Looking beyond Colts, Ravens, no pretty picture

November 29, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

Anger and hostility persist. It's understandable. Everything the Baltimore Colts represented to a city and its football passion was stripped away; taken off to Indianapolis by a man who cared not for history or sentiment.

The sins of Robert Irsay cannot be transferred to a son, Jimmy, any more than what Art Modell did to Cleveland can be attributed to David or any more than Carroll Rosenbloom's son, Steve, could be held accountable for how his father fleeced Baltimore after getting the franchise as a "gift" and making enormous profit, at the expense of you the citizens.

Baltimore is overdue for integrity from a football owner, though Modell told reporter Vito Stellino that his middle name is integrity. So, in print, it looks like this: Arthur Integrity Modell.

A visit by the Indianapolis team to Baltimore today creates a deep feeling for old franchise loyalists. All the good things about the Colts started in Baltimore. The name came from a fan in 1947, one Charles Evans. The horseshoes on the helmet were the inspiration of publicity director Sam Banks and the "UCLA jersey stripes" were put there by equipment manager Fred Schubach.

The Colts' team song, much like the Marine Corps hymn, is recognized when played. It lifts weary souls and heavy hearts. A musical catharsis. The band, the song and memories for a specific team were the only things Irsay didn't take with him, even though Modell joked to friends, "He left me his empties."

Baltimore's first 35 years of football existence, after rescuing bankrupt franchises from Miami and Dallas, merits commendation -- and now, if so moved, a certain personal grief if you feel strongly about having something taken away that was a prized possession the Colts of Baltimore.

When Mayor William Donald Schaefer was asked about a new stadium to accommodate Irsay and keep the Colts, he would answer sarcastically, "Let Steadman build it with his money." Schaefer kept telling the media and, of course, lecturing on the subject, about what a wonderful man Irsay was. And Irsay, if no one else, believed it. He thought Schaefer was sincere.

Irsay, in all fairness, was not a malicious man. His drinking presented problems in change of personality and deportment. Schaefer, the record shows, and as those survivors from that time so well remember, tried to humor him, much as you might do with a difficult child. It was a ploy. Irsay, unpredictable as could be, believed Schaefer was the only true friend he had in Baltimore.

Schaefer insisted Irsay gave his word he would not take the team away. Irsay assumed he had a staunch ally in Schaefer, but when the eminent-domain action was filed, the Colts vanished under the cover of darkness -- like thieves in the night. A reprehensible act, but not as difficult for the rest of the country to accept as the 1995 Cleveland defection to Baltimore.

Irsay was to say later: "Schaefer stabbed me in the back." And he was sober when he said it, on an afternoon in Anderson, Ind., at the Colts' training camp. He thought his relationship with Schaefer was born of sincere admiration. Schaefer, who knew little about sports, reprimanded the media for reporting the antics of Irsay.

At one time, he asked this reporter to chair a committee of sportswriters to advise him on matters pertinent to keeping the Orioles and Colts. The newspaper we worked for at the time wouldn't permit it, nor would the one we represent now have allowed any such conflict of interest.

The Modell bolt out of Cleveland was different from Irsay's move from Baltimore in several respects. Irsay had been saying for six years he might go someplace else. Modell deceived Cleveland into believing he was there for a lifetime and then, bang, he was gone. No advance notice. At least Irsay was notifying the public such a possibility existed -- while Schaefer was walking a delicate high wire and praising the owner of a team he wanted to keep.

The point at which it appeared the transfer to Indianapolis might happen, through the machinations of his attorney, Michael Chernoff, put Baltimore and Maryland in the midst of a dangerous guessing game. It touched off the fires of eminent domain. But the last word was Irsay's, regardless of what Chernoff wanted. Only Irsay could pull the switch.

From all aspects, it appeared the Colts were close to heading to Indianapolis, but it wasn't a fait accompli until Irsay said so. Once the eminent-domain papers were filed, Irsay signaled, "Go." Would the Colts have left had it not been for the state legislature's move? We'll never know.

It turned out that Schaefer was cast in the role of martyr over the loss of the team and all the heat was put upon Irsay. Schaefer fought all moves to erect a new stadium, which makes it an embarrassment now that misinformed observers want to name the entire Camden Yards complex after him. We first suggested it, but backed away.

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