The Baltimore Stars, once a model franchise in the U.S. Football League, have recently acquired the chased and haunted demeanor of dust bowl refugees.
A commuter club that has been playing in College Park, practicing in Philadelphia and promoting itself in Baltimore, the Stars were evicted from Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium last week. The team reputed to be one of the most solid in the USFL, on the field and off, was given 15 hours to get out by sundown and sued by the city for $5.875 million. Not even the Stars, it seems, are immune to the USFL's interminable legal and financial tangles. The reaction of Carl Peterson, the club's president, best expressed the Stars' outrage.
"I've never been evicted from anything in my life," he said.
The Stars' latest, most temporary headquarters are at the University of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field, where they have borrowed the Army and Navy ROTC quarters for the summer. Their new offices consist of one large room in a fifth-floor walkup. Battle plans and war scenes decorate the walls and covered partitions separate the desks. An impromptu weight room set up in the middle of Penn's locker room serves as the training facilities.
The Stars' attendance, once among the best in the league, has plunged. They averaged 28,000 a game in Philadelphia last year, but are currently drawing 15,550, despite season ticket sales of 17,000 at College Park's Byrd Stadium. The last two home games, the turnstile counts were 8,633 and 9,663, respectively. Managing General Partner Myles Tanenbaum openly admits the College Park "nonmove move" has been a bust.
"I like headaches," Tanenbaum said. "But I could have done without a lot of them this year. I found myself doing things I was doing in our first year, when I thought (now) we would be moving in a straight line, doing a lot less and starting to enjoy it."
The front office problems have almost certainly carried over to the field. The Stars have alternated almost every win with a loss, and last week's defeat by the Birmingham Stallions put them at 8-7-1, surpassing their losses for the first two seasons combined. In Philadelphia they were 35-6, including playoffs, losing the title game in 1983 and beating the Arizona Wranglers for the championship last year in a nationally televised game.
"My personal joke," Tanenbaum said, "is that the team that for two years couldn't lose, all of a sudden couldn't figure out how to win."
No one is laughing now. The Stars' decline both on and off the field can probably be traced to the day they agreed to move to Baltimore in anticipation of the league moving to a fall season.
The USFL waffled on the decision for the next six months, and the Stars found themselves split between Philadelphia, where they had to retain connections in case the league stayed in the spring, and Baltimore, where they would move if the league went ahead to the fall.
"At this time last year, everything was positive and upbeat," Peterson said. "This year it's been one controversy after the other, and that's too bad. I wish we could have focused on football, but we haven't been able to."
The Stars' ordeal began just after they routed Arizona, 23-3, for the league championship. The next day, the Stars got a ticker tape parade from Philadelphia, but on Aug. 22, league owners voted to move to a fall schedule in 1986.
Tanenbaum announced the Stars would move to Baltimore because they could not compete with the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies in the same stadium. But Memorial Stadium was unavailable because the Orioles' lease precluded a team playing football there in the spring. So they went to College Park.
The Stars might have seen a bad omen in one newspaper story reporting reaction of Baltimore fans to their new team. "I don't care about no summer football," said one.
"I think we put the players into an emotional dilemma that was difficult to reconcile," Tanenbaum said. "We asked them to be mercenaries who just visited their home area. We tried to create an identity, but when you go home and see that there's nothing in the paper about the home team, something has gotten lost."
The Stars also began a push to educate their Baltimore fans despite estimates by the University of Maryland that only one-fourth of Terrapin fans in the Baltimore area were willing to make the drive to the Washington suburbs to see college football in the fall. Another study undertaken by the Stars, meanwhile, showed that Washington fans probably would not support them.
The Stars did not help their case by going 0-2-1 in their first three games. A leaguewide controversy started in early April, when Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett announced he would not move to a fall schedule, regardless of what other league owners decided. The Stars were suddenly faced with returning to Philadelphia if the fall move didn't materialize.
The league finally settled on a fall schedule, and the Stars settled into something of a routine. Then Philadelphia dropped its bombshell, suing the Stars for breaking their lease and for alleged fraud, claiming they were reneging on an agreement that said they would pay $500,000 for breaking the original 20-year lease. Tanenbaum claims the Stars never agreed to that, and cannot be held responsible for breach of contract because the fall move makes it impossible to play in Philadelphia.
The controversy continued in the following days when the city accused the Stars of vandalizing their offices during the move, tearing wallpaper, littering the floors and taking doors and cabinets with them. Graffiti was found on the walls, including the statement, "You sent the wrong team out of town."
After the eviction, Tanenbaum said he received a supportive call from Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. The current mood among players and team officials is one of almost frantic anticipation for 1986, when the Stars hope they can settle into Schaefer's city and start building a new following.
"Maybe some say, 'What kind of guy would let himself get evicted?' " Tanenbaum said. "But what the city said was that we had no right to leave without paying a ransom . . . Oh, am I looking forward to Baltimore. So I won't have to answer these damn questions."
Remarkably, this luckless and unloved group of nomads has remained in playoff contention with two games remaining. The team insists it is ignoring the controversy, hoping that its mercurial season can be salvaged by clinching one of the five remaining playoff spots. Both the final games are at College Park, with the 4-12 Orlando Renegades visiting Saturday (4 p.m.), and the 9-7 Bandits next Sunday.
The players claim to have been the least affected by the commuting and the eviction. They have practiced at Franklin Field often, and it is easier for them to commute there than all the way to Veterans. The initial reaction was, "I've been kicked out of better places than the Vet," according to one club official.
There is an obvious hangover of bitterness, however. "The next thing you know, they'll want the championship rings back because they say Philadelphia," said publicity director Bob Moore. Coach Jim Mora, one of the least flappable members of the franchise, admitted the other day that he did indeed write his name on a wall in a moment of "emotional weakness."
"In five years we'll probably look back and say this was an unbelievable year for the team," wide receiver Scott Fitzkee said. "It's unbelievable that we've gotten through it. Maybe we can say, 'Hey, we got into the playoffs, that's something.' With everything that's happened, if we get in the playoffs it would mean more to the organization than last year, when we breezed through it.
"If we don't get to the playoffs, then we move to Baltimore and start promoting ourselves. We write it off to a year of controversy and experience.