Playing pro lacrosse is dirty 2nd job, but Thunder loves it


March 03, 1991|By Bill Glauber

Pre-game at the Baltimore Arena:

In a filthy locker room that smells like week-old Cheddar cheese and looks like a rest stop from hell, 18 players sit listening to a school administrator-turned-coach.

Some of the players wrap tape around the handles of thei lacrosse sticks. Others stare at the blackened carpet, which once upon a time might have been blue.

The coach, John Stewart, is writing numbers on a chalkboard. Once, he led Loyola High School to two Maryland Scholastic Association lacrosse titles. Now, he is struggling to decipher another game. With the patience that comes from being an assistant headmaster at Loyola, Stewart details the past 2 1/2 seasons of the Baltimore Thunder, a team on a .500 treadmill.

"I said at the beginning of the season that we wouldn't b mediocre," Stewart shouts. "That record right there is mediocre. Tonight, we're asking for the ultimate sacrifice."

The team gathers for a prayer. Stewart and his assistant coach, Paul Hoffman, then leave the locker room, and the players stand in a circle, chanting, cursing, clapping their hands, smacking their helmets.

This continues for two minutes.

A harried attendant bangs on the metal door, shoves it open and yells, "You're on. You're on." The players sprint through a hallway, down six steps and into the darkened arena. Music is playing. Names are blaring over a loudspeaker. The 8,109 fans shriek. In the midst of the noise, a 23-year-old rookie named Brian Kroneberger, who graduated from Calvert Hall and Loyola College and who works as a salesman, screams: "It's the Dome. It's the Thunder Dome. It's our Thunder Dome."

Welcome to the Major Indoor Lacrosse League.

By day, they are teachers and insurance agents, stockbrokers and marketers, yuppies with car payments to meet, apartments to furnish, school loans to pay off. But on 10 weekends a year, they put on their helmets, lace up their shoes, squeeze into skintight Lycra shorts, pull over garish jerseys and emerge as professional players in a 5-year-old league.

The pay is awful, and the play is punishing. Broken noses twisted ankles, pulled muscles and scraped knees are routine injuries. The rewards are few -- friendship, eight complimentary tickets a game, 60 minutes in the limelight.

"Sometimes, I don't even know why I do this," said John Nostrant, who works days as a fifth-grade teacher at the St. Alban's School in Washington. "It must be for the love of the game."

* The view from the bench: Baltimore vs. New York, Feb. 9, 1991. Second quarter. Tim Welsh bounces in a goal to give the Thunder a 7-5 lead. The crowd erupts. Tim and his brother Pat exchange high fives at midfield. Then, Tim performs his "Churn the Butter" dance. He grinds his hips like a stripper on the Block, jumps on the boards, grabs the Plexiglas with his left hand and raises his stick with his right hand.

Tim Welsh is 26 years old. He is a land developer.

* Purists will tell you that this is not lacrosse. There are no gras fields, no definable positions, no long sticks, not even any golden retrievers to come stumbling out of the stands to interrupt play.

This is a mongrel game, one part hockey and one part lacrosse. Teams use five field players and one heavily padded goaltender who looks like a 300-pound Pillsbury Dough Boy and guards a 4 1/2 -foot-by-4-foot cage. The field is the size of a hockey rink, with carpet substituting for ice, complete with --er boards and Plexiglas. Games are divided into four 15-minute quarters. Cross-checking is legal. Fighting isn't. For some reason, there is a 40-second shot clock, but almost no one pays any attention to the time. Everyone is too busy shooting, running or body checking. Thirty-goal games are standard.

One more statistic: Two guys own the entire league.

Chris Fritz and Russ Klein, sports marketers based in Kansas City, Mo., run the operation. Back in the mid-1980s, they were looking to create the sport for the next century. They were about to plunk down their cash on some weirdo version of "Rollerball" -- roller derby meets football -- when someone suggested they go to Canada to watch a box lacrosse game. Entranced by the product, they decided to set up an indoor league in the United States, even though a previous indoor lacrosse league failed.

"We studied every league, and the one tying thread of failure was the inability to get owners you could tie together as a group," Klein said. "We decided to own the league and the teams. We didn't care who won. We won either way. Because we were able to control the salaries and get cooperation of the buildings, we had a chance to succeed."

They set up shop in 1987 in four cities -- Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Washington -- and called their business the Eagle Box Lacrosse League. Because Fritz and Klein were the only two people who knew what EBLL stood for, they changed the league's name before the second season, settling on the Major Indoor Lacrosse League.

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