Saints will have fans in the unlikeliest place on Sunday

By Steve Ginsburg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (Reuters) - The most passionate New Orleans Saints fans outside of Louisiana on Sunday will come from the unlikeliest of places -- Baltimore.

It's not that Baltimoreans have any kind of special relationship with The Big Easy, or an uncommon affinity for Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street or historic Jackson Square.

More than a quarter-century after the Baltimore Colts left town for Indianapolis, Marylanders continue to seethe, desperately wanting to see the team mauled each time it plays.

The stakes will rise -- along with Baltimoreans' blood pressure -- when the Indianapolis Colts face the Saints in the Super Bowl on Sunday at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.

"In recent history of the NFL, even before the Colts, there had been some teams that moved around but I don't think there was ever one that you had moving trucks coming in the middle of the night and the team was gone in the morning," long-time Baltimore broadcaster Scott Garceau told Reuters.

"The nature of the move had something to do with it. That team and that city had a love affair. The Outdoor Insane Asylum, the Johnny Unitas days and the championships. That team meant so much to that community."

The point that has still Baltimoreans breathing fire is that when the Colts left town, they took everything with them -- records, uniforms, trophies and even the distinctive horseshoe logo on the helmet.

Indianapolis kicker Matt Stover knows the pain felt in Baltimore. He was with the Cleveland Browns when they relocated to Maryland in 1996 and became the Baltimore Ravens.

"Going from Cleveland to Baltimore was bad for Browns fans but all of the colors, the records, and even the name stayed back in Cleveland," said Stover, who played with the Ravens for 13 seasons before signing with Indianapolis.

"When the Colts left, they lost everything. Even the horseshoe. That's a big piece of why a lot of the Baltimore people haven't been able to let go of the Colts."

BAND MARCHES ON

The Colts band kept marching for 12 years even without a football team, working at Thanksgiving Day parades and sometimes at other NFL stadiums.

"We lost the team, we lost the name but we never lost the band," said Garceau.

To this day, when Indianapolis comes to Baltimore the word "Colts" is never spoken over the public address system for fear of inciting the crowd.

Cleveland never felt the sting because when the city was awarded a new team in 1999, they retained their colors and rich history.

March 28, 1984 is a date well-known to Baltimoreans.

Owner Robert Irsay knew the move to Indianapolis would incense the Colts' loyal fan base, so he ordered moving vans to pick up the team's belongings in the middle of a snowy night.

By daybreak the Colts had vanished.

A deal to move to Indianapolis had materialized so quickly -- and covertly -- that most Baltimoreans woke up to the news they no longer had a team.

"People felt like they had their hearts pulled out," said Garceau.

When Baltimoreans see Peyton Manning on the field Sunday, his uniform will look just like the one worn by Unitas, Lenny Moore and John Mackey. That does not sit well in Maryland, even though the Ravens won their own Super Bowl for the 2000 season.

Perhaps the only Indianapolis link remaining to that fateful night the Colts left town is team owner Jim Irsay, who took over the franchise when his father Robert died in 1997.

"A lot of people in the community, those in their 40s, 50s, 60s and older, will never cheer for Indy," said Garceau. "Never."

(Editing by Pritha Sarkar; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)