To understand what the NFL's return means to Baltimore, you could start at Memorial Stadium. It's a throwback, a luxury-box-and Jumbotron-free zone that is as fan-friendly as the Colosseum in Rome. Oh, 46-year-old Memorial Stadium has its antiquated charms, including bathrooms that overflow on schedule, like Old Faithful, in the third quarter. (Game-day tip: Drink your beer early.) For a stadium to be a throwback, though, all you need are uncomfortable seats, bad sight lines and an absence of designer coffee. Any place can have that. But turn your stadium into a time machine, and you have something. In the case of Memorial you have Diner meeting Back to the Future each home-game Sunday at precisely 12:40 p.m. That's when the Baltimore Colts band marches onto the field before a Baltimore Ravens game. And the fans go slightly nuts. Fellini would have loved it.
This is as close to surrealism as you're likely to find in a football stadium. The Colts band, outfitted in familiar blue and white, hits the field playing that old standard Let's Go You Baltimore Colts, as if it were 1958 and Johnny Unitas and Alan Ameche and Big Daddy Lipscomb and Raymond Berry were waiting in the tunnel. Remarkably, unaccountably, the band never disbanded. Composed of believers in the one true faith, the Baltimore Colts marching band has outlasted the Baltimore Colts football team by 12 years. It's music's answer to cryogenics.
"I know it sounds strange," said band member Ken Stastny, 28, as the horns blared Jailhouse Rock during a recent rehearsal. "Why did we stay together when, for all intents and purposes, that friend we called the team had died? It's like we watered the flowers every day even though we knew the flowers were dead. But, lo and behold, the resurrection has come, and now we have a team again. People thought we were the town idiots for so many years. But now we can say, 'Hey, that was all worthwhile.' "
Football-crazy Baltimore survived 12 wilderness years without an NFL franchise, 12 years of false hopes and failed expansion dreams. But when it got a new team, well, that team was Cleveland's old one. With one week left in the 1996 regular season, the Ravens are 4-11. Their beat-up defense (nine starters have missed at least one game because of injuries) gives up nearly 30 points a game. Early in the season the Ravens played tough against good teams—the Denver Broncos, the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots—only to fall short at the finish. Since the middle of the season they have played tough, only to blow leads at the end.
But more important than how the Ravens have played on the field is how they've played in the stands. Yes, the games sell out. No, it's not the same as the old days when the Colts were in town. (Note to readers: This may be a recurring theme.) And that's the problem. Ask anyone.
Ask Jim Phillips, 59, a 26-year member of the Colts Corral, the old booster club, and now president of the Council of Baltimore Ravens, the new booster club. It took Phillips seven years on the waiting list to get into his chapter of the Corral. "Somebody had to die," he explains. So far he's got about a thousand Ravens Roosters. Still, the club is not what its predecessor was. "Of course it's not the same," says Phillips. "But it will be. You have to give it time."
Ask anyone who parks in the same place near Memorial Stadium that he did when the Colts were here, who eats his pregame brunch at the same restaurant, who sits on the same old and now possibly threadbare Colts cushion. Everyone at a Ravens game seems to have been an old Colts fan or to imagine that he was. It's said that the past is a foreign country, but in Baltimore it's the past that's familiar. The Ravens are unfamiliar.
If you go to a game, you'll see. There appears to be forced enthusiasm. Ravens wide receiver Michael Jackson said early in the year he felt he needed to hold up a sign: CHEER NOW. When it rained (yes, rained, not snowed, as it usually did in Cleveland) on the day of the big home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, there were 12,623 no-shows. That's not exactly hysteria. That's more like being in touch with your inner Weather Channel. That's saying, Yeah, I put down my $150 for two tickets, but it's not worth getting wet for, man. Hysteria meets common sense, and common sense wins? What kind of football town is that?
But in an important way, football never left Baltimore, despite that snowy night of March 28, 1984, when the Mayflower trucks sneaked the team out of town and deposited it in Indianapolis. The Colts weren't just a team in Baltimore, the way, say, the Buccaneers are around Tampa Bay. The Colts were a religion, which may be the oldest and most enduring football cliché, as old as the single wing and as enduring as the halftime beer run.
If the Colts were not a religion, explain this: A new team has come to town, but the old church keeps calling.