Friday, January 12, 2007

Never letting go in Baltimore

Obsess over the Colts? Nevermore.

If I'm Steve Bisciotti, owner of the Baltimore Ravens, I'm wondering what the fuck my team has to do to earn a little bit of loyalty and affection in my own damn city. The Ravens won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season. This season they went 13-3, the best record in their 11-year history, and earned a first-round playoff bye. Their defense has returned to nearly the level of dominance seen in 2000, and their offense has been rejuvenated. And yet the storyline for Saturday afternoon's playoff game is, "Baltimore fans in a frenzy as Colts return to town."

Twenty-two years after the Colts left for Indianapolis in the middle of the night, and more than a decade since Baltimore got another team, the Colts still appear to generate more emotion in Charm City than the Ravens do. Even though Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy and the rest of the Colts players and coaches had absolutely nothing to do with the move -- some of them were still in diapers -- it appears that many Baltimoreans will be screaming more loudly for the Colts to lose than for the Ravens to win.

If I'm Bisciotti, I feel like that guy who bends over backward to impress a woman, taking her to the nicest places, giving her gifts, treating her like a queen, but whenever they go out, she won't shut up about her ex-boyfriend. The one who used to hit her. You know, because he loves her so much that I just lose control sometimes, baby.

However, I'm not Bisciotti (which is a shame, because he's both loaded and a pretty cool guy), so I guess it's OK for me to sneer at the football fans of Baltimore for the absurd position in which they now find themselves.

The Colts left Baltimore in 1984 for the same reason any NFL team switches cities: to get a better stadium deal. In Baltimore, the Colts played in Memorial Stadium, which was built in 1950 and named in honor of Americans killed in World Wars I and II. (Today, of course, it would be called Vagisil Park or something.) Colts owner Bob Irsay wanted the city and the state of Maryland to help pay for a new stadium, the city and state said they had other priorities, and, after some interminable will-he-or-won't-he, Irsay packed the team into a fleet of moving vans and lit out for Indianapolis, which had -- hey, look at that! -- a brand new domed stadium. For the next decade-plus, then, Baltimore was able to play the victim card. It was the poor little industrial city that refused to underwrite a new playground for a multimillionaire and was made to pay the ultimate price for sticking to its principles.

The funny thing about principles, though, is that on a crisp Sunday afternoon in autumn, no one wants to sit around and stare at them. Professional football is sexier than civic responsibility, especially for a politician watching from the owner's box. So Baltimore looked to the shores of Lake Erie, where another poor little industrial city (Cleveland) was refusing to underwrite a new playground for another alleged multimillionaire (Browns owner Art Modell). We'll build one for you,Baltimore told Modell. And so it did, and the Browns became the Ravens.

(Cleveland, in turn, would eventually build a new stadium and receive a new set of Browns, but at least it didn't rejoin the NFL by stealing another city's team. And to be fair to Cleveland, Modell was a pig and a liar who didn't deserve a new stadium. In the 1970s, he had promised the city that if he was given complete control of Cleveland Stadium, he would never ask that public money be used to build him a new park. He got control, mismanaged the facility, and ended up desperately in debt. In the final irony, the move to Baltimore -- the move that cost him his reputation and made him one of the most reviled men in sports -- wasn't enough. Modell had to sell the team to Bisciotti to get out from under his own debt.)

Baltimore's double-pump definition of civic responsibility has been repeated several times. Houston refused to build a stadium for Bud Adams, lost the Oilers to Tennessee, then put together a stadium plan to secure an expansion team. St. Louis rejected the Cardinals' stadium efforts, lost the team to Arizona (which didn't get around to building the stadium it had promised for nearly 20 years), then promptly built a stadium to lure the Rams from Los Angeles. It's shitty that it has to be this way, but this is the way it is. Baltimore lost its right to play the victim a decade ago, when it not only took away another city's team, but abandoned the stand it had taken on "principle" in the early 1980s.

Which leads one to suspect that it wasn't an issue of principle at all. When Baltimore said that there was no way in H-E-double-hockey-sticks that it was going to build a football stadium for some wealthy owner -- and when Houston, St. Louis and, to an extent, Cleveland -- said the same thing, they weren't so much taking a stand for civic responsibility. They were bluffing. And they got called on it.

The Baltimore Ravens have a Lombardi Trophy right there in the case. At this point they're probably the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl (which means they're the favorites to win the Super Bowl). The Colts, meanwhile, have known nothing but futility since the move to the Midwest. Whether they finished 1-15 (1991) or 14-2 (2005), the season has always ended in despair for the Indianapolis Colts. Who would you love?

Yeah, he did hit me, but it wasn't hard, and I shouldn't have made him mad. It's my fault, really. Silly. I have to hang up now. He might call.

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