Schaefer has his moment though not with big shots

July 28, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

He stood near the heart of the big crowd as the first splashes of sunlight fought their way through the gloomy South Baltimore sky, and shook a grateful man's hand here, another there, and hoped that the people on the stage in front of him were noticing.

This wasn't precisely William Donald Schaefer's day, and yet it was. There were two dozen people on a platform taking their bows, politicians and professional football types at the groundbreaking last week for Baltimore's new football stadium. But Schaefer wasn't one of them. He hadn't been invited, and then when an invitation was belatedly offered, he turned his back.

Too late for false overtures of peace. He would stand in the crowd, with all these ordinary folks who'd watched the Baltimore Colts vanish on a wintry morning and had spent the ensuing dozen years in frustration and despair. He wouldn't join the big shots on the platform, but he'd stand directly in front of them, where they'd see him, where they'd see all these fans coming up to Schaefer, folks who knew the fight he'd waged over the difficult years, thanking him for his efforts, taking his hand in theirs, making the long wait almost worthwhile.

Clearly, more than any other politician, he belonged at the center of this moment, for he symbolized the link between yesterday and today, and he'd kept the struggle alive when others might have bailed out.

"I always thought this day would come," Schaefer said softly to a few familiar faces. He sounded like a wide receiver who's just made a spectacular catch and claims, Yeah, yeah, had it all the way. "Faith and belief," he said, implying that the unholy trinity -- Paul Tagliabue, Jack Kent Cooke and Robert Irsay -- couldn't hold a candle to divine providence.

But, as they prepared for the groundbreaking on the Camden Yards parking lot last week, Schaefer's thoughts, inevitably, went back to that morning in March of '84, when he turned on the radio and heard what sounded like the end of the world.

"Yup, 2 a.m.," he said. "Got the radio on, and snow's coming down. I couldn't believe it. We were negotiating with Mr. Irsay right up to the day he left, and then I hear the radio announcer saying, 'The Mayflower vans are pulling away.' "

After all these years, he still calls Irsay "mister." It's the working class's ingrained respect for anyone with money, no matter what kind of a slob the guy might be. After all these years, also, he remembers the pain of loss, the sense of blame, the moments when he thought football would return but somebody was there to stand in the way.

"Tagliabue," Schaefer remembered.

"Yeah," said Herb Belgrade, the former head of the Maryland Stadium Authority who'd worked tenaciously and suffered through the wilderness years. "After we lost that expansion bid, there wasn't a lot of optimism left."

"Yeah, but Tagliabue," Schaefer said again. The pro football commissioner. The pal of Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who'd wanted all parts of Maryland for his own team, and Tagliabue was his handmaiden. "Tagliabue," said Schaefer, "did everything he could to keep us from getting a team. He just didn't like Baltimore. But we got it in spite of him."

The crowd around Schaefer was building up pretty nicely now. He glanced toward the platform, wondering if that governor up there, and all those political types around him, were noticing the attention he was getting.

The new governor hadn't invited him to attend. An oversight, it was explained. No, not an oversight, another official said, it was just an effort to hold down the number of officials on the platform. No, not that either, some insiders claimed: It was just Glendening feeling uncomfortable with Schaefer and willfully snubbing him because it was his turn to take a few bows, and he didn't feel like sharing the limelight with a man he doesn't like.

Now there were TV cameras around Schaefer, and voices asking how he felt, would he like the new stadium to be named after him?

"As much chance of that," he said, "as me being an astronaut."

Once, you might have gotten the same odds on Baltimore getting pro football. But it's here now. Its arrival was signaled by last week's groundbreaking of the new $200 million stadium south of Oriole Park.

Once, $200 million sounded like a lot. But that was before they started throwing $100 million contracts at skinny basketball players who could fall down and hurt a knee and, just like that, goodbye to all those millions. In the new math of professional sports, what's a piddly $200 million?

So they broke ground for the new ballpark last week. John Moag, director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, introduced all those gathered around him on the platform. There was polite applause.

And then, almost as an afterthought, someone mentioned the guy out there in the crowd, William Donald Schaefer. And now the cheering really arrived, loud and warm and sustained, and the sun came out and the cheering spread across this South Baltimore parking lot, and Schaefer stood there and let it wash over him, and wash away all the years of terrible waiting.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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