The assembled scholars in the South Stands think Al Davis is Satan, and they may be right. But if he does what he's making noises about doing, they'll canonize the man in Oakland, California. His stock might even rise a few notches right here in Elway Corners.

Maybe Al wouldn't even have to sit all alone at the game anymore, playing with that funny silver chain on his glasses.

As you've probably heard by now, the ferret-faced guy with the strongest will and the weirdest title in professional sports--"president of the managing general partner" of the Los Angeles Raiders--is talking about moving his team back to Oakland because it reportedly lost $1.3 million last year, because he's refused to occupy the Raiders' awful home ballpark in 1995 and because he's not crazy about playing in Anaheim while a deal for a new stadium can be hammered out.

Possible effects?
A Raiders defection would reduce the murder rate in the parking lot at the L.A. Coliseum.

It would leave Los Angeles, the second-largest sports market in the country, without any NFL team, since the Rams have already moved to St. Louis. Suitors from far and wide--Cincinnati, Cleveland, Washington and Seattle are four recurring names--would rush into the vacuum.

It would give Angelenos something to think about besides Mel Gibson. In fact, it would give them something to think about.

It would probably suit Al Davis, who has gloried over the years in telling the powers that be--any powers that be--to stick it in their small intestines.

It would also delight Broncos fans, I suspect.
Try to imagine it. A rivalry renewed on the original field of battle--like the soldiers of Thebes returning to Leuctra to beat on the Spartans again, or the Germans and the Red Army hooking up once more in frozen Stalingrad. That's right. We know. The Snake and The Stork have long since hung 'em up, Floyd Little is now a stretch of gleaming placard on the Broncos Ring of Fame and Lyle Alzado (who played for both clubs) is in heaven. But the moment today's Denver Broncos step onto the gridiron at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum to face their lifelong rivals in silver and black would be a very special time, attended by ghosts and memories and old visions of blood.

And for the beleaguered city of Oakland--tattered stepchild of San Francisco, "there's no `there there'" and all the rest of it--what could be sweeter than to recover its rough-and-ready heroes of yore, a pack of blue-collar brawlers that (love 'em or hate 'em) fit their hometown like the Dodgers fit Brooklyn before they, too, were so cruelly spirited off to Gomorrah. Indeed, Davis himself confided to a reporter the other day that in L.A., "it's never been the same as it was up north; they don't care as much here."

Probably not. But Oakland cares. Davis started all this homecoming talk two weeks ago at the NFL owners' meeting in Jacksonville, and he'd barely closed his mouth when in the East Bay brass bands started playing, newspaper columnists began ventilating and full-page ads started appearing in the Oakland Tribune, pleading with Davis to bring the Raiders back. One such ad was signed by 63 people, including a couple of ex-Raiders (one's name was spelled wrong), the mayors of nearby Albany, Livermore, Hayward, San Leandro and six other towns, as well as local Teamsters bosses (for muscle) and the chairman of Otis Spunkmeyer Cookies (sweet talk). But Oakland mayor Elihu Harris did not sign.

Does Mayor Harris know something the others don't?
Well, maybe. The mysterious Mr. Davis, who fled to Los Angeles back in 1981 because the city of Oakland wouldn't install high-profit luxury boxes at its stadium, is playing his cards close to the vest. But one recent comment dangles seductively before the city fathers of Los Angeles.

"If I was going to be in limbo forever but could win a Super Bowl," the president of the managing general partner declared, "I'd take that."

There's one certainty. Al Davis always takes something.
Oaklanders remember how the man burned them fourteen years ago, and this time around, many suspect him of using the threat of a move north as leverage to get a sweeter deal for the new stadium in L.A. That kind of ploy should sound familiar to Denverites: Remember the "imminent" arrival here of the Oakland A's, or the San Francisco Giants, back in pre-major-league-baseball days? Smoke, all smoke. Leverage.

This wouldn't be the first time Al Davis yanked someone's chain, and it won't be the last. This is, after all, a guy with the management style of a Latin American dictator. Last year he threw a reunion for 75 former Raiders players--in Europe. But he also counts the pencils down at the office, and he all but coaches the team himself from the $150 seats.

Just ask running back Marcus Allen, who rode the pine in Davis's doghouse for two years.

On the other hand, maybe the Oakland return plan is no ruse at all. While the Oakland Tribune ("They're coming home!") and the Los Angeles Times ("They're staying put!") exchanged opinions last week, Davis smiled enigmatically. In truth, though, the actual decision about the fate of the Raiders, at least for now, doesn't rest entirely with Davis. R.D. Hubbard, the chief executive officer at L.A.'s Hollywood Park racetrack, also holds a couple of aces. The powerful NFL clearly wants the deal, but it is Hubbard who will decide--by July 1, he says--whether it's economically feasible to build a new football stadium on the racetrack grounds.

One of the major hurdles could be Hollywood Park's insistence that when it opens in 1997 (or '98, or '99), the stadium house two NFL teams--the Raiders and whatever club comes in to Los Angeles to fill the void left by the Rams. No problem, right? Well, how would you like to share a single room with Al Davis? Apparently, no one else wants to, either.

Does that point the silver and black back toward Oakland? Is Al Davis serious about kicking Thomas Wolfe, too, in the chops and going home again? Who knows? But I'd sure like to be on the fifty-yard line on the first Sunday afternoon the Broncos and Raiders meet up again in the East Bay. Wouldn't you?

The city of New York has so much of everything--good, bad and beautiful--that the Belmont Stakes sometimes slips by the local populace as if it were the third race at Aqueduct on a Wednesday in February. Or great pastrami. Or Sonny Rollins, hailing a cab in the rain.

In stark contrast to, say, the teeming local frenzy of the Kentucky Derby or the madness of the Indianapolis 500, on Belmont Day you simply get on an air-conditioned train at Penn Station, grab a gin and tonic in the bar car while looking over the Daily Racing Form and alight on the broad, spotless Belmont mezzanine forty minutes later--there to step right up and purchase seats at the eighth pole in the huge grandstand.

The blanket of white carnations they drape across the withers of the Belmont winner is not as famous as the red-rose sash at Louisville or even the black-eyed Susans of the Preakness. But the third jewel of the Triple Crown is special. For one thing, it asks that brave but race-weary three-year-olds rise up one more time in the spring. For another, it demands that these babies run a mile and a half--two full furlongs farther than the Derby distance--for what is usually the only time in their careers.

For these reasons, they justly call the Belmont Stakes "the Test of the Champion." And the champion this Saturday afternoon, the colt who wears the carnations, could well be a big, well-rested late runner named Peaks and Valleys--at a handsome price.

Just don't tell everybody on the train.


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