It's time to tee up Grey Cup week minus expected host Baltimore

November 09, 1997|By John Steadman

There was to have been a glorious week of celebration, a home-folks kind of welcome, formulation of friendships, fireworks, bands playing, impromptu dancing on downtown street corners, thousands of visitors creating a party mood and, all the while, horses and riders providing a rugged western theme to the proceedings. A Canadian-American extravaganza. Something Baltimore had never seen. And a good time, most assuredly, would have been had by all.

The Grey Cup, the championship of the Canadian Football League, was to have been played outside the provinces for the first time -- in Baltimore, at Memorial Stadium, next Sunday, a time of the year when temperatures are still conducive to crowd comfort. Baltimore had been announced as a selected site, but sudden developments dictated a change in plans.

The NFL returned to town, with the Cleveland Browns becoming the Baltimore Ravens; as a result, the Grey Cup, Canada's counterpart to the Super Bowl, went back to its customary northern environment.

It will be held in Edmonton, not Baltimore, this 1997 version of the Cup, which has an appeal all its own. The Super Bowl draws the denizens of corporate America, a gathering of heavy spenders from business and industry, but the game has such overwhelming commercial connotations that you often wonder whether the teams are going to forget to kick off. The growth and acceptance of the Super Bowl is, without a doubt, unprecedented in American sports.

Meanwhile, the Grey Cup, presented for the 85th time, which makes it more than twice as old as the Super Bowl, carries a rather modest, down-home presence. The overkill hype and exorbitant charges associated with attending a Super Bowl make it all seem so artificial. The Grey Cup is more remindful of a family reunion or a Shriners' convention -- where fun is fully guaranteed.

Groups of Baltimore Stallions fans from various parts of Maryland will be making the trip to the Grey Cup. Their spirit will carry all the way to Edmonton. A commemorative lapel pin, blue and white, has been produced, showing a replica of the facade at Memorial Stadium. Twenty-five of the 1995 championship Stallions players continue to be active, 21 in the CFL and four in the NFL. So the Baltimore connection, in a way, is still maintained. A Stallions fan reunion was held three weeks ago at the Parkville VFW, where, anytime the crowd became subdued, the Baltimore Colts fight song was played to enliven the evening.

Joe Short, an insurance agent who lives in Frederick, will be bound for the Grey Cup. "The appeal for all of us is that the Grey Cup is where each fan is a somebody," he said. "Fans are even allowed to watch the practice sessions leading up to the game. All the CFL teams have open house in hotel ballrooms, where you're invited, free of charge, to be a part of the party. It's just a grand experience. This will be my fourth Grey Cup and, with all the celebrating, I've never seen a bad incident, fighting, brawling or such."

Last year, Short and his fellow travelers wore buttons that carried a grateful message: "Thanks Canada. We May Not Repeat But We Will Not Forget." It was a reminder to friends from the north that Baltimore thoroughly enjoyed being identified, if // ever so briefly, with the CFL. The Stallions played in the Grey Cup championship both years of the organization's existence -- a remarkable achievement.

In 1995, the Stallions won it all in the finale in Regina, Saskatchewan, but even then, and much to the credit of coach Don Matthews and the players, they were forced into becoming a pleasant memory. The Browns had announced only days before that they were deserting Cleveland for Baltimore, where a $200 million-plus stadium would be erected for their pleasure and profit. The poor Stallions had no alternative but to transplant themselves to Montreal.

The Baltimore termination ended the ambitious effort by the CFL to establish teams and a fan base in the United States. It had, in retrospect, moved too quickly for its own good. The remarkable record of the Stallions and the wide-open appeal of the Canadian game attracted favorable attention but, in the end, the Baltimore team was struggling to survive.

The Stallions' owner, Jim Speros, ambitious but under-funded, came up short. Speros convinced the CFL that Baltimore deserved the Grey Cup for 1997 and that it would be made a part of the city's bicentennial festival. This was months before he knew the Browns were coming. The Baltimore Grey Cup staging committees, along with members of the trade and travel bureaus of the State of Maryland, were starting to be put into place to help coordinate the details.

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