BALTIMORE -- "The marriage is off."

-- Eddie Simmons in the movie "Diner", after his fiancee failed to pass a 1959 quiz on his local passion, the Baltimore Colts.

It's been more than three years since the Midnight Ride of Robert Irsay. That pack-'em-up-and-move-'em-out expedition put the Colts in Indianapolis and put Baltimore in such a state of shock you half expected the reverberations to make the rowhouses tumble like dominoes.

Yet the whole affair seems like just last night to some Baltimoreans, so deep was the hurt. These are the same staunch folks who'd have you believe Alan Ameche's touchdown run that beat the New York Giants in sudden death of the '58 league title at Yankee Stadium happened only about a month ago. Best Game of All Time, they still call that one.

The 54-year-old co-owner of National Circuits Inc. in Baltimore is among this nostalgic, steadfast crew. Fellow by the name of Johnny Unitas.

Unitas, the most eminent Colt of all, says of Irsay, "It was such a shame to have the best franchise in the league get shot down by an idiot. He never did anything for the city but run it down and then run it farther down."

Neither has the inimitable Hurst (Loudy) Loudenslager forgotten the Colts.

Loudenslager is the 72-year-old Ultimate Colts Fan who constructed a veritable Colts shrine in the basement of his home in the Baltimore Highlands. By his own account, Loudenslager made 626 trips to the local airport out of a possible 628 to see the Colts depart and return on each road game. (He said the one miss was due to an angina attack.) Often, he made the trip alone at 2 a.m. or later. He brought a record player and 100 feet of extension cord each time to play the Colts fight song.

Loudenslager still gets misty-eyed talking about the Colts.

"To see them leave was heart-rending, like a death in the family," he said. "And it's a feeling that won't just wear away."

But guess which city is knocking again on the National Football League's door? For 35 seasons the prideful home of the Colts (1947-50, 1953-83), Baltimore again is telling the NFL that it wants in. And if Baltimore gets an NFL franchise, some city officials say they will remind Irsay that, in his settlement with the city of Baltimore last year, he agreed to discuss with the new franchise owner the possible return of the "Colts" name.

As Joe Washington, former Colts running back (1978-80) who still lives in Baltimore, said, "It's as if the people of Baltimore had their newborn baby kidnapped and now, years later, they are still trying to find their child."

Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer has been Baltimore's force behind the NFL drive. Schaefer skillfully pushed through a bill that, at a projected cost of $201 million, would allow for the building of two stadiums in the Camden Yards area -- a 45,000-seat facility for baseball and a 65,000-seat facility for football. Schaefer believes this would make it possible for the city to keep the Orioles, who are dissatisfied with Memorial Stadium, and might also help lure an NFL expansion franchise in 1990, with two teams to be selected in 1988 and two more shortly afterward.

City officials stress that the football stadium won't be built until after the NFL has promised that a team is forthcoming, and the city has entered into a longterm lease with the owner of that franchise.

Herbert Belgrad, head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said the city won't talk to any existing NFL teams about a possible relocation.

"We were raided ourselves, and it would be inconsistent for us to become raiders," Belgrad said. "We don't want to do anything to alienate any of the NFL owners. We're not relying on it, but we think there is a moral commitment to Baltimore.

"We lost a franchise for what all people now realize was a reason that was out of our control. No city could have prevented a man like Robert Irsay from picking up his marbles and driving to another city."

Irsay, who declined comment for this story through a Colts spokesman, has seen his team struggle to a 12-36 mark in three seasons in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, four potential ownership groups have taken shape in Baltimore. The leaders of the various groups are: Baltimore banker Grant Hathaway; Baltimore real estate developer Lawrence Rachuba; Blast soccer team owner Bernie Rodin, and New York real estate developer Steven Ross, who owned the Baltimore Stars of the U.S. Football League.

A bonding of the groups is possible, city officials say.

Belgrad also said "we have no doubts" that area fan support would be so vast that 65,000 season tickets and 104 projected luxury skyboxes could be sold for the prospective football stadium. Belgrad said city officials are considering a demonstration of such support by creating a football season-ticket drive (with deposits placed in interest-earning accounts), similar to the drive led by the D.C. Baseball Commssion.

Surely, there is a great deal to be nostalgic about pro football in Baltimore. Colts images are unmistakable. Unitas' crewcut and black high-top cleats. Ray Berry's glue hands that plucked 631 passes. Artie Donovan's massive bulk in jersey No. 70. Lenny Moore's spats. Bubba Smith's sacks. Jim O'Brien's game-winning 32-yard field goal in Super Bowl III. Mike Curtis' mad-dog viciousness. Bert Jones' gun of an arm.

Miami Coach Don Shula, who coached the Colts from 1963 to 1969 when the team witnessed 60 consecutive sellouts, said, "The thing I admired about the people in town was that the team was their pride and their relaxation. And I'll always have great memories about the closed end of that {Memorial} stadium. Baltimore was the hardest place for me to leave."

You'll even find strong emotional ties in the heart of Giants General Manager George Young, a native Baltimorean who was a Colts' season-ticket holder for 20 years ("Section 41, Row 21, Seats 15 and 16," he recalled).

Young was an usher at the stadium while in high school in 1947, and years later became a Colts assistant coach.

He said, "I understand he {Irsay} owns the team and he has the right to move it, but I guess I would feel a whole lot more comfortable if the team didn't still have the horseshoes on their helmets."

Yet the obstacles remain tall and many for Baltimore. Numerous other cities also are vying for NFL franchises: Phoenix, Sacramento, Memphis, Oakland and Jacksonville among them. The NFL is likely to increase by just two teams in the first wave of expansion, a league spokesman said.

Commissioner Pete Rozelle has said he won't appoint an expansion committee until after both a new labor agreement between owners and players is forged and the USFL has exhausted its legal appeals in its suit against the NFL. The NFL optimistically says the committee could be set up this fall, but it could be much later.

Rozelle, speaking in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., yesterday, said, "I think the whole country wants {expansion}." He added that the criteria to evaluate potential expansion cities would include population, football interest, weather, stadium quality and the availability of a domed stadium. Geography also could be a factor, he said, particularly in helping the NFL realign divisions.

Some NFL owners, such as Cleveland's Art Modell, believe the NFL has a moral obligation to return to Baltimore.

Modell said, "I can't say I'm in a unanimous group in this regard, but there are enough, I think, to lean in this direction."

Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke says he would support an NFL franchise in Baltimore. However, one NFL owner who requested anonymity, said, "Cities like Phoenix are busting ahead. Same with Jacksonville. Baltimore is moribund. That will play a part" in the league's decision.

Baltimore city officials also believe that as new owners enter the league, the NFL's emotional ties to Baltimore will grow weaker. One consideration is that Baltimore is the 21st largest television market in the nation, which rates higher than seven existing NFL cities.

Meanwhile, a petition drive to place the stadium issue on a statewide referendum in November 1988 could cause extensive delays. The drive is led by a group called Marylanders for Sports Sanity, which was started by residents of the Camden Yards area.

The group must produce more than 33,000 signatures by June 30. Schaefer has questioned the legality of the petition and said if the petition is successful, it could ruin the city's NFL hopes.

Lenny Moore, the Colts' Hall of Fame halfback (1956-67) who has lived in Baltimore for 31 years, said, "If people keep playing politics now and keep putting things off, Baltimore will lose its greatest opportunity. Right now, I think we're riding high."

Loudenslager's basement is a veritable Colts time capsule. There are 21 framed jerseys in his basement, gifts from, among others, Gino Marchetti, Bruce Laird, Lenny Moore and Bubba Smith.

There are helmets given to him by Tom Matte, Earl Morrall and Bert Jones. There are kicking shoes worn by Steve Myhra, Lou Michaels, Toni Linhart, David Lee and Raul Allegre and one of the high-top blacks worn by Unitas.

Each Colts team photo is hung, from the beginning in the All-America Football Conference in 1947 to the bitter end with Coach Frank Kush's team in 1983.

There are five game balls the team awarded Loudenslager over the years, including one from the 1968 NFL title game, and one from the 20-10 victory over Houston on Dec. 18, 1983 -- the last game played by the team in Baltimore. Only 27,934 showed for that finale.

Loudenslager even has the knee brace worn for 13 seasoms by linebacker Don Shinnick.

Between 1969 and 1973, Loudenslager said his wife Flo baked 1,162 black walnut cakes to give Colts players and coaches on their birthdays. The couple still sends out birthday cards (more than 4,600 to date) and Christmas cards (more than 5,000) to each player and coach who ever was a part of the Baltimore Colts.

You wanna talk about diehard fans?

"I got another birthday card from Loudy just this year," Shula said.

Former running back Washington said, "Loudy cared so much about the team. He was the last person you wanted to see after a loss, except your wife."

Loudenslager said, "One of the big wheels in Indianapolis made a remark when their city got the team, saying, 'We're going to love your team more than you ever did.' That clown's remark stuck in my brain. The first year in Indianapolis, I saw the fans booed the team. The second year, they booed the team out of the stadium and had a bunch of empty seats.

"I'd like to see that guy who made the remark now. Those people there don't know what loyalty or caring is all about. Let them show support for 30 years, then they can talk."

Loudenslager is entering his 25th year as secretary of the Colts Corral fan clubs. Many of these Corrals, which he said once had a combined membership in excess of 3,500, are still in existence, as is the Baltimore Colts Marching Band.

"We have Corral meetings once a month," Loudenslager said. "We only meet now to keep our heads above water. If we didn't think there was a chance to get a team, we probably wouldn't still exist."

At the very least, Loudenslager's basement is one place where the Baltimore Colts will be alive and well evermore: from Nottingham to Bulaich, Big Daddy Lipscomb to Jimmy Orr, beginning to end.

Misty-eyed once again, the stout man called Loudy shook his finger and said, "Guy once offered me $10,000 for all of this, but I turned him down. But you know, I'd gladly trade all of this to get the old team back."