To some fans, recent slide is Blast straw for Cooper But guaranteed contract assures his job is safe

April 04, 1991|By Bill Glauber

The letters come to his office every workday, tangible reminders of what ails the Baltimore Blast. Bench this player, or trade that one, change lines or rotate goalkeepers, the advice from these true-believing fans is hard-edged and heartfelt.

Some of the notes are constructive. Others aren't. The ones smudged with ink and hatred, Blast coach Kenny Cooper tosses casually into a garbage can.

This is what happens when you are transformed from a coach into a lightning rod. Ten splendid seasons don't count for much when your team is slouching toward the playoffs -- or elimination -- having lost 12 of its past 13 games.

Cooper, once the symbol of the Blast, has absorbed the cries of outrage. The letters and the boos are part of the unsightly residue built up during a long winter of frustration. Once, he might have been among the more popularsports figures in Baltimore. Now, some fans are calling for a change -- and a new coach.

"If some people have given up on me, that's life," Cooper said. "But I won't give up. I'm British."

The truth is, that whatever happens in this final weekend of the Major Soccer League regular season, Cooper's job is secure. Why? Because Ed Hale, the team owner, says so. Besides, Cooper has three years remaining on a guaranteed five-year contract, and in a league where the total payroll couldn't even bankroll two years of a Roger Clemens contract, coaches holding guarantees keep their jobs.

"Me firing Kenny Cooper is nonsense," Hale said. "His job is not on the line this weekend."

The Blast (20-30) is in the unfamiliar position of trying to hold off the Wichita Wings for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Division. Wins over Dallas tomorrow night at the Baltimore Arena and the Cleveland Crunch on Saturday night in Richfield, Ohio, would put the Blast safely into the playoffs. One loss, or two -- could send the team home for the spring.

Cooper and his players aren't even considering missing the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's 11-year history. Already, they are making plans to surprise their likely first-round foe, the Kansas City Comets.

"To be honest, I don't even know what I'd do with myself if we don't make the playoffs," goalkeeper Scott Manning said. "I've made the playoffs every year since junior high school. I know we've lost a lot of games in a row, but we'll get in."

The team has lost six straight one-goal games. The slump of 12 RTC losses in 13 games is growing to weird proportions, beginning with a triple-overtime road loss to the Tacoma Stars on Feb. 24, and continuing Saturday night at home with an overtime loss to Cleveland.

"Painful and frustrating games," Hale said. "I hurt just like the fans. Only, it's costing me about $20,000 a game."

In past seasons, a Blast slump of this magnitude would have produced more fireworks than the closing credits of "Apocalypse Now." But this year is different. Cooper is no longer yelling, or flapping his arms, or throwing over tables. Some nights, he doesn't even take off his sports jacket, loosen his trademark crimson tie, or roll up his sleeves. He is a picture of controlled fury, a 45-year-old man with a thatch of gray hair and wrinkles under his eyes.

"I've been very careful about getting angry," Cooper said. "If you're involved in 27 one-goal games, there is a thin line there. You may be very close."

NB The truth is, despite advancing to the MSL championship series

against the San Diego Sockers the previous two years, the Blast is clearly a team in transition. The Blast has sold or traded off many of its valued parts to meet the league's $617,000 salary cap. David Byrne, Mike Sweeney, Kai Haaskivi, Desmond Armstrong and Carl Valentine once brought skill and grace to a sport that often has all the charm of a Saturday-night wrestling show. But they're gone. The midfield, once a source of strength, has been gutted.

Despite the talent drain, the team has remained competitive with contributions from veterans Dale Mitchell, Bruce Savage, Billy Ronson, Richard Chinapoo, Mike Stankovic, Wittman and Manning. Younger players have been added to the mix.

Cooper's voice rises when he talks of contributions from Joe Barger, Dominic Feltham and David Vaudreuil. In a league that routinely recycles players, coaches and even franchises, fresh faces are welcome.

Given this set of circumstances, it's not difficult to understand why Cooper has altered his coaching style. He simply can't make rash moves or bold pronouncements.

"With the old Kenny, there would have been lots of tirades," said Manning, a nine-year Blast veteran. "It has been different this year with him. He hasn't been like he has been in the past. I don't see where him coming in ranting and raving would make a difference. He can't go out and do things. We're just making dumb mental mistakes, and there isn't much he can do about those."

Ronson said Cooper's manner not only benefits the team, but also keeps the coach healthy.

"When I first came to this team, Kenny was all intense and worked up," Ronson said. "I told him that if you don't calm down, you won't be here to enjoy the championships we'll have. He was going to have a heart attack. Kenny has mellowed. He hasn't lost his intensity or his will to win. He still has that."

This weekend, Cooper wants to win, period. He won't even consider the alternative, not when there is a big game to coach in a crusty old arena. He'll work the players, and even the fans, looking for the edge to end this awkward and frustrating losing streak. Others might see a team heading toward elimination. Cooper sees a team capable of winning a championship.

"You don't bury a survivor," he said. "I'll always remain positive. The day I stop believing, this team stops believing."

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