Unforgettable is what it’s been

Sun Staff

It’s been a tough 12 months for Art Modell.

When he announced a year ago today that he was moving the Cleveland Brownsto Baltimore, team owner Modell transformed himself from an elder statesman ofpro football to its Benedict Arnold.

Longtime friends shunned him. Community leaders who once courted himvilified him. He was bashed from Capitol Hill to the World Wide Web. Hisnomination to the Hall of Fame failed, and his legacy as an NFL builder wasdashed.

Then, when he got to Baltimore, a rebellious Maryland General Assemblythreatened to revoke the deal, leaving him and his franchise homeless.

Oh, and he almost died.

In April, he contracted a blood infection, possibly from a cut. Theinfection sent his blood pressure plunging, his temperature up to 105 degrees,and pushed his kidneys to the brink of failure.

Doctors administered five antibiotics intravenously and Modell, 70,gradually recovered.

In a wide-ranging interview in his Owings Mills office, with its panoramicview of the team’s practice fields and the colorful fall foliage beyond,Modell reflected on his first year as a Marylander.

“It’s been a year that will never be forgotten. A memorable year in moreways than one,” Modell said.

A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Modell was a young Madison Avenue ad man in1961, when word came to him that the Browns were for sale. He assembled aninvestment group that paid $3.9 million for the team, and he moved toCleveland.

He soon became a member of former commissioner Pete Rozelle’s innersanctum, at the center of every policy decision made during the league’s boomyears.

Although he has long maintained a summer home in Florida, Modell was adominant figure in Cleveland affairs for more than three decades. He hasn’tbeen back since he took the podium at Camden Yards last Nov. 6 and made theannouncement that would break the hearts of the legions of loyal Browns fans.

Overall, he said, it’s been the most traumatic year of his life. But alsothe most rewarding.

His reception in Baltimore has been warm, he said. The response of thefans -- who’ve sold out every Ravens game -- has beenheartening. Even the team, which has turned in a lackluster performance on thefield, has shown promise, he said.

“We lost some friends in Cleveland, although I’m beginning to realize theymight not have been our friends,” Modell said.

One relationship that suffered is his long-standing friendship withCleveland billionaire Al Lerner. The two became close in the 1970s, when theyjointly invested in some radio stations. Lerner -- who started out in businessin Baltimore and ran Maryland National Bank before selling it to NationsBank-- bought into the Browns in the 1980s, helping Modell through a financialbind.

But the man who used to fly Modell to every away game and was a fixture inthe Cleveland Stadium owners box has not made it to a Ravens game. And the twohave talked about Lerner’s cashing in his 9 percent share of the team tospearhead a drive for an expansion franchise in Cleveland, Modell said.

The NFL agreed, in a settlement of lawsuits sparked by the Brownsrelocation, to put another team in Cleveland by expansion or relocation by1999 and name it the Browns.

“I think there is a good chance he will divest,” Modell said. If so,Modell said, he may seek local investors for that share of the Ravens. Buthe’s not sure he favors expansion for Cleveland, with so many existing teamsneeding better stadiums.

“There are a lot of people in the league who oppose expansion. Having theexperience of moving, I would like to explore every possibility. I think wehave to look at our own first before we look at expansion,” Modell said.

He and Lerner are still friends. “But it doesn’t have the intensity offriendship it once had. But it’s not cold,” Modell said.

Modell declined to discuss the reasons for their drifting apart. Lernerdid not respond to requests for comment.

Mutual acquaintances say the two men were surprised by the outcry provokedby the Browns’ move. Lerner, who played a crucial role in Modell’s decisionand was the initial go-between for Modell and Maryland, found himself in aplace he generally shuns: the spotlight.

Lerner responded by trying to distance himself publicly from the decision.This angered Modell, according to friends.

As for his own legacy, Modell said it has unquestionably suffered in thecontroversy over the past year. In this, he finds irony: The popularity of theBrowns and their relationship with Cleveland were due in part to hisstewardship, he said.

“People will judge me as they judge me,” he said.

But he holds out hope the rancor will fade.

He insists, as he has for the past year, that he was forced to movebecause community leaders failed to fulfill promises to renovate his decrepitstadium. Clevelanders say that they were making progress and that Modell neveradequately informed them of his situation or that he was considering moving.

A referendum to fund part of the work passed the day after Modellannounced he was moving the team. The league has agreed to kick in up to $48million to help with the construction of a new stadium.

If he could do anything differently, Modell said, he would have pushedharder in 1991 for a firm commitment from Cleveland officials on his stadiumbefore work began on new facilities for the American League Indians and NBACavaliers.

“The only regret that I have is that I shouldn’t have taken them at theirword in 1991. I took them at face value,” he said.

He almost found himself in the same position in Maryland, after the NFLhad approved the move. Stadium opponents in Annapolis pushed to rescind thedeal.

“I was horrified. I had a binding agreement signed by the governor,"Modell said.

The General Assembly was appeased when Modell agreed to contribute $24million toward stadium construction. The terms of the repayment were notspecified and won’t be until a full lease is negotiated. That process probablywill begin next summer.

Modell said he has been assured that he will receive some off-settingrevenue source. That could be the right to sell the stadium’s name to acorporate sponsor, he said.

“I have to have some revenue to pay for it. That’s the understanding wehave, some external signs, naming rights, something,” Modell said.

Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said that will be thesubject of negotiations. “I owe him a real fair shake on that issue,” Moagsaid.

Shortly after the stadium matter was settled, Modell, relaxing in hisFlorida vacation home, came down with the blood infection. He checked into aFlorida branch of the Cleveland Clinic, a highly respected hospital he hadhelped raise funds for and had served as board president.

“I was gravely ill,” said Modell, who has a history of heart disease goingback a decade.

He is still trying to keep his workload down as he regains his energy. Hehopes to resume exercising soon, probably starting with walks on the team’spractice fields.

“In general, I’m fine. I do tire easily,” he said.

Modell said he intends to become involved in community affairs once he issettled in Maryland. He probably will not join as many boards as he did inCleveland, where he was a fixture on the civic scene for 30 years, but will beactive with charities, he said.

“I want to move and get into a new house,” Modell said.

He paid $2.3 million in June for a five-acre estate in Hunt Valley, butit’s being renovated, and he and his wife, Pat, have been living in a downtownhotel for the past year.

He said they’ve found a few favorite restaurants and are enjoying the newcity, although there hasn’t been a lot of time for socializing.

One local delicacy he’s still working on is crabs. “I could survive withor without them,” he said.

His 35-year-old son, David, has assumed a larger role with the team inBaltimore, overseeing the marketing and representing it at many civicfunctions. His other son, John, 36, a Los Angeles musician, also has becomeinvolved, flying in and helping with the sound system on game days.

Long active in Ohio Republican politics, Modell said he’s not sure whathis role will be in Maryland government, which is dominated by Democrats.

Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, whom Modell has supported foryears, approached the team owner last fall about helping with the Ohiocampaign. Modell was about to move the team and didn’t want to take on theextra duties.

“I said I can’t, that I’m about to do something that might embarrass you,"Modell said.

With the blur of the move, and the resulting need to rename the team,design uniforms, sell tickets and get Memorial Stadium ready, he has hadlittle time for longer-term projects such as a new training complex. He saidhe wants to replace the old Colts complex at Owings Mills, but is in no hurry.

“We’ll definitely have a new complex. I have no idea where or when. We’llbuild something in five years, though,” he said.

His goal with the team is to have a contender by the time the new $190million downtown stadium, under construction adjacent to Oriole Park, opens in1998.

“I want to have an elite team no later than our first year at CamdenYards,” he said.

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