20 years have moved city beyond the Colts

March 28, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

ON A SNOW — On a snow- and sleet-filled night 20 years ago, Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay stole the city's team and heart, but not its passion.

The Colts leaving town in Mayflower moving vans became one of the most significant events in sports history, as well as one of the darkest days ever in Baltimore. But in a sense, March 28, 1984, became an independence day when the city was set free of a cheap, meddlesome, impulsive owner who had destroyed one of the league's storied franchises.

It has been 20 years, but look where Baltimore is now, and then look at the Colts. Baltimore has the Ravens, and perhaps the finest stadium in the country. The Ravens have the league's best general manager in Ozzie Newsome, one of the league's top coaches in Brian Billick, local ownership in place under Steve Bisciotti, a scouting department that is envied around the league and eight Pro Bowl players on the roster.

And most importantly, a Super Bowl championship in the 2000-2001 season that bridged the gap between the old diehard Colts supporters and new Ravens fans.

The Colts?

They've been to the playoffs only six times since leaving for the modernized, Midwestern barn known as the RCA Dome, where fans sometimes still applaud as if they're at the opera. They have been to the AFC championship game twice and have perhaps the league's top quarterback in Peyton Manning, but they have no Super Bowl title.

Where's the ring, fellas?

The Colts have other problems. They have trouble selling out playoff games. They are $10 million below the median income of league teams. Current owner Jim Irsay, according to published reports, recently had to sell off personal investments to make Manning the richest player in the league (seven years for $98 million, including a $34.5 million signing bonus).

And just like 20 years ago, the Colts are talking about moving if their stadium isn't upgraded. Where to now, Los Angeles? How about Shreveport, La.? Maybe Boise, Idaho?

"I don't know if I miss anything about the Colts anymore," said Jim Phillips, who was a strong force in keeping the old Colt Corrals until the Ravens came to town in 1996. "I still watch the Colts, but I don't get mad anymore. Once in a while, I see those colors, and it bothers me.

"Part of me left with the Colts when they left town," said Phillips, now director of a Ravens support group in Hagerstown. "It took me several years to get over the move. But when Irsay passed [Jan. 14, 1997], a lot of my bad feelings died with him."

A lot of people have had similar thoughts. The old Colts were the persona of this small, gritty, blue-collar city that carries a chip on its shoulder. Baltimore won the 1958 title game against the New York Giants, "The Greatest Game Ever Played," a game that put the NFL into the living rooms of millions via television. Baltimore lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets, which gave the old American Football League legitimacy.

We had football legends - the John Unitases, Lenny Moores, Raymond Berrys, John Mackeys, Art Donovans, Bert Joneses and Lydell Mitchells. They didn't just play here, they lived here. You could eat with them, drink with them.

And then in one night, under the cover of darkness, it was all gone.

There is one picture that sticks in the minds of longtime Baltimore sports fans, and it still seems as surreal now as it did back then.

"It was those Mayflower moving vans pulling out of Owings Mills at night in the sleet," Phillips said. "In the backdrop, there was the Baltimore Colts sign. Irsay had said he might move the team, but no one felt that it was ever going to happen."

Irsay probably wouldn't have moved the team, but he had virtually no other choice once state officials threatened him with eminent domain, a process that would not have allowed him to move his team out of Maryland. Irsay also had one other major legitimate complaint.

Memorial Stadium, used by both the Orioles and the Colts, had become a dump. But it didn't help that the Colts had six straight losing seasons before 1984. At the final regular-season game against the Houston Oilers in 1983, the Colts drew 27,934.

"I can vividly remember those Schaefer [then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer] and Irsay press conferences," said Art Modell, then owner of the Cleveland Browns, who would eventually move to Baltimore in 1996. "When you move a team, the biggest effect is not economical, but psychological. Baltimore's move wasn't a drizzle, it was a thunderstorm."

That's because Baltimore had so much history. Owner Al Davis had moved the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982, but no one cared because he was Al Davis, maverick owner.

But the Baltimore move changed the landscape of pro sports. If the Colts could leave Baltimore, then other pro teams could use a similar threat, and have better leverage. Camden Yards, the model for numerous baseball parks nationally, was built for the Orioles, courtesy of the Colts, because local politicians thought the Orioles would be the next to leave.

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