In This Year Of Sports Misery, The Good Guys Lost -- Big Time

Baltimore ... Or Less

January 28, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

The Worst Year Ever in Baltimore Sports began with Super Bowl III, and 32 years later Tom Rothman still remembers watching the game's final seconds through his tears, the TV screen going blurry as a guy in a white and green jersey named Joe Namath began to celebrate.

Days earlier, Namath had lounged by a hotel pool, shirt off, shades on, drink in hand, while bragging to reporters that on Sunday his underdog New York Jets would beat the greatest team in football, the mighty Baltimore Colts. It was a time when "talking trash" meant you were discussing a sanitation strike. Bragging was strictly for losers, unless your name was Muhammad Ali.

"We weren't just going to beat him, we were going to kill him," says Rothman, now 46, but then an impressionable 14. "It was life-shattering in that way. It was as if gravity got released, as if the laws of physics no longer applied, and it will be the last memory I'll lose in my dotage when I have Alzheimer's disease. That will be the one."

But for all the shock value of Super Bowl III, the ordeal of 1969 had only just begun if you were a young sports fan growing up in Baltimore. And with yet another Baltimore vs. New York matchup looming today in Tampa, the decisive moments of '69 haunt the weekend like the dates on an old tombstone:

January 12: Jets beat Colts in Super Bowl.

April 2: New York Knicks beat Baltimore Bullets in NBA playoffs.

October 16: New York Mets beat Orioles in World Series.

It was a three-part nightmare, courtesy of The City That Never Sleeps, but the losses to the Jets and Mets clearly hurt the worst, then and now.

"I think there are a lot of therapy bills still being rung up out there because of that," Rothman says. "This was in our deeply formative years. It sort of gave you a permanent inferiority complex. It wasn't just losing two games to the same city, it was the shared character of the enormity of the upsets, the changing of the guard."

One survives these things, of course. Rothman is now president of 20th Century Fox Film Group, salving his old wounds with a pretty nice paycheck. He keeps pictures of Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson on the wall of his Los Angeles office.

Several of his Mount Washington buddies from those days haven't done too badly, either. Benjy DuBois, 15 at the time of the '69 Super Bowl, grew up to be Dr. Benjamin DuBois, cardiologist. Scotty Sherman, then 14, is now Scott Sherman, vice president of business development at T. Rowe Price. He married Rothman's sister, Julie. Warren Marcus, then 16, is director of teacher workshops at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. Jeff Wagner, then Jeffrey, age 17, is head of sales for Home Team Sports. Carl Robbins, 16 at the time, is a psychotherapist.

So perhaps the year's suffering was even beneficial. Just ask the psychotherapist.

"The whole experience of that year -- two of the greatest teams in the history of their sports against clear underdogs, and we lost -- we were sort of taught a lesson that there's no such thing as a sure thing," Robbins says.

Not that the lesson didn't come with a few unpleasant side effects.

"I did have, for many years, a difficult time talking to anyone from New York about sports," Marcus says, "because I knew what would come up."

The best of times

A little context is probably in order here. For those who were a few years older back in the Baltimore of 1969, professional sports weren't likely the weightiest matters on your mind. If you held a job or were subject to the military draft there were concerns like the war in Vietnam, crime in the streets, the Cold War. The president-elect was a guy named Nixon, with a veep named Agnew. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were still painfully fresh. So were the Baltimore riots of April '68.

But if you were in your mid-teens in a calm suburb of split levels and towering oaks, safe streets where moms and dads did most of the worrying for you -- "Pill Hill," at the crest of Mount Washington, for example -- then guys named Unitas and Robinson loomed far larger than Nixon and Agnew. It was an insular world that began at your neighborhood ballfield and ended on 33rd Street, at Memorial Stadium.

In the fall, unless the Orioles made the Series, the Colts ruled. Marcus would go to games with his dad, Sydney -- seats on the 50-yard line and some of his favorite memories of their time together. For away games, he and DuBois would often watch together on television, heading outdoors at halftime to toss the football, re-creating the plays they'd just seen. Sherman would do the same, pretending he was Unitas or the hero of the moment.

Wagner was lucky enough to get a field pass one year by working for Lee's Laundry, which cleaned the uniforms of the Colts Marching Band. They had to deliver them to the stadium every Sunday with an 8 a.m. pickup, but the white overalls got him right down to the sidelines, wandering to his heart's content on the edge of greatness.

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