Irsay to face heat when Colts return to Baltimore

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Jim Irsay has almost everything an NFL owner could want.

The Indianapolis Colts’ All-Pro quarterback is still in his prime, two receivers are headed to the Pro Bowl and there’s a budding star at running back. They’ve reached the playoffs seven times in eight years. The financial future looks equally bright: There’s a new stadium under construction and an expanding season-ticket list.

Yes, Irsay has grown comfy in his Indianapolis digs.

But Irsay has one other wish – that 23 years after the Colts’ bitter move from Baltimore to Indy, some of the hard feelings it created would finally heal.

“We’re talking about a long time ago, really a quarter-century ago,” Irsay told The Associated Press on Monday. “That was another time, another place and another era.”

Some Baltimore Colts fans may never forgive the Irsay family. And now they’ll get another chance to vent their frustration with the Colts coming back to Baltimore to play the Ravens in a divisional playoff game Saturday.

The Irsay name has been hated and cursed for more than two decades by Baltimore fans.

They’re still angry at the images of the infamous “midnight move,” Mayflower vans pulling away from the team complex under the cover of darkness in March 1984.

At the time, Jim Irsay was a 20-something recent college graduate in the Colts front office who had little influence on his father, the team owner. Irsay called his dad his “own man,” and acknowledged he only learned of the impending move the morning the Colts left town.

Why did it happen?

Irsay explains his late father didn’t think the Colts could be competitive with an outdated stadium, and when the city refused to build a new one it threatened to keep the Colts by using eminent domain, potentially stripping Robert Irsay of ownership.

From Jim Irsay’s perspective, if the city or state made any effort to extend an olive branch, he believes his father would have kept the team in Baltimore. Instead, Robert Irsay wouldn’t risk losing his team.

“I know he didn’t want to move, but the business model was crumbling and his attorneys felt with the eminent domain threat, the city was going to move on the team,” Jim Irsay said. “That’s why there was a sudden move – there was so much fear on both sides.”

The secondary role Irsay played in the ticket office and accounting department back then matters little to the fans of today. After all, he’s still an Irsay.

The 47-year-old owner, who inherited the team from his late father a decade ago, hopes this weekend’s reception will be more pleasant than his first trip back home in 1998. On that trip, Irsay remembers seeing a T-shirt with a Ravens fan urinating on his father’s grave.

Indianapolis returned to Baltimore again in 2001 and lost 39-27 before finally winning 24-7 at Baltimore in the 2005 season opener. Saturday will be the Colts first playoff game in Baltimore since 1977.

Over the years, some of the outrage has waned. The hate mail has basically stopped, Irsay said.

But some former players still shun their Colts legacy, choosing instead to stay with the Baltimore lineage. And to fans, nothing is more enticing than beating the Colts. Even beating the dreaded Steelers or the Browns, who left Cleveland and moved to Baltimore in 1996 with the promise of a new stadium, pales in comparison to a win over Indy.

“That’s important to a lot of people,” quarterback Steve McNair said. “We know it’s important to the fans.”

It is, however, mostly a fan thing. The significance is virtually lost on today’s players, most of whom were small children – or not even born yet – when Irsay’s father made his decision to leave town.

“I’d probably say that two-thirds of our players don’t even know that we started in Baltimore,” coach Tony Dungy said. “If you talk about Willie Mays or Jim Brown, they don’t even know who those guys are.”

Irsay, however, still carries fond memories from his Baltimore days.

He remembers going to training camp in Golden, Colo., in 1972, and being asked to move off the training table by John Unitas. He recalls the parties, the players, the celebrations, the disappointments and how his father groomed him to take over.

One of his daughters was born there, and he still has close friends in Baltimore.

Yet as much as Irsay hopes the city forgives, he realizes it may never forget.

“Having the name Irsay, some people will try to tie things into that, but all I can speak of is my legacy as an owner, which really began in 1998,” Irsay said. “And the move was not part of my ownership legacy.”

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