Cheers seen scarce for Tagliabue's visit But fans are urged to put rancor behind

September 05, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

He may be the most hated man in local sports, now that Bob Irsay is dead. And he's coming for a visit.

Paul Tagliabue, National Football League commissioner and a man many in Baltimore blame for the city's difficulties getting back into the league after Irsay took his Colts to Indianapolis in 1984, is scheduled to attend tomorrow's Ravens game.

Tagliabue chalks up the image-beating he's taken in Baltimore to the city's disappointment after expansion. In a telephone interview yesterday from his New York office, he predicted the return of football to both Cleveland and Baltimore will be remembered as a high point in sports history.

Officials here are urging fans to show respect.

"It's over. We are now part of the NFL family. He is part of the NFL family. We all have hard feelings about what went on in the past, but we're all grown up enough to know that what is past is past," said Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag.

Some fans aren't convinced.

"If they make it be known that he is there, I will make it be known that he is not welcome," said Mike Frainie, a 34-year-old Ravens fan from Owings Mills.

Like many local fans, Frainie believes Tagliabue torpedoed the city's 1993 application for an expansion franchise in collusion with the late Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.

"If it wasn't for him and Cooke, we would not have had to go down this path," Frainie said of Baltimore purloining the Browns from Cleveland in 1995.

Tagliabue chaired the committee of owners that chose Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., for a pair of expansion franchises Tagliabue in 1993, bypassing Baltimore, St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn.

In arguing for the Sun Belt cities, Tagliabue noted the concentration of teams along the eastern seaboard. He also revealed, hours before the owners voted to award the final franchise, that Cooke was planning to build a stadium in Laurel, midway between Baltimore and Washington.

Cooke was later blocked by zoning law from Laurel and settled on Landover. Leaders of Baltimore's expansion effort, including then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer and former Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert Belgrad, accused Tagliabue of duplicity.

Tagliabue didn't help himself when he responded: "We didn't force anyone to get involved in this process. That's a judgment people have to make. Maybe they prefer to have a museum or plant in their town."

(This week, a local firm was selling shirts and sweatshirts with a picture of the new Ravens stadium labeled "THE MUSEUM.")

After expansion, sports talk shows were soon full of bitter commentary about Tagliabue. Fans carried derisive banners and paper mache effigy of the commissioner in 1994 during Canadian Football League games here.

Tagliabue said it comes with the job. "Whether it's a misunderstanding with the process or disappointment with the results, it's understandable," he said.

Does it bother him? "It bothers me to see that people are disappointed in not getting NFL football in their town," he said.

A Montgomery County homeowner, who spends most of his time in New York, where he also has a residence, Tagliabue said he hears from relatives about his bad image in Baltimore. His daughter, for example, lives here.

He defended the selection process, and noted that Maryland officials -- including Schaefer -- complimented him on the even-handed approach of the league right up until the decision.

He allowed the Maryland delegation to file a new ownership candidate at the 11th hour -- proof, he said, that the process was flexible.

Schaefer, however, sees it otherwise. Tagliabue, he said "did everything he could to keep us from getting a team. I have nothing but contempt for him."

After the Browns moved to town, Tagliabue planned to attend the first game in 1996. But team owner Art Modell said he advised him not to come because of the vitriol of fans.

Tagliabue said he didn't come last year because his schedule, and back surgery, limited travel.

He does plan to be at tomorrow's game, probably splitting his time between the home and visiting team owners' skyboxes.

Schaefer said yesterday he doesn't want to see his old nemesis. "I hope I won't bump into him."

As for the fans, Schaefer said: "I hope they stand up and boo him. He should not be there."

Tagliabue said he hasn't thought about seeing Schaefer, who used to refer to the commissioner as "Tagliaboo-boo" in public and sent him a taunting note after the Browns' move was announced, saying, "What goes around comes around."

Tagliabue predicted that the opening of Baltimore's new stadium and, two days later, the announcement of who will own the Cleveland expansion franchise that starts play next year, will be remembered as great moments in sports history.

"Both cities have ended up with outstanding franchises and outstanding stadiums within five years. That's never happened before in sports," Tagliabue said.

Moag, who sued the league to force approval of the Browns' move, credited Tagliabue with help. "I'm convinced were it not for his direct involvement we would not have football here today," Moag said.

Belgrad, too, sounded a conciliatory note. "I don't want to dwell on the past. I don't bear any grudges. It may have taken a few more years than we thought, but we have football back."

"For us to make him into a monster or feel unwelcome would be a mistake. It serves no purpose," he said.

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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