Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Nobody brings more unusual and strange baggage to this Super Bowl than New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi.

He grew up in Hershey, Pa., as a Baltimore Colts fan, though the Philadelphia Eagles trained there.

He worked for the Baltimore Colts, and later as general manager for the Cleveland Browns. Then he worked for Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer to bring a team back to Baltimore. In fact, he helped lay the groundwork for an NFL team to come to Baltimore, though he had no idea it would wind up being the Browns.

Now, in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Ravens, he faces a team that came to Baltimore and now carries on the legacy of the team he once rooted for as a young boy and then worked. Only it’s not that team. It’s really the other team he worked for, a team he also fell in love with, and felt the heartache the people of Cleveland felt when the Browns left town to fill in the hole left in the heart of the people of Baltimore when the Colts left town.

It’s like a general manager’s Jerry Springer show.

Accorsi insists this Super Bowl is not the love triangle it appears to be for him. His heart is not torn. His love is unconditionally Big Blue.

“There are a lot of strange twists to all of this, no question about it,” he said. “But right now they are standing between my team and the Super Bowl. When you work this long and this hard to try to get to a Super Bowl, the prize of winning the Super Bowl just overwhelms everything.

“First of all, I never worked for the Ravens. It’s a team playing in purple jerseys. They are not the Cleveland Browns, and they are not the Baltimore Colts. But even if they were the Baltimore Colts, the competitor in me cares about winning. That’s all I care about. It just occupies every moment of my thoughts.”

It’s a hard-hearted, if understandable, point of view. Being general manager of a team in New York, the biggest sports pressure cooker in America, is enough to deal with. But replacing general manager George Young, who delivered two Super Bowl titles to the Giants after several decades of losing, allows no room for compassion for or consideration of past loves.

“When you come into a franchise as storied as this, and succeed someone like George, the responsibility you feel is enormous,” said Accorsi, who came to work as an assistant GM with the Giants in 1994 after a brief stint working for Peter Angelos in the Orioles front office. “Your pride forces you to feel it. Also, this is a city of winners. It has a baseball team that has dominated the World Series, another that played in the World Series, the Knicks played in the finals a couple of years ago, the Rangers won a Stanley Cup and the Devils have won two Stanley Cups. There is a tremendous standard here. You win big, or you are not successful. You feel as if you can’t let these people down. There is so much on the line. That does occupy my thoughts and time.”

Accorsi may wind up being the general manager of the Super Bowl champions, but, despite his allegiance to the Giants, he will forever be connected to football in Baltimore. His immortality was sealed by Barry Levinson’s movie “Diner” in the scene where Steve Guttenberg’s character, as a condition for marriage, tests his fiancee on the Baltimore Colts. Accorsi was an assistant general manager for the Colts when the movie was filmed, and Levinson asked the Colts to look over the test he was going to use for the scene in the movie. Accorsi didn’t think the test was tough enough, and rewrote it.

He also left a piece of his heart in Cleveland, where, as general manager, he presided over two of the more painful defeats experienced by a franchise. He was the GM when John Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards in the closing minute of the 1986 AFC Championship game to beat the Browns. The following season he suffered through Earnest Byner’s fumble at the goal line which cost the Browns another AFC title. Nobody can go through those kind of losses without it carving a place in your heart, especially in a football-crazed city like Cleveland.

So imagine how he felt when the city he loved and for which he worked hard to get a team Baltimore wound up taking the team he loved and worked hard for in Cleveland.

“Football coming back to Baltimore was bittersweet for me,” Accorsi said. “I love Baltimore. Although I grew up in Hershey, Pa., Baltimore has basically been my home for most of my adult life. I wanted them to get a team. I really wanted them to have the name the Colts. But I hated to see Cleveland lose its team, a fabled franchise and great football city.”

Ernie Accorsi’s football resume is like some sort of fable. He may have been destined to a field of strange dreams by an encounter he had as a sportswriter for the Charlotte (N.C.) News in 1963. He interviewed an obscure former ballplayer who would become rather famous at least in the world of baseball literature. He met Moonlight Graham, the player in W.P. Kinsella’s book “Shoeless Joe,” and then in the movie “Field of Dreams,” that appeared in one major league game before he became a small-town doctor.

Graham was 82 at the time of the interview. He was a member of the 1902 Charlotte Hornets, a team that won 23 straight games in the old North Carolina League, and returned to Charlotte to see the 1963 version of the Hornets, who had lost 13 straight before winning the night Graham was in attendance. He told Accorsi about his one major league shot with the New York Giants in 1905. Graham walked in his first trip to the plate, then later cracked his leg and was finished in baseball. It was, like the story goes, his only major league appearance.

Anyone who actually interviewed a ballplayer whose one-game major league career would make him famous 80 years later 25 years after being interviewed by Accorsi is playing on a field of fate different from the rest of us, and he knows it.

“Nothing is conventional for me,” Accorsi said. “I’m not one of those guys where everything goes according to routine.”

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