Good riddance

Move ended toxic relationship, paved way for two stadiums

Colts Leave Baltimore


March 29, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,

March 29, 1984, remains the most infamous day in Baltimore sports history. Ask longtime residents about it and they'll practically spit the words "Irsay" and "Mayflower."

As the moving trucks rolled out in the snow that morning, they carried away the blue-and-white Colts gear that had meant so much to Baltimoreans in the John Unitas era. Surely, that legacy had no place in Indianapolis. Worse still, the departure left city residents to confront their fears that Baltimore was a third-rate town.

With 25 years of perspective, however, it's possible to argue that March 29, 1984, was actually a good day for Baltimore sports. It allowed the city to cut ties with a desperately flawed franchise and a deeply unpopular owner. It spurred elected officials to get serious about plans that would keep the Orioles in Baltimore and attract a new NFL team. Those plans bore fruit in Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, beloved facilities that are now as intrinsic to downtown as the Inner Harbor. The Ravens arrived in 1996 and won a Super Bowl six years before the Colts brought Indianapolis its first Lombardi Trophy.

So, perhaps, crazy as it might sound, Bob Irsay did everyone a favor when he suddenly ordered his franchise packed into green, yellow and red trucks.

"It was very, very painful," says John Moag, who ultimately lured the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore as chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "But as painful as the result was, it was a good one for the city. It gave us Oriole Park at Camden Yards, because we were not going to make the same mistake with the Orioles as we did with the Colts."

The Colts' dissatisfaction at sharing a stadium with the Orioles also factored into the plans to build two stadiums instead of one.

"Without Irsay leaving, I doubt that we would have two stadiums," says former state Sen. Cathy Riley, who pushed for both while in Annapolis. "And without the second stadium, I don't think we would have a football team."

To understand why breaking up with Irsay was a blessing in disguise, it's important to remember how thoroughly Baltimore fans loathed the Colts owner. He was perceived as irascible, often drunk and disloyal to Unitas and other Colts heroes. The team became a laughingstock on the field, and attendance plummeted. Rumors of a franchise move swirled almost from the moment Irsay took over in 1972.

"How can you say we'll build a new stadium when he's selling players left and right, he's on the headset telling the coach what plays to call, he's drunk and cussing on live TV?" says John Ziemann, who kept the Baltimore Colts' Band together in the years after the team departed. "How can you have respect for someone like that? How can you have respect for a man who would take the greatest quarterback in world, John Unitas, and ship him to the worst team, in San Diego? How can you have any respect for a man who would go to any city in United States and say, 'You want my football team?' "

As rumors of a move intensified at the close of the 1983 season, fans showed their hatred for Irsay with signs and chants at the home finale, a win over the Houston Oilers.

"I do reflect, and ... it felt like it wasn't going to get any better," says offensive lineman Chris Hinton, a first-round draft pick that season. "It was sort of like a relationship. It was at the point where both parties needed to move on."

Safety Nesby Glasgow had played five seasons in Baltimore and says the city deserved some of the blame for the fracture.

"It's not like the community was supporting the team," Glasgow says. "You can say it was a lack of winning games or hatred of Bob Irsay. Didn't matter. If fans support the team, no way they let them leave. ... Fans would tell me the stadium was good enough for Johnny Unitas. That should tell you something."

The distaste for Irsay extended to the city and state leaders who were trying to keep the Colts in town.

"We lost the Colts, plain and simple, because the people in power could not stand Bob Irsay," Moag says. "He had no political capital, not even enough to get a $50 million loan for some renovations at Memorial Stadium."

Former Baltimore County Executive Don Hutchinson remembers his inability to steer Irsay toward a compromise during a secret meeting in Skokie, Ill. He walked out of the March 11 meeting believing the negotiations were beyond salvage.

The divorce went into high gear March 27 when the Maryland Senate passed a bill saying the state had "eminent domain," or the right to annex the Colts for the public good. The legislation needed approval from the House of Delegates and the governor, but Irsay did not wait for those shoes to drop.

On the afternoon of March 28, his son, Jim Irsay, gathered the team's coaches and ordered them to have all of the Colts' equipment and files ready for loading that evening. Word leaked out after the trucks showed up, but fans and elected officials could only watch in muted anguish as the process unfolded.

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