It sometimes has been called Irsay's Odyssey, although Irsay's Idiocy seems more appropriate.

Still, while Robert Irsay has acted exceedingly foolish all these months -- peddling his Baltimore Colts from town to town like some latter-day snake-oil pitchman -- he is not a complete fool.

Irsay has been pulling one of the slickest sporting bluffs in memory -- pitting Baltimore against two cities panting for an NFL franchise, Memphis and Jacksonville. And the man ultimately responsible for the decline and fall of a once-peerless football team is in a no-lose position at the moment.

He is an easy man to dislike, although perhaps no more arrogant and shrewd than most owners. What he wants is to be rewarded for bad management, if not quite incompetence.

Very likely, he will be.

Ed Garvey saw several sides of Irsay one night in Chicago a few years ago, during a dinner for an all-black boy's club sponsored by the NFL players Association.

The generous side of Irsay shown brightly, for he was as responsible as any one person for $50,000 being raised for the Better Boys Fund. That got him prime position at the head table; it was not the position in which he met Garvey.

"I was in line (in an anteroom waiting to be introduced) between Don Shula and John Mackey," said Garvey, executive director of the NFLPA. "And Mackey said: 'See that guy over there at the bar, the only one not in line? That's Bob Irsay. Go on over and introduce yourself.'"

"So I did. And his first words were: "You look just like your pitcher." He'd been at the bar a while. Then he said: 'Say hello to the bartender. He's a helluva guy.'

"Later, during the affair, Irsay began one of those loud whispers, trying to get the attention of somebody at the table in front of him and to one side. He kept saying: 'Lydell, Mitch. Hey, Mitch.'

"Lenny Hauss was sitting next to him and said: 'What are you doing?'

"Irsay said: 'I'm trying to get my player, Lydell Mitchell, over here. (This was a year or so before Mitchell and Irsay traded racism charges during a contract dispute, and the player was traded to San Diego.) Hey, Mitch.'

"Lenny interrupted again and said: 'Ah, the guy you're trying to get is Greg Latta.'"

It is possible, although not totally fair, to say the Colts' downfall began July 26, 1972, the day Irsay and the late Carroll Rosenbloom completed that cross-country lateral of football teams.

Irsay traded his recently acquired Los Angeles Rams for Rosenbloom's Colts, two-time NFL champs in the late '50s, Super Bowl losers in '69 and winners in '71. Irsay gained control of the Colts the year after they lost their AFC title to a Miami Dolphin team readying itself for a prominent place in NFL history.

Irsay's first season saw the Colts slump to a 5-9 record, from 10-4. In the next three years, it would become worse, on and off the field, primarily because the man who coaxed Irsay into buying the team, Joe Thomas.

Thomas is brilliant at personnel, but a dolt at public relations. As general manager, he inherited a team of stars in descent, but he shot them down instead of lowering them gently.

And athletic Baltimore became incensed.

This had been the NFL's showcase franchise for more than a decade, arguably the first of the now-fashionable manias, a team and a town giving their hearts to one another. No iron-willed father ever broke up an affair quicker than Joe Thomas.

In rebuilding a team, Thomas first must destroy it. And by the time he had chosen the players who would bring a three-season rejuvenation, he had alienated much of Baltimore.

From more than six straight seasons of sellout games, the Colts dipped dramatically. They went from 51,000 season tickets to 28,000. Even the turnaround year under new Coach Ted Marchibroda, 1975, generated only 2,000 additional season tickets.

The three splendid years under Marchibroda, when the Colts was 31 to 42 games, saw season-ticket sales rise to 36,500. The drop in performance that began near Thanksgiving Day of 1977 has seen sales drop by more than 4,000.

For reasons that have more to do with personnel decisions and the injury to Bert Jones than Marshibroda's coaching, the Colts have lost 21 of their last 29 games. Still, there are whispers of players unrest.

The players stood solidly behind Marchibroda during the public battle he won with Thomas just before the '76 season; some are said to be privately upset that Marchibroda did not back Mitchell, the recently traded John Dutton and others in kind.

"Nonsense," said a former Colt, although one with strong Marchibroda ties. "It's nothing winning a few games wouldn't turn around. Listen, Teddy's doing his purgatory here on earth. There is no leadership at all in the organization. Teddy can't do it alone."

That former Colt said that after a 17-14 loss to the Eagles last season, Irsay burst into the coaches' quarters while Marchibroda was having his post-game press conference. He said Irsay berated the offensive line coach for problems in the defensive line.

Whatever his faults. Irsay's tactics probably are no different than most owners would try under the circumstances. The Colts play in a stadium badly in need of improvement; what better way of assuring those improvements than to threaten to move?

It is the most distasteful form of political arm twisting, but highly effective. If this is the age of greed in sports, others, including Rosenbloom, laid solid groundwork for Irsay. Had Minnesota not promised a domed stadium, the NFL very likely would have voted to allow the Vikings to move to Los Angeles next season.

"I would have had no guilt feelings at all with that," one prominent executive said. "An open stadium in that kind of weather is not keeping with the times. With pay television in whatever form, on the horizon, attendance in person has got to be comfortable, an enjoyable experience.

"I really don't know the man (Irsay): he doesn't attend half the meetings. But I feel as the league feels, that you shouldn't go around bartering franchises with cities. And what he wants is entirely different than Carroll's move to (Anaheim next season).

"That was nothing more than Boston moving to Foxboro or the Comboys from Dallas to Irving or the Giants from New York to Jersey."

The NFL has its annual October meeting Wednesday in Dallas; at the top of the agenda is: "Proposed Baltimore Franchise Move."

Whether Irsay will ask to move the Colts is uncertain, perhaps even to Irsay. What is certain is that he does not have anywhere near the votes at the movement to carry through such a maneuver.

"I don't think this will be anything more than a discussion," said the Cowboy's Tex Schramm. "I don't believe in just capriciously moving franchises. On the other hand, the Baltimore facility simply is not very suitable."

"If sometime in the future, the state or Baltimore would decide it did not want (significant) public funds helping private industry, well he might get enough votes (21 to 27) to go to a first-rate facility in a suitable city."

That is the present debate in Baltimore and Maryland: how much public money is too much for the Colts. The state has approved about $1 million a year the last several years for improvements to Memorial Stadium.

Gov. Hughes and Mayor Schaefer agreed last week to try and help raise $21.5 million for the stadium, which would allow an increase of about 13,000 new seats. The Colts have asked for 20,000 additional seats.

If that money can be raised, the NFL probably will not risk an antitrust fuss with Congress; it probably will vote to keep the Colts tethered in Baltimore, regardless of how attractive Memphis seems to Irsay.

"I don't think he (Irsay) would mind moving at all," a man familiar with most sides of the issue said. "He's an absentee owner, anyway. That plane of his can go just as easily to Memphis. And what he's doing isn't all that different from what Carroll tried with the Colts and Hoffberger tried with the Orioles to get the stadium improved."

"I'm not saying his style is right, but he might get something that nobody else could."