The MSL All-Star Game is tonight at the Baltimore Arena, but be advised the "M" stands for manic, not major. How else to explain the bizarre saga of San Diego All-Star Paul Wright, the subject of a vintage feud that simmers to this day?
The feud, of course, is between the Sockers and the Blast, the Hatfields and McCoys of the MSL. It features more unfounded accusations than a supermarket tabloid, more conspiracy theories than "JFK."
In short, it's nothing you would ever get from a truly major sports
league, which is why it's so amusing. Whoever writes the history of the MSL -- sure to be a best seller -- can just skip the details and get right to the nitty gritty, to our man Paul and his coach Ron.
Schemers or dreamers?
Let the reader decide!
"As far as I'm concerned, they deserve each other," Blast coach Kenny Cooper said of Wright and Ron Newman, both of whom will help carry the West's badge of honor tonight. "The whole issue has a certain stench to it."
Tsk, tsk, Kenny, where were your manners on All-Star Eve? Oh, in roughly the same place as Newman's, who told Wright all summer, "I can't believe Kenny stabbed me in the back" and yesterday repeated he
Wright, 22, is the fastest player in the league, a forward with unlimited potential, a two-time All-Star who leads first-place San Diego with 28 goals. The Blast acquired him on waivers for $100 last June 29. Then the fun began.
Four months later, after numerous threats and demands, after fruitless discussions and an arbitrator's decision, the Blast sent Wright back to the Sockers for $10,000 in cash and a third-round draft pick.
A casual observer might find it strange that a franchise player was put on waivers in the first place. A casual observer might also find it strange that he was returned for virtually nothing to his original team.
You're getting the picture.
Why was Wright available on that fateful day last June? Because the San Diego owners were trying to sell the team, and didn't want to be liable for his $60,000 salary. Such is life in the MSL, a liquidation sale waiting to happen.
But Newman, claiming the purest motives, begged other clubs not to claim Wright, a San Diego native he viewed as critical to the Sockers' future. As he so dramatically put it, "I worked my butt off all summer to save the bloody franchise and in turn save the league."
If collusion was required, well, so be it. Cooper initially agreed to play along, but then Cleveland claimed Wright. The Blast saw no choice but to follow suit; Baltimore had the worst record in the MSL -- Dallas was temporarily out of business -- and the first right to a claim.
Here's where the plot really thickens.
Here's where Wright comes in.
At first, he was angry at the Sockers' maneuverings, and excited to join the Blast. But quickly his mood changed -- like "night and day," Cooper recalled, suspecting brain-washing by Newman. "Jekyll and Hyde."
The Blast asked Wright to come to Baltimore to make personal appearances and undergo a physical examination. Wright said personal appearances were not part of his contract. And as for the physical, well, you'll love this.
According to Drew Forrester, Blast director of soccer operations, Wright said, "Guys, come on, I've been around -- they tap your elbow, tap your knee, grab you and say, 'Cough.' There must be 1,000 black guys in Baltimore who look like me. Get one of them to take the physical."
Wright said he had other commitments in San Diego -- an ailing mother, and a camp that paid him $400 per week. Oh yes, he too was trying to save the league, even making personal appearances (gasp!) on behalf of the club.
The issue, of course, was money.
The Blast didn't want to pay Wright until he reported, and suspended him when he insisted on getting paid. Wright's $60,000 salary was the maximum under the MSL cap. At one point, Blast officials claim, he also demanded an additional $10,000 and a car.
Wright denied both charges yesterday, saying he merely wanted the club to ship his Mercedes east. "It just came down to the principle," he said. "I was really upset by the way they handled it."
Anyway, the MSL union filed a grievance, and an arbitrator ruled the Blast indeed owed Wright $12,000 for July and August. Three days later on Oct. 26, after the season started, they decided he wasn't worth the trouble, and sent him back to San Diego.
Newman said Cooper promised he would do that at the start. Cooper said he promised nothing of the sort. In fact, Cooper believes the entire charade was orchestrated by Newman, who conveniently left a $40,000 roster spot open, just in case.
That's right -- Wright now earns less in San Diego than he would have in Baltimore, even with the back pay the Sockers agreed to pick up as part of the deal. In other words, he manipulated his own pay cut. Beautiful.
The kicker is, Wright earlier this week had the gall to ask the Blast's Forrester for an All-Star jersey with his No. 3. "I don't know why I'm being nice to you," Forrester said, fulfilling the request. "But I am."
Long live the MSL.