Wake up: Your Colts are still in Baltimore

Commentary

January 24, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

The past few weeks have been an education for me. I've learned a lot about Baltimore's football history and a lot about the people who populated that history, both in uniform and in the stands.

I've also learned a few new words - thanks to the miracle of e-mail - in my attempt to differentiate between Peyton Manning's Super Bowl-bound Indianapolis Colts and the team that Johnny Unitas turned into a Baltimore institution.

From the scores of messages, some from fans that are ready to let go and more from fans who would like to grab me by the throat and never let go, I think I get it now.

Though Robert Irsay's midnight ride was heartbreaking for thousands of local fans, the thing that is most galling now is not so much that the former Baltimore NFL franchise jumped town. It's not even that Manning is wearing the same uniform that Unitas wore. It's that the Colts took a large piece of Baltimore's sports history with them and continue to claim it as their own.

Their 2006 media guide lists records dating back to the beginning, as if the history of the Colts were just one big, happy continuum.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, which probably should have some of the sensibilities of a real museum, also throws the whole franchise under the Indy umbrella, though all but one sentence of the Colts history section on the Hall of Fame Web site is devoted to the Baltimore era.

If there is a universal theme running through every angry reaction, it is that the Colts organization tried to erase a big chunk of this city's storied past. But if the deep emotion that was displayed leading up to and after the Jan. 13 playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium was any indiction, that history never made it out of town.

That might be the lesson here.

The horseshoe isn't the history.

The history is still in the hearts of Baltimore football fans and the players who stayed behind.

It's in the dozens of stories I received over the past few weeks from fans who pine for the days when high-tops were a fashion statement. It's in the archives and the Baltimore Colts displays at the Sports Legends museum at Camden Yards. It's something that was passed from one generation to the next and it was too big to fit in any moving van.

"The trucks may have left town, but the tradition and the empathy that existed between the players and the fans never left here," Tom Matte said. "I wouldn't trade the camaraderie we had or the friendships I made here for anything."

He'll never have to, because that's not something anyone can take from you, but Matte played a role in returning the most tangible part of the Colts history to Baltimore. He was involved in the negotiations that led to an agreement between the Irsay family and then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to return the Baltimore Colts archives in 1985.

Mike Gibbons, the director of Sports Legends at Camden Yards, was placed in charge of those archives, which are a big part of the museum's collection.

"We have virtually everything from the Colts' history here," Gibbons said. "It's not in Canton. It came back in moving vans that pulled right up in front of City Hall. [Schaefer] put me in charge of cataloguing everything to make sure everything that should come back did come back, and it did. We got the Super Bowl trophy from the 1970 season and the game ball from 1958 and all the retired jerseys. They all came back to Baltimore."

Which brings me to a touchy point about all this old Colts angst: If you're so nostalgic about the Colts and passionate about the circumstances of their departure, why haven't more of you shown up to see the Unitas exhibit in the old Camden Station next to Oriole Park?

I get mail every day complaining about the way the Baltimore Colts are overlooked in Canton, but I can't help thinking that a lot of the people writing those letters are overlooking the old Colts right here. Sports Legends is one of the premier sports museums in the nation, yet it is struggling to attract a significant number of local sports fans.

"I think a lot of that has to do with awareness," Gibbons said. "It has taken awhile for the community to understand what's going on here, but it's happening. When the Colts came to Baltimore to play the Ravens, we were overwhelmed with media, both national and local."

Guess I'll have to take his word for that until the turnout picks up, yet I can't help but wonder if there is some truth to a comment I heard yesterday from a cynical colleague when I told him about the heavy emotional reaction to the column I wrote in support of Manning and the new Colts.

"If those people showed as much passion for the team in 1983 as they do now," he said, "it would never have left."

Lest anyone forget, the Colts were in deep decline, and only three games had ticket sales above 40,000 before the moving vans pulled out. That doesn't absolve the Irsays of guilt for the shabby way they left town, but it does tell you that the fans weren't shedding all those tears over the 1983 team. They were weeping over the loss of something else ... and now we find it has been here all along.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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