In 1968, when the Baltimore Colts were 13-1 and won the NFL championship, tickets were so hard to come by that star running back Tom Matte could buy only end zone seats for his parents. Today, anyone with a pocketful of change can buy a choice seat at Memorial Stadium.

Last year, the Colts didn't win a game, finishing the strike-shortened season with the league's worst record, 0-8-1. While an average of 26,912 turned out each week to watch their team wallow in the pits of ineptitude, not only did the city of Baltimore ponder the Colts' fall from glory, but the entire nation wondered what had befallen the franchise that had produced such Hall of Famers as Johnny Unitas, Gino Marchetti and Lenny Moore.

Colts' fans saw six head coaches come and go in 10 years under the leadership of owner Robert Irsay. They saw star players such as Ted Hendricks, John Dutton and Bert Jones traded in their prime, and, most recently, watched as college football's best quarterback and the Colts' No. 1 draft pick, John Elway, refused even to consider the city as a place to call home.

"If it wasn't so serious, I'd think it was really funny," said Art Donovan, a Hall of Fame defensive tackle with the Colts of 1953-61. "I'd only be lying if I tried to give an answer as to what the problems with the team are. All I know is that it's tough to sit in the stands and watch a franchise go down the drain. In Baltimore, the Orioles have taken all the thunder. The Colts are nothing now but a stepchild."

The last time the Colts won a game was against New England, 23-21, on Dec. 20, 1981. Four months later, the Colts drafted quarterback Art Schlichter in the first round with hopes of bolstering an offense that averaged 16 points a game to its opponents' 33. But Mike Pagel, an unheralded fourth-round pick from Arizona State, beat out Schlichter for the starting job. Six weeks ago, Schlichter acknowledged to the FBI that he had lost nearly $400,000 gambling on sporting events. His future with the Colts has yet to be determined by the NFL.

It seemed the Colts truly could not win, either on or off the field. And, now, in the wake of the Elway trade to Denver for a future first-round pick, backup quarterback Mark Herrmann and Chris Hinton, an unsigned and unhappy offensive lineman, many followers of the Colts believe yet more salt has been poured into their city's festering wound.

Last Wednesday at Jerry's Belvedere Tavern, in the Govans neighborhood in northeast Baltimore, marketing consultant Bill Sutton said, "Irsay doesn't give a damn about Baltimore. If the team stays this miserable, eventually no one will come. I used to go to games regularly, but you know I wouldn't even be upset if they moved."

Baltimore won the last of its three straight AFC East titles under Coach Ted Marchibroda in 1977. Two years later, after consecutive last-place finishes, Irsay fired Marchibroda. The Colts have not finished better than fourth since then. Marchibroda, an assistant coach with the Detroit Lions, did not want to comment this week, saying only, "I'd like to remember the good times and leave it at that."

Against Philadelphia in 1981, Irsay went so far as to order then-coach Mike McCormack to replace quarterback Jones with backup Greg Landry. Even with Irsay wearing headphones and calling plays from the press box, the Colts lost, 38-13. Just last week, showing once again who's boss, Irsay traded Elway to Denver without first notifying General Manager Ernie Accorsi and Coach Frank Kush.

"Irsay didn't want any alternate power source," said Stan White, former Colts linebacker (1972-79) now with the Chicago Blitz. "He wanted the players to accept everything as gospel . . . Baltimore was always a good football town, but Irsay's destroyed the franchise."

Last year, because of the players' strike, Baltimore played only four games at home. The Colts' average attendance was the league's lowest--a 50 percent drop from the 1972 average of 56,429. Against Miami in a January makeup game, only 19,073 showed up at 60,586-seat Memorial Stadium to watch the Colts lose in the finale of the franchise's worst year ever. Season ticket sales peaked in '72 with 49,000, two years after the Colts won their only Super Bowl by beating Dallas, 16-13, on a last-minute field goal by Jim O'Brien. But by 1980, season-ticket sales had dropped to 25,000.

According to Bill Roberts, ticket sales manager, his office has sold 22-23,000 season tickets for next season.

In 1981, the last full season, the NFL averaged 93 percent capacity in its 28 cities. The Colts averaged 59 percent.

Not only the fans have turned their backs on Irsay's Colts; many former players who still live in Baltimore have quit going to games. Bill Pellington, a 1953-64 linebacker, said, "I haven't been to a ball game in 10 years. It's their franchise now and they're doing what they want to do with it."

Accorsi said, "Frank (Kush) and I have been driving really hard to get through this period. The whole Elway deal has obscured what's been going on here lately. I think we came out okay in the draft. We had some rookies in for camp last week and they had a very positive attitude about playing here in Baltimore. They had heard and read so many negative things about Maryland, but when they got here they all seemed to be saying, 'Hey, this is Baltimore? This place isn't so bad.' "

"What we have to do is win," he said. "We gotta get out on the field and prove ourselves again to the people of Baltimore. The tragedy of all that's been going on here lately is that it's hurt our image. Baltimore is the greatest place to play football in America if you're successful. The fans here take the game and their team so personally. Either they're very, very up on you, or they're very, very down."

Irsay, who owns one of the world's largest air conditioning and heating companies, traded the Los Angeles Rams for Carroll Rosenbloom's Colts in 1972. He immediately hired the late Joe Thomas from the Miami Dolphins to run the team. Thomas left after a power struggle with Marchibroda after the 1976 season, and Irsay, while still living in Skokie, Ill., took control.

Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, traded to San Diego by Thomas in 1972 in a deal that shocked Baltimore fans, said, "Joe Thomas just raped the franchise, and he did the same thing in San Francisco (1977-78). He didn't build the Dolphins. He gets credit for a lot of things he didn't really do.

"They (management) have taken the franchise from the pinnacle of success to the lowest possible point. And Irsay, period, is the Colts' management. The difference is night and day between Carroll Rosenbloom and Irsay."

Tom Matte: "When Irsay took over the franchise all hell broke loose. But I think Joe Thomas was the reason behind the downfall of the whole Colt franchise. What we had in the '60s was great leadership, handed down from the Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan era to the Unitas years and then to my days. Thomas came in and traded all those great players and leaders away. And what this team needs more than anything is somebody to identify with, somebody who'll go out on the field and just try."

White disagreed: "As long as Thomas was running the show, things were fine. We had good players who were paid well and treated right. As soon as Thomas left, Irsay decided he didn't like the financial situation. He thought the players were making too much and so he dismantled the team."

Matte, a color analyst for Colts' radio broadcasts, said, "This city is just dying for a legitimate hero to come here, a guy who's going to give his all, and say, 'Hey, I love this city; I love Baltimore.' "

To many of the Colts' followers, the decision to draft Elway, who had said he would never play for Baltimore, was the first positive move by management in years. However, when Irsay promptly traded Elway, they weren't so sure. Particularly since Irsay could have gotten much more had he made a deal before the April 26 draft.

"The only time I keep up with what's happening out there is when I want a few laughs; it's an absolute fiasco," said Ordell Braase, a defensive end on the 1958-59 NFL champion teams. "Irsay's the problem. Whether you liked the man or not, Carroll Rosenbloom always ran a first-class organization. It's not like that anymore. Irsay always did like to shoot from the hip; the only problem is that he's such a poor shot. Every move he makes is emotional. There's no logic whatsoever behind anything the man does."

Irsay has yet to sign a long-term lease at Memorial Stadium, although the city has dangled promises of stadium improvements in exchange. Rumors of a possible franchise move to Phoenix or Jacksonville concern some fans. If the Raiders' move from Oakland to Los Angeles continues to be upheld by the courts, Irsay would be free to move the Colts.

"I even used to go to D.C. for games before the Colts got here, I love football so much," said Bill Cheshire, 62, while standing at the bar inside Johnny Unitas' Golden Arm restaurant and lounge in Towson. "But I wouldn't even care if they move now."

Many former players and fans believe Irsay's failure to keep Elway was, as Matte said, "just another way of putting the nail in the coffin and making sure the franchise leaves Baltimore."

Seattle wide receiver Roger Carr, who played under six head coaches in eight years at Baltimore, summed up the future of the franchise: "Anything Irsay pulls doesn't surprise me."