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8 Upper

Fight On

By Tom Scocca | Posted 12/2/1998

First thing in the morning on the day of the NFL's Battle of Baltimore, I'm knocking around the house humming Fiiight on, you Ballamer Coats. This is the first sign that I'm going to be on the wrong side of the cheering. The second indication comes shortly before 1 p.m., when a knot of white helmets--Colts helmets--begins to mass in the tunnel entrance of New NFL Stadium at Camden Yards. The crowd erupts into sour, weltering boos.

But my heart is leaping. On the second play from scrimmage, Colts running back Marshall Faulk knifes into the left side of the line for a 4-yard pickup--and as the little man in white, with that horseshoe on his helmet, dances forward, something in my gut blurts oh, yeah!, so automatically that I have to clamp a hand over my mouth to maintain press-box decorum. In the stands, 68,898 Ravens fans are gnashing some 2 million teeth, give or take.

What can I do? For all the ink spilled arguing this way and that way about the social, psychological, and historical stakes of this Colts-Ravens matchup, all I know is that I love the Baltimore Colts.

Were the crowd in a debating mood, it would no doubt say, "But there are no Baltimore Colts! Haven't been Baltimore Colts in 15 years, since that rat-bastard Bob Irsay thieved the team away to Indianapolis--Indianapolis!--in the middle of the snowy night!" To which I would say (were we debating, the 68,000 and me): "This is Baltimore; these are the Colts."

Yes, none of these Colts--the nimble Faulk, the doughty center Jay Leeuwenburg, the gangling rookie quarterback Peyton Manning, who now slings another deadeye pass over the middle for another first down--were ever those Colts. These Colts play their football in the middle of corn country, Dan Quayle country, indoors on a green plastic rug.

But hell, if the National Football League was the way it used to be, the Ravens wouldn't be here. Which is why the whole buildup to this game was so wrongheaded: The Art Modell Organization grappling with the Bob Irsay Organization for the hearts and minds of Baltimore football fans is like Germany grappling with Russia for Poland. The football legacy that's supposed to be at stake today has long since been trampled by the NFL and its owners.

Take the notion that a football team is a vital part of a city's identity--the reason, after all, we were so wounded by the Colts' departure. Where does it apply now? Los Angeles has no NFL team. The city of New York sends its Giants and Jets to New Jersey. The Washington Racial Epithets have left the nation's capital for their newly founded hamlet of Raljon, Md. Soon, Boston will see the New England Patriots drift off to Hartford, Conn., 100 miles from their original home.

As the franchises churn, who cares whether a city has one or not? Who even remembers? Teams vanish from Houston and St. Louis and Los Angeles; they pop up in Tennessee and Phoenix and St. Louis again. Awaiting new homes, they camp in such big-league sites as Memphis and Clemson. (In all the humiliations of the expansion and relocation derbies, Baltimore should have taken a hint: If you're competing with Nashville and Charlotte and Jacksonville for something, it's not worth competing for.)

And what, honestly, have we gained with our Baltimore Ravens? The big, new stadium turns its back on the city, hunching against the Interstate; it's about as much a part of the urban fabric as the Baltimore Travel Plaza. The new team owner is as high-handed and untrustworthy as the last one. The team is mired in fourth place.

So today I'm cheering for the Colts. If the NFL can change its rules about commitment, changing cities and names and uniforms, I might as well commit my affections to the old blue horseshoe. My father, a one-time Philadelphia Warriors basketball fan, concurs. "Basically, you're cheering for laundry anyway," he says. "It might as well be the laundry of your choice."

Here then are the Colts, resplendent in their whites, feet planted in the good Baltimore dirt. Marshall Faulk squirts through the line, finds a seam, and sprints free, 68 yards for the touchdown. The Colts lead the Ravens, 17-3. Duuum dum, dum da-da-dah dummm, I hum quietly, looking up at the monitor above my seat. Bob Irsay is dead; he died slowly and painfully. His team stayed in the AFC cellar year after year, while I cheered for Baltimore teams to win championships in the Canadian Football League and the USFL.

That's the logic I use to justify rooting for the Colts, even as the Ravens storm back and seize the lead, while my fellow citizens pour out their wrath on the heads of their long-lost team. Or this: Unless you can afford hundreds of dollars a week for tickets, you only see football inside your TV anyway. The geography of this grudge match is beside the point. Football teams can flit around. Baltimore--the city--will not get up from the banks of the Patapsco, march out to the west fork of the White River in Indiana, and beat up the city of Indianapolis where it sits. No matter how richly Indianapolis may deserve it.

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