A new split over old Colts

License plates please Indiana, irk Maryland


INDIANAPOLIS -- From one point of view, it's a grave robbery. From the other, it's a nice way to honor men who did great things in the days of yore.

But then, Baltimore and Indianapolis probably never saw eye to eye on matters concerning a certain pro football team.

Baltimore's nightmares of Mayflower trucks slinking off in the snow became the Colts' journey to "the friendly heart of the Midwest." Or so the team's media guide says.

So perhaps it's no surprise that Indiana's plan to celebrate its football team by auctioning commemorative license plates has turned into another reason for old Baltimore Colts to be offended.

The Colts are auctioning 429 specialty license plates on the Internet to help raise funds for a new $500 million stadium, slated to open in 2008. Four plates are tailored to honor Baltimore Colts greats John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and Gino Marchetti.

"I think we were trying to honor the old and the new," said John Klipsch, executive director for Indiana's Stadium and Convention Center Authority.

"I think the fact that [Unitas'] number 19 is one of the top-20-selling plates shows how much people continue to respect and admire the great players from years gone by," said Marc Lotter, a spokesman for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who helped conceive the auction.

Stephen Conway, a Colts fan who posts weekly haiku about the team on the Internet, said he appreciates the Baltimore legacy.

"I know Unitas and many of the other Colt greats, as well as Baltimore Colts fans, want to distance themselves completely from the franchise since the move," he said. "To me, it's understandable, but it's also unfortunate."

Unitas' son, John Unitas Jr., is trying to block Indiana from profiting from his father's name and number. He said that his attorneys are in discussions with Daniels' office but that he might pursue legal action and seek punitive damages. "What I want first is an apology," he said.

Moore also said he'd rather not be associated with the promotion. Berry and Marchetti said they were indifferent.

Others who loved the Baltimore team are inflamed about the auction.

"It's ridiculous," said John Ziemann, who helped keep the Colts Marching Band together for the 12 years Baltimore lived without the NFL. "They are playing off our history and our heritage."

Ziemann said the Colts became a different franchise, "the day they went up I-70 and crossed the state line."

"The history of the Baltimore Colts stays here," he said. "I don't blame their fans, but to me, they should start their own history there. Our heroes should not be helping to build their new stadium."

The Indianapolis Colts are riding a wave of popularity. A stroll through the downtown area near the RCA Dome finds businessmen wearing Colts ties and babies in Colts suits. The Colts team store is so popular that on game days, security guards have to escort customers in small groups so fire codes won't be violated. Tickets for tomorrow's game against the Chargers are going for $400 on eBay.

Amazing for a franchise that went 12-36 its first three years after the move and became known around Indy as the Dolts.

For all of the franchise's current success, much of its history lives in Baltimore. Five of its six league MVPs played in Baltimore, 10 of its 11 Hall of Famers made their names in Baltimore and its only Super Bowl title was captured when the team was in Baltimore.

Conway said Indy fans don't draw sharp lines between past and present. Peyton Manning may be their hero, but they know Unitas holds the franchise career passing records.

"Indy fans certainly can't appreciate Colts of the past the way Baltimore fans do," he said. "But I feel like the team and the fans buy into the idea of upholding the proud football traditions that come with the big blue horseshoe."

At the Colts store, manager Vickie Miller said some customers talk about the old Baltimore teams and ask for Unitas jerseys. "We get a lot of season-ticket holders who say they had tickets back in Baltimore also," she said. "It's just turned into a nice big home for everybody."

But fans asked about the old Colts said they have nothing but respect for the franchise's Baltimore legacy.

"Oh sure, we followed them back in the day - Johnny U., Earl Morrall, the black high-tops," said David Holt, a security guard at the Indianapolis airport who wore a Colts tie and was buying blue-and-white-patterned pants.

Holt said his brother wore No. 32 in high school because he loved former Baltimore linebacker Mike Curtis. He said he likes to think of the Baltimore and Indianapolis years as an unbroken chain but said he can understand lingering bitterness from the team's former home.

"The thing about it is that the Colts are going to be the Colts no matter where they are," he said. "But I'm sure that if they left here, we'd have some of those same feelings."

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