One by one, the men whose names turn heads in this town, the men with money or corporate connections or high political office, filed into the exclusive Maryland Club last Dec. 4 to honor Robert Irsay, a one-time heating and air-conditioning salesman from Skokie, Ill.
The reason, in part, was to make the Baltimore Colts' owner feel more at home here, to dampen his desire to pick up this city's beloved football team and move it to Memphis or Jacksonville, Fla., or somewhere else far from the town that has been the Colts' home for 25 years.
A few weeks earlier, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes invited well-known defense attorney Edward Bennett Williams to breakfast at the governor's mansion in Annapolis to sound out the Baltimore Orioles' new owner about his plans for the city's championship baseball team.
The two events symbolize, as much as anything that has happened before or since, the keen desire of the state's business and political establishment to meet the needs of these out-of-town businessmen, reconcile their conflicting desires, and keep Baltimore a big league town.
Of the two, Williams has been causing state and city officials most concern of late. Privately, the Orioles' owner has had discussions about the possibility of building a 42,000-46,000-seat baseball-only stadium along Interstate 95, midway between Baltimore and Washington.
Because of the conflicting nature of Irsay's and Williams' demands, and also because of their apparent dislike of one another, Baltimore City officials have grown pessimistic about their ability to keep both teams at home.
Officials will not say which team they would rather keep. "That's like saying to a mother, 'Which of your kids do you want to throw out the window?'" said mayoral aide Chris Hartman indignantly."We will do everything we can to see that we keep them both."
Of the five sites along the interstate described by real estate agents as most suited to Williams' needs, at least one has attracted his attention, according to a local businessman. This is an 800-acre parcel that straddles the intersection of I-95 and Md. Rte. 216, almost exactly equidistant from the cities on either side.
Williams agents have, according to one source, had an exploratory discussion about the parcel of vacant land, which was once part of one of the largest farms in the Laurel-Savage area.
The land is controlled by a corporate subsidiary of the Rouse Co., which developed the new town of Columbia out of Howard County farmland a dozen years ago. Rouse Co. officials refuse to say whether they have had discussions with Williams or his agents.
The owners of or agents for four other possible stadium sites, all at major interchanges and all within a 15-minute drive from one another along the interstate, say they have heard nothing from the Orioles' owner.
William Sivitz, who controls one 536-acre, $5 million parcel of land south of Md. Rte. 175 -- a parcel owned by Sivitz' employer, the Chase Manhattan Real Estate Investment Trust -- echoed the feelings of other I-95 landowners when he said, "I have no knowledge of any contact (from Williams). I'd love to hear from him."
Williams' interest in a site between the two cities was evident as much as a month ago when, in private conversations, he discussed the potential of drawing fans from both towns and -- perhaps more importantly -- combining the two radio and television markets, giving him the fourth largest media market in the nation.
On the average, major-league baseball teams derive more than 60 percent of their revenue from gate receipts and another 20 percent from national and local radio and television rights. In the big media markets of New York and Los Angeles, the proportion of media revenue, and the potential profits, is much higher.
Williams refuses to discuss his plans, reiterating his commitment to keep the Orioles in Baltimore as long as the town "supports" the team. That commitment, however, is tinged with ambiguity since Williams has never defined what he means by "support."
Nervous about Williams' commitment and jittery about Colt owner Irsay's conspicuous willingness to be courted by other cities, (he was kissed by Miss Jacksonville on his trip to Flordia last summer) state and city officials have been frantically searching for ways to keep both men happy.
The result has been a series of measures introduced in the General Assembly this year -- some to please Irsay, some Williams -- a vigorous push by Baltimore to increase ticket-sales for the Colts' eight home games and the Orioles 82 home stands.
Irsay, who, according to one political figure, has for years felt slighted by the state's establishment, wanted a large number of improvements done to the stadium, including an extension of the upper deck seats across one end zone (the baseball outfield), improved pressroom facilities, and private lounges at the mezzanine level.
After commissioning a consultant to study the cost of these additions, the Hughes administration introduced legislation providing $22 million in state and city funds for most of the improvements Irsay requested.
There was little they could do to solve Williams' key complaints about the 30-year-old stadium, which has limited parking facilities and can be approached only by the small, congested streets of northeast Baltimore. Any major overhauls in these areas would be more than the city or state could afford.
When the Memorial Stadium bond bills surfaced in the legislature, they were greeted with sharp criticism by legislators in the rural and suburban Washington areas, legislators who have long complained that Baltimore gets more than its fair share of state funds.
Quickly, these lawmakers pointed to the ambiguous nature of the Orioles' commitment to Baltimore and Memorial Stadium, Williams' current one-year lease, and questioned whether the state should invest $22 million in a stadium that might house only one team -- the Colts -- and for only eight games a season at that.
"I think you need some kind of agreement from the Orioles to make [the stadium improvements] pay," said Laurence Levitan, a Democratic State senator from Montgomery County who is chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, which must approve the bond bills.
"That's a lot of money to spend," Levitan added. "I think [the teams] are important to the economy of the state, but the Colts, they're no big deal as far as the public in my area is concerned. Their team happens to be the Redskins.
"The Orioles, well, everybody loves them. They're doing well and that always plays a part."
Without any commitment from Williams, Levitan said, the stadium improvement bills have no better than a 30 percent or 40 percent chance of passing.
Williams has thus far refused to make any commitment, certainly not to a five-year lease, which some legislators are demanding. He repeatedly had said that the proposed stadium improvements do little if anything for the Orioles' needs, and he declines to make a commitment to stay in return for legislation he finds virtually worthless.
Anxious to please the Orioles' owner, city and state officials have several times asked what they could do for him. They have gotten few answers. s
Early on a Saturday morning 10 days ago, Williams and a variety of legislative leaders met with Hughes in the governor's office to discuss the concerns of the Orioles' owner.
"He very much indicated he wasn't asking for anything, that he was not unhappy with Baltimore," said House Speaker Benjamin Cardin, who attended the meeting. "He said he felt an obligation to maintain a franchise where it is.
"But when we asked for a commitment, he said, "That's not fair: I didn't ask for the improvements.'"
Later when the discussion turned to the possibility of a new stadium, Cardin said, "We made it clear to him that we would be pleased to help him with the necessary financing."
Two days after that meeting, House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Hargreaves -- one of those in attendance -- filed legislation clearing the way for Williams to obtain loan guarantees from the state-run Maryland Industrial Development Financing Authority if he wants to build a new stadium in Maryland.
State officials agree that the legislation, -- which, if approved, could save the Orioles' owner hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest payments he chooses to build a privately-financed stadium -- was their idea, not Williams'. "It was sort of a good-faith gesture," said one top state budget official.
Right now, those who hope to pass the stadium improvement bonds and appease Irsay -- who recently built a $1.2 million training center for the Colts' outside of Baltimore -- are trying to devise amendments tying the measure to an Orioles' commitment to stay in the Maryland region.
Officials also hope that economic arguments, including a state study estimating that the Orioles add $21 million to Maryland's economy annually and that the state and city take in $925,000 in tax revenue as a result of the team's play, convince rural and suburban legislators to help the two teams.
The complex, shifting nature of the legislative situation, coupled with Williams' refusal to narrow his options by making a firm contractual commitment with the city has thrown Baltimore's biggest booster, Mayor William Donald Schaefer, into a fit of depression.
At a Baltimore city delegation meeting last Friday, Schaefer predicted that the Orioles would leave the city for the suburbs along I-95.
At the same time, two county executives -- Hugh Nichols of Howard and Lawrence Hogan of Prince George's -- are trying hard to make Schaefer's loss their gain. Both have approached William recently to offer any assistance he might need.
"We've left all our doors open," Nichols said yesterday.
In Baltimore, baseball fans are nervously eyeing the daily headlines and praying that the stadium doors don't close on them.
"If we lost the Orioles, it would be a black eyeball we would never recover from," said Wild Bill Hagy, a cabdriver and frenzied Oriole rooter who has come to exemplify the raucous, loyal spirit of the fans in this largely blue-collar town.
"It would be a way of life ending for me, and for couple of hundreds fans who live and die for them . . . But then again, if they only went out to Columbia, it might not be so bad."