000 a year to $55,000 Canadian, and remains in Baltimore waiting for a better offer.

"I think it's a bad football town," Baylis said of Montreal. "They're a diversified culture. I don't think there's strong enough interest like there was here."

Kevin Malone, assistant general manager with the Orioles, knows firsthand the daunting prospect of survival in a hockey-mad city. He spent the last four years with the Montreal Expos, the last two as general manager.

"For football to make it there will be a very difficult proposition," he said. "It's a hockey town and to overcome the passion and the love for hockey is a definite uphill battle for any other professional sport."

The road to fiscal responsibility got a little tougher for Speros this week when the Quebec government reneged on an offer of a $1.375 million loan to the team. His subsequent lament sounded hauntingly familiar to his pleas for financial help from Maryland's political leaders.

"I was supposed to get a $2.7 million loan," he said. "They told me if I do all these things, I'll be able to get the loan. We've done all the things we were supposed to do. This has been, in some ways, more difficult than Baltimore."

Speros' path to Montreal was littered with lawsuits over non-payment of bills. Among those are three suits filed by the city of Baltimore, seeking more than $1 million.

According to court papers, Speros owes the city some $943,000 for an unpaid loan and services rendered for improvements to Memorial Stadium. The city also alleges he owes $73,000 for failure to pay the 10 percent amusement tax on his final two games last year.

Speros is due in court in late August for failure to pay the promissory note on the stadium.

"I have less funds than I had in Baltimore," he said. "I was not extended a lot of credit here in Montreal because of the situation in Baltimore."

Speros said he has settled with a "majority" of his creditors in Baltimore. But Michael Raimondi, a city solicitor, isn't aware of any settlements. "If so, they've been kept uncharacteristically quiet," Raimondi said.

Those problems aside, the former Stallions still hold a special place in the hearts of their old fans. A group of 35 people will make the trip to Montreal for tonight's game, even though only 14 Stallions remain on the team's active roster.

"I want to close this chapter," said Dean Piccoli, who will attend the game. "I miss the Stallions; I loved the CFL style."

Fred Tawney lived it, attending all but five Stallions practices in two years. Like Piccoli, Tawney held 55-yard line season tickets. He, too, will make the pilgrimage.

"I'd like to see them do good," he said. "To me, they're still the Stallions."

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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