Beginning of the end was seen in 1977

On the NFL

September 01, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

As the Oakland Raiders lined up on the Baltimore Colts' 10-yard-line in the sixth quarter of that 1977 Christmas Eve playoff game at Memorial Stadium, NBC flashed a graphic on the screen that read: "This is now the 3rd longest game in NFL history."

Ken Stabler then took the snap and lofted a pass to the left corner of the end zone as announcer Curt Gowdy said, "Stabler throws out to [Dave] Casper. Touchdown. It's all over. Oakland wins in six periods."

When Gowdy said, "It's all over," he could have been referring to a Baltimore football era.

When the Ravens meet the Raiders today, it will be the first regular-season NFL game in Baltimore since Dec. 18, 1983, when the Colts beat the Houston Oilers, 20-10, as fans shouted obscene comments at owner Bob Irsay.

But this is really the first golden moment in Baltimore football history since that Raiders playoff game.

It all began to fall apart after that game.

There were ominous signs before that game. Nobody in Baltimore heard Gowdy make his comments live because the game wasn't sold out 72 hours before the kickoff and was shown on tape delay in Baltimore.

The fans were disenchanted with the Irsay regime, but the worst was yet to come.

After 5-11 seasons in 1978 and 1979, Ted Marchibroda was fired. Mike McCormack replaced him and went 7-9 and 2-14 before getting fired.

Frank Kush then came in and went 0-8-1 in the 1982 strike season before rallying to 7-9 in 1983 when general manager Ernie Accorsi made several deft moves, including the signing of kicker Raul Allegre.

But the Colts had lost the fans. They drew more than 46,000 only twice -- when Baltimore fans showed up to boo John Elway and when a large contingent of Steelers fans came for a Pittsburgh game.

The moving vans showed up March 28, 1984.

Nobody dreamed that night the city would be without an NFL team for 12 years.

Baltimore, though, turned a lemon into lemonade. When the Colts left, Baltimore was talking about only renovating Memorial Stadium.

Now it will have two new stadiums by 1998, and its sports future should be secure for decades.

Of course, things will never be the way they were.

When commissioner Paul Tagliabue once asked the Baltimore delegation during the expansion race why support fell off in the city, businessman Matt DeVito said the fans had loved the Colts too much. They couldn't bear to see the heritage destroyed.

Love is no longer in the equation. Sports is now about money. Money talks. So do permanent seat licenses, club seats, luxury boxes and $15 parking fees. Baltimore wanted a team and it paid the price to get it.

Baltimore fans now understand the new reality. If you want a team, you have to pay for it. If you don't support it, it leaves. The younger generation doesn't want to hear that things once were better in the good old days when teams were part of a community.

When the ball is kicked off today, it'll be the start of an era for a new generation.

The battle for Baltimore

The beginning of the Ravens' first regular season also kicks off their battle with the Orioles for the Baltimore market.

As Barry Levinson documented in the movie, "Diner," this used to be a football town.

No more.

During the preseason, the Ravens barely made a dent in the Orioles' popularity. Only the hard-core football fan watched them on TV instead of the Orioles.

On the last Friday and Saturday nights of the preseason a week ago, the Orioles were on HTS both nights. The Ravens drew a 5.5 rating for their game against the Buffalo Bills, only slightly better than the 4.1 rating the Packers-Colts game got the next night.

The Orioles got ratings of 8.9 and 11.1 those two nights even though fans needed cable to get their games.

By contrast, the Redskins-Patriots game got a 17.0 rating in Washington that Friday night while the Orioles got only a 1.9 rating.

Since the Orioles don't play until tonight, the Ravens have the market to themselves for the Raiders game.

In their next three September games, though, they go head-to-head with the Orioles on HTS. If the Orioles are still in the race, it will be interesting to see how the Ravens fare against the baseball team.

It also will be fascinating to see how the Ravens do in Cleveland. Only one preseason game was shown there, and the ratings were within a point of what they got in Baltimore. Cleveland had the highest local ratings in the country last year.

The Trumpy file

The Baltimore and Cleveland fans have something they can agree on. They're both not fond of NBC commentator Bob Trumpy.

The oddity of the controversy over Trumpy's anti-Ravens comments in Inside Sports magazine is that Cleveland fans always perceived he had a pro-Cincinnati bias because he had )) played for the Bengals.

Incidentally, don't expect Art Modell to carry a grudge. He's a forgive-and-forget kind of guy. When former Colt Stan White was representing former Brown Frank Minnifield, he sued the Browns during a bitter contract dispute. It was then added to the Minneapolis case when the players were battling for free agency.

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