Stadium's closure feels like final Colts farewell

December 09, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Memories? Hey, pal, I got about a zillion of 'em when it comes to Memorial Stadium and football. It's worth remembering a few, because this is the week they're closing the old ballpark - again - which makes it the week we lower the final curtain on our innocence.

That's why we'll all be sobbing in our beer Sunday as the football Ravens, ending their ties to 33rd Street, trot out all manner of former Baltimore Colts for a final bow: It's the last round of cheers for old ballplayers, sure, but it's also the memory of our former selves, full of youth, full of raw enthusiasm, full of the sweet misguided notion that pro sports are mainly about athletic excellence and hometown identity instead of merely money.

Today we have the football Ravens, who arrived here at the cost of our tattered municipal pride plus a new $220 million stadium in South Baltimore, located next to the $150 million Oriole Park, which is half an hour's drive from the $250 million Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, which is located half an hour from the new, $200 million MCI Center for pro basketball [See Olesker, 4b] in Washington.

While this is happening, we learn that the University of Maryland wishes to replace Cole Field House in College Park with a new facility. It will cost about $106 million, of which $61 million would be taxpayer money. The project will be debated at this winter's General Assembly session. Remember last year's General Assembly? There was begging and pleading to get $250 million - for an entire, falling-apart-at-the-seams Baltimore public school system. Let's see, $250 million for a whole school system, but $100 million to play basketball games. Is anything wrong with this picture?

Final irony of the day: the stunning news that it will cost between $16 million and $20 million to demolish Memorial Stadium. That's about three times what it cost to build it in the first place.

So we'll gather Sunday at Memorial Stadium to bathe in our recollections of innocence: Of Bob Cissin or Dick Otto or John Ziemann out front as the band struck up the first soaring notes of the Baltimore Colts marching song, which set our hearts to soaring; of that homemade sign hanging on the mezzanine that read, ""Unitas We Stand," which stood for an entire franchise - not for an autumn or two, but for 17 gripping seasons; of a time when you knew every ballplayer by name and by number because, year after year, they were unchangeable and were thus part of the community.

Moments to remember? Hey, pal, where do we start? How about the very first time George Shaw handed the ball to Alan Ameche, and The Horse went 79 yards for a touchdown? The Colts, pathetic in their entire previous history, were thus sending notice on the very first play of the '55 season that a new era, and a new self-esteem, had begun in Baltimore.

Or how about that '58 game with the 49ers, which the Colts needed to clinch their first division title? Down 27-7 at the half, the Colts pulled to within 27-21 in the fourth quarter and had the ball at their 27. Remember, pal?

Lenny Moore swept left end. Raymond Berry and Art Spinney threw clearing blocks. Now came several 49ers with angles to knock Lenny out of bounds, but Moore suddenly cut to the center of the field. He twisted away from a couple of defenders and outran all the rest, 73 yards for a touchdown, and fans were jumping out of the stands, they were ringing the sidelines and the end zone as Moore, exhausted by the run and emotionally spent, was mobbed by delirious teammates.

Pal, if you close your eyes, it's still going on. How about the Colts and the Eagles in '65? Jimmy Orr gets knocked out of the game, and maybe the season. They haul his limp body down 33rd Street to Union Memorial Hospital.

The game's life and death in the final minutes. Suddenly, an ambulance pulls into the ballpark and stops down by the baseball home plate area. Orr climbs out of the back, still in uniform. He's got his helmet in his hand. He starts to run for the Colts bench, but Don Shula waves him directly into the game. One play later, in the late afternoon haze in a little corner of the end zone we used to call Orrsville, there's Orr catching a bomb from John Unitas for a Colts victory.

Remember, pal? Remember Gino and Artie and Big Daddy converging at Y.A. Tittle, and National Boh turning the sight into a billboard display for the next year? Remember John Mackey with the ball in his hands, running like a man possessed? Remember Toni Linhart's field goal in the overtime fog in '75, and Lydell Mitchell's reliability, and Mike Curtis trying to remove Roman Gabriel's head from his shoulders?

Remember the '59 title game? Unitas goes 60 yards to Moore on the second play of the game, and Johnny Sample intercepts two passes, and the Colts win their second straight championship? Remember, pal? We thought it would never end, didn't we?

The world changes, but at least we hold tight to our memories. We closed Memorial Stadium to baseball several seasons back, and now we'll give belated closure to the football Colts, who fled 13 years ago before anyone could say goodbye.

Sunday's our formal goodbye. Goodbye to the Colts, and goodbye to Memorial Stadium, and goodbye to a time more innocent than our own.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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