In this museum, a history lesson for Tagliabue

September 06, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

In the bitter aftermath of Baltimore's expansion defeat, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer issued a warning to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Schaefer said that if Tagliabue ever attended another baseball game at Camden Yards, "I'm going to have it announced on the loudspeaker that we have the commissioner of football in Seat 10, Row 14."

Five years later, with Baltimore's NFL odyssey having come full circle, Tagliabue's insult can not, will not, be forgotten.

If only Schaefer could be governor again for a day.

We have the commissioner of football attending the Ravens' opener against Pittsburgh, but the sellout crowd at the new stadium won't even get to see him.

Won't get the chance to stand up and boo the arrogant suit who told us to build a museum.

Won't get the chance to shout its discontent at the Washington attorney who conspired with the late Jack Kent Cooke.

Won't get the chance to confront our new best friend who never wanted this stadium built in the first place.

That stadium needs to be loud today, ladies and gentlemen, and not just because Steelers fans will be selling their children to get into the place.

Tagliabue will be shuttling between owners' boxes, talking rich people's talk, munching rich people's food, ignoring the hypocrisy of it all.

He needs to hear the roar of the town that he rejected. Needs to witness the reincarnation of the world's largest outdoor insane asylum. Needs to see that this supposed wasteland between Philadelphia and Washington deserved the NFL all along.

Temperatures are expected to be in the 80s -- a good thing, considering The Sun King's aversion to cold weather.

Yes, even five years later, it's impossible to forgive.

Tagliabue was right when he ungraciously suggested that Baltimore could have built a museum or plant instead of an NFL stadium. What he never understood was the passion for football that exists in this town.

Still exists, even after the Mayflower vans, even after the expansion horror, even after the extraordinary price it took to bring back the NFL -- permanent-seat licenses on top of a publicly financed stadium.

Some fans remain uneasy with the deal. They would have had no such reservations about an expansion team. They would have felt clean, felt proud, felt whole.

No one ordered us to steal a team, and turn into everything we once despised. But the NFL ignored the moral argument for Baltimore. It ignored the economic argument for Baltimore.

In the end, it got what it deserved.

Today, in air-conditioned, luxury-suite comfort, perhaps Tagliabue and Ravens owner Art Modell will take a moment to reflect on their roles in creating the Baltimore monster.

Tagliabue told the owners to snub Baltimore, protecting Cooke while the Redskins owner plotted a move to Laurel that was destined never to take place.

Modell voted against Baltimore even though his partner with the Cleveland Browns, Al Lerner, was the city's last-ditch hope to own the team.

Maybe Modell was already dreaming of grabbing the Baltimore package for himself; maybe not. But it all got rather messy from there, didn't it?

Charlotte and Jacksonville were in. Baltimore and St. Louis were out. And five years later, the NFL is still trying to recover.

"History has proven that you needed to backfill the other markets first," said John Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Baltimore stole the Browns from Cleveland. St. Louis stole the Rams from Los Angeles. Now the league must expand again, first to Cleveland, then to Los Angeles or another abandoned city, Houston.

Expansion means growth, so Tagliabue can argue that all this actually benefits the league economically, especially when the Browns' move led directly or indirectly to new stadiums in Baltimore, Cleveland, Washington and Cincinnati.

But tell it to the fans.

The right decision would have been to expand to four cities in 1993 -- Charlotte, Jacksonville, St. Louis and Baltimore. If Modell couldn't have made it in Cleveland, he would have been forced to sell -- probably to Lerner, who likely will be the Browns' new owner, anyway.

Moag said that it would have been "very, very difficult" for Tagliabue to convince the owners to slice the television pie into four more pieces. But now they will end up doing it anyway.

Tagliabue saw the small picture, and twisted the owners' arms for Charlotte and Jacksonville. Pete Rozelle would have seen the bigger picture, twisted the owners' arms for four teams and avoided the anarchy of franchise free agency.

Expanding only to Baltimore and St. Louis, Moag's solution in hindsight, was never a serious possibility. Rozelle initially proposed adding one old city and one new. Tagliabue rejected that idea in his lust for virgin territory. And if the NFL hadn't expanded to Charlotte, it might have lost the market entirely.

Carolina owner Jerry Richardson was on record as saying he would not buy an existing team; he likely would have withdrawn the private financing on his stadium rather than wait for the next round of expansion.

Jacksonville might have stolen a team, but what were its chances of luring an Art Modell with only a renovated Gator Bowl to offer?

"We would have seen how strong they were, if they could have hung in there," Moag said.

Baltimore did hang in there, then became a national whipping boy for stealing the Browns.

Of course, all the bleeding-heart moralists never asked how the city got from Point A to Point B, never pointed the finger at Tagliabue.

The Sun King remains largely invisible, moving through his world of private suites and corporate boardrooms, conducting the mighty business of the NFL.

He apologizes for nothing, and today he marches triumphantly into a stadium he never wanted, a city he tried to make disappear.

Welcome to the museum, commissioner.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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