Fans warm up for Browns

Expansion draft seen as prelude to NFL return

February 10, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Pardon Jeremy Zabell for not doing cartwheels at the sight of yesterday's Cleveland Browns expansion draft.

Sure, Zabell's feelings for the Browns run deep with passion. As a youngster, he shivered and wore face paint with the sellout crowds that gathered regularly at old, broken-down Cleveland Municipal Stadium, rooting tirelessly for the likes of Bernie Kosar, Earnest Byner, Ozzie Newsome and Hanford Dixon. Those back-to-back, AFC title losses to Denver, featuring John Elway's famous drive and Byner's infamous fumble, still resonate with him.

And if you think time has helped Zabell to forgive owner Art Modell for moving the Browns to Baltimore three years ago, forget about it.

Football is back in Cleveland, expansion-style. The team's new stadium, nestled against the nasty winter chill of Lake Erie, is nearing completion. Coaching and front office staffs are in place. The new-look Browns will select their first college players in April's NFL draft, then open their first training camp and start a new season.

Yesterday marked a curious step in the Browns' new beginning. The team added 37 players to its roster by drafting them from among 150 unwanted souls exposed by the league's 30 other clubs. Zabell, a bartender at Flannery's, a downtown restaurant, sounded mildly interested at best in the proceedings.

"We're back in the game now, but it's hard to get too caught up [in the expansion draft]," Zabell said. "All these other teams are just trying to get rid of high-priced guys. If [the Browns] work some magic today, so be it. I'm looking forward more to having the first pick in the real draft. The biggest day of all will be the Dallas game in the Hall of Fame Game. That's when it will feel like we're really back."

For the most part, players selected yesterday probably are destined for special teams, other backup roles or the street. A few could emerge as starters. This was not lost on Sean Loftus.

"The kind of people we're picking up [in the expansion draft] will be coming here to give them some depth," said Loftus, 30, a firefighter. "People will be a lot more interested when the real draft comes around, and minicamp and training camp."

While more than 4,000 fans traveled to Canton, Ohio, for the nearly three-hour draft, those in Cleveland were less than enthralled.

Bob Bundy, a chef who held season tickets in the Dawg Pound and has purchased them again in the new stadium, judged the expansion draft this way: "It's hard to get too excited about this. And the big names that are there have huge contracts. Those guys aren't coming here."

The expansion draft did not exactly pack them in at BW-3, a popular chicken wings-and-beer joint in The Flats, where big-screen televisions, pictures of the old Dawg Pound and happy-hour specials abound. Within the first hour of the draft, a trickle of mostly male fans had filled about half of the pub's seats.

And when the immortal Jim Pyne, a rejected veteran center from Detroit, was announced as the first pick, the crowd barely buzzed, watching Pyne don a Browns cap and tell how thrilled he was to be in Cleveland.

A voice from the back of the bar yelled, "Hey, we got a center!" Minutes later, when the Browns made Dallas backup defensive end Hurvin McCormack their second pick, the same voice poked fun at Cleveland owner Al Lerner by yelling, "Al has no idea who he just bought!"

It was enough to make Aaron Foster, 40, a steelworker and lifelong Browns fan, shrug as he tore through a pile of wings. Foster was looking ahead to the shopping spree he hopes his team will conduct once the league's free-agent signing period begins on Friday.

"I don't know who some of those [expansion draft] guys are. I know nothing about half the guys up there. I don't even know who the head coach is," Foster said. "Al [Lerner] said he is going to spend the money, and [Browns president Carmen] Policy has the brains. I just hope they spend it on quality players."

Tim Ritt, 29, a management recruiter, was much more than a casual observer at BW-3. Ritt made it a point to leave work early, so he could be watching from his stool when the 4 p.m. affair began.

"It's about as exciting as it can get," Ritt said. "The biggest thing is people realize we're taking a big step toward actually having a team. We're all waiting for Art Modell to come back to Cleveland Stadium so we can stomp his team. This is a new era."

And the rules have changed since the old era ended.

Ritt, for one, did not like being compelled to purchase a permanent seat license before he could buy his season tickets. And, while he has enjoyed watching his baseball team contend for a World Series championship for the last four years, he looks forward to the day when the Indians assume their rightful place behind the Browns in the battle for fans' attention. He wants Cleveland to become a football town again.

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