Forget Memorial Stadium. If you want to find football fans, go to a bar. That's one thing that will never change. Baltimore has many bars, but only a few of them have shrines.
In Brooklyn, a working-class neighborhood in south Baltimore, near the docks and the factories that once made the city a leading industrial center, there's a tavern called Club 4100, and outside it is a shrine to Unitas, who used to stop in after games. His handprint, of the right hand that threw the ball 39,768 yards for the Colts, is cast in a block of cement sitting outside the joint. Every Easter for the last 28 years Manny Spanomanolis, 56, and his brother Dino, 52, who run the place, have had a party for hundreds of neighborhood kids. According to Manny, Unitas has made it to the party 25 of those years and has tossed a football with the kids. "He's a great gentleman," Manny says, without risk of argument.
On this November night at Club 4100, Chuck Thompson, the Hall of Fame voice of the old Colts, is having a book-signing party for his memoir, Ain't the Beer Cold! And many of the old faithful have shown. At the bar, sipping whiskey, is George Kelch. He's wise in the ways of Baltimore and the Colts. He was a fan from the beginning, back in 1947, when the first incarnation of the Colts came to Baltimore as part of the All-American Football Conference.
Kelch offers you a seat, a drink and his wisdom. Eventually, inevitably, the conversation turns to the night the Colts stole out of town. "Do I remember the day they left?" Kelch says. "Do I remember Pearl Harbor? Do I remember my wedding day? The night they left was a very sad, strange night. It was devastating, personally devastating. For me, for thousands of people, it was something we couldn't put into words. People would just look at each other, and we knew we were all thinking the same thing: How could this happen?"
Kelch nursed the wound for 12 years. And when the Ravens came to Baltimore to be the new home team, he went to see them. He had to. But the last thing he expected to happen was what happened: He was let down. "The feeling just wasn't there," he says. "Maybe I'm too old. But I just didn't feel anything. I looked at those ugly damn uniforms—they look like Halloween costumes—and they didn't look like my team. The Colts belonged to Baltimore. You knew the players. You lived down the street from them. You ate in the same restaurants. Johnny Unitas would come in here and have a beer. How's that going to be the same?"
Maybe, Kelch muses, it's not the same because Baltimore stole the team from Cleveland. "You know what it's like?" he says. "It's like your wife left you, and then your best friend's wife left him, and now you're living with her. It just doesn't feel right."
As Kelch talks, there's sports on the TV over the bar, and country music is playing in the background. Meanwhile, Madge, who works behind the bar, and Big John, who drinks on the other side, are talking Ravens. Madge is a fan, and Big John is not, although he can tell you exactly how the Ravens blew the game the previous Sunday.
"When the Colts left, it broke my heart," Madge, a woman in her 50s, says, "but now my children have a team. And their children will have a team. I go there, and it feels the same—very exciting. Some Colts fans can't accept this team. But I wanted it so much. I just never got used to Sundays without a team. If I had my way, everyone would be a Ravens fan. I know for all my kids, all my grandchildren, it's going to be an all-Ravens Christmas. All Ravens gifts."
Big John, a 61-year-old guy in a cowboy hat and boots, is a Club 4100 regular. He grabs you around the shoulder, presses you close to his bearded face and speaks the truth. "My sports days are over," he says, not sadly but loudly. "Let the young kids have this team if they want. But it won't be the same. When the Colts were here, you'd go to church on Sunday and pray for these guys. I'd pray that [Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray] Nitschke didn't get to Unitas. You going to pray for these guys today? They'll be playing for somebody else before you finish. Look, I wouldn't trade that time for nothing. I had my time. Let the young people have theirs. At least they got something."
This is an argument that plays all over the city. The debate began on the day the Browns (yet to be rechristened the Ravens) came to Baltimore, stolen from Cleveland as surely as Esau's birthright was swiped by Jacob. Most of the speakers at the news conference heralding the Browns' arrival knew' it was a somber day: Although Baltimore was getting football back, Cleveland was hurting in exactly the same way Baltimore had hurt 12 years before.