In Baltimore, love rekindled
By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 22, 2001
BALTIMORE -- Picture the city as a spurned lover. Dumped by its true companion, the metropolis mourns for years on end. Always, forever, carrying a torch. Or, in this case, a tuba.
Never have so many suffered so much, simply for the love of third and long.
Behold a city without pretense. A place that glories in its blue-collar image -- even if it is more image than reality these days. A place where generations pass through a home with only the color of paint on the walls as a marker for the changing of years.
"It's a cosmopolitan city, but its roots are small town," former Baltimore Colts player Bruce Laird said. "If you know 350 influential people in this town, then you know everybody."
Tradition counts for something in Baltimore and few traditions are quite so ingrained as the National Football League.
Here is a place that lost the Colts to Indianapolis, yet had a Colts Marching Band for years afterward. They talk about a day in March 1984 -- when in the dark of a snowy night, owner Robert Irsay brought a fleet of Mayflower trucks to move the team's belongings to Indianapolis -- as if a loved one passed away. And maybe that is precisely what happened.
"The sun came up the next day. Nobody died. But we lost a big part of the community that day. A very big part of our community," said John Ziemann, a longtime officer in the marching band and an official at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. "It was like yanking our hearts out."
In the movie Diner, Barry Levinson's classic ode to 1959 Baltimore, Eddie Simmons, a prospective bridegroom, requires that wife-to-be Elyse pass a 140-question test on the Colts.
Eddie: Okay, the Colts signed a Heisman Trophy winner who decided to play in Canada. Now, however, he plays for the team. What's his name?
Elyse: Heisman Trophy winner? L.G. Dupree.
Eddie: No. Billy Vessels.
Elyse: I should have known that.
Eddie: Should-haves don't count.
* * *
"Football is definitely No. 1 in this community," said Rick Forero, an official with the Ravens Roost fan club. "It's part of who we are. Fathers took their kids to Colts games and handed down the tradition. I started going to Colts games when I was 7. It was the thing to do."
Other cities have had longtime love affairs with their teams, but Baltimore is unique in some ways. Situated between New York to the north and Washington to the south, Baltimore has long been considered the Eastern Seaboard's poorer relation.
The Inner Harbor district and the trendy Fells Point area have revitalized Baltimore in recent years but, in the 1950s and '60s, the city was nothing but a collection of industrial workers segregated in ethnic neighborhoods.
Johnny Unitas and the Colts might have been the most identifiable images of Baltimore in those times and the city embraced its heroes.
"We were part of the community and the community could not get enough of us," former Colts running back Tom Matte said. "Everybody knew everybody. You had lots of fun being with the fans. We'd go out to a Colts Corral (fan) meeting and get a free meal and a beer. We thought that was a big deal."
The Colts did not just play in Baltimore, they lived in Baltimore. And worked in Baltimore. Unitas worked at Bethlehem Steel as a rookie in 1956. He later took jobs as a paint salesman and worked for a corrugated box company. And that was after winning an MVP award in 1957.
Players would get homemade cakes from fans on their birthdays. Everyone in town knew the team would spend the night before games at the Holiday Inn on Loch Raven Boulevard. Fans would mingle with the players at the hotel and get autographs at Sunday mass before the game.
"It was a different time," Ziemann said. "The Colt players didn't make the money guys make today so they'd be working at Bethlehem Steel side by side with the guy who bought a ticket to see them play. And they'd all be at the corner bars with you at night after work."
Eddie adds up Elyse's totals from the true-false, multiple choice and short answer sections of the test. She needs a 65 for a passing grade.
Eddie: Your total is 63.
Elyse: Oh, no. Eddie, I think you better check that again. I don't think you added it right.
Eddie: I checked these figures very thoroughly.
Elyse: Eddie, what about the Alan Ameche question? I knew that one.
Eddie: The marriage (sigh) is off.
* * *
Baltimore's love for the Colts never faded, but ownership's love of the city certainly changed. Carroll Rosenbloom sold the team to Irsay in 1972 and the franchise quickly took a turn for the worse. Mismanagement led to a poorer product on the field and Irsay grew more unpopular.
His midnight end-around to Indianapolis caught the city unprepared and left its fans devastated. For more than a decade, Baltimore lived without the NFL. It had the USFL for a short time and even the CFL, but it was not the same. Some fans followed the Eagles and others took to the Steelers or the New York teams. (Few, it seems, could bring themselves to cheer for the Redskins.)
The city spent a decade trying to lure an NFL team back to Baltimore and was crushed when expansion teams were awarded to Jacksonville and Carolina in the early 1990s. That is when Baltimore turned its eyes toward an existing franchise and put together a package so sweet that Browns owner Art Modell could not resist.
There was initially some mixed feelings in Baltimore when the Browns came to town in 1996 as the Ravens. Having nursed their own wounds so recently, Baltimore fans empathized with the fans who lost their team in Cleveland.
The Ravens began playing in decrepit Memorial Stadium to a lukewarm response. But after the team moved to PSINet Stadium and success began to follow, fans started to respond. Cleveland had gotten a new Browns team and Baltimore fans were now free to love their own.
The run toward Super Bowl XXXV has revitalized the NFL in this town to a level almost akin to the 1950s and '60s. Ravens coach Brian Billick talked about a woman who approached him to offer her congratulations as he pumped gas recently. She could not speak, he said, without crying.
When the Ravens defeated Tennessee in the AFC divisional playoffs, the team was greeted by an estimated 4,000 at BWI Airport.
"We got off at the international terminal and we couldn't see anybody because they kept them all in the main concourse. But you could hear and you kept walking toward this roar," Billick said. "I rounded the last corner and my daughters and my wife were standing right there. I saw them and I saw the crowd and I can't remember as an emotional time for me in my career.
"It was magical."
Eddie later relents. He decides, after all, that he should not have disqualified the Alan Ameche question -- Elyse knew the answer, but someone shouted it before she could respond.
The wedding goes off as planned and the bride walks down the aisle as the Colts marching song is played.
Hollywood fiction? Perhaps.
But when longtime Baltimore Sun columnist John Steadman died this month, scores of former Colts players attended services and some acted as pallbearers. As the casket was being carried from the church, the organist played a familiar tune.
The Colts fight song.
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