Major It Never Was, but Covering Soccer Was a Blast

July 19, 1992|By MELODY SIMMONS

It was not baseball. It was not even hockey. It was a weird mixture of Broadway and Ben Gay.

I knew it as the Major Indoor Soccer League, although in one of its numerous attempts to gain elusive respect, the league that finally died last week crash-landed as the Major Soccer League.

But major -- as in major league baseball or major sports league -- it never was. This was a league whose teams ran through sparkling spaceships before each game as the players were announced like game-show contestants. Disco music, strobe lights and fog machines were cranked up to create an atmosphere that bridged sport with theme park.

I witnessed all this during the 1986-87 season when I covered the Baltimore Blast for The Evening Sun. It was gonzo sports journalism -- often fun, sometimes cynical and wildly unpredictable.

The Blast offered to send limousines to shuttle the sports editors (and not reporters) of The Sun and The Evening Sun to the opening game. When the offer was refused, Drew Forrester, the Jimmy Olsen of soccer public relations, wept in frustration and defended the offer by saying, ''We're a class organization like the Dallas Cowboys who send birthday cards to writers, editors and their wives.''

During an exhibition game in Worcester, Massachusetts, a girl named Amy was selected from a local soccer team to serve as the Blast's ball girl. Amy had the misfortune of looking like a boy. She stood in a corner of the locker room for 15 minutes with a horrified look on her face while players dressed and undressed. Coach Kenny Cooper approached to send her on an errand.

''What's the matter, son?'' he asked.

''I'm not a boy,'' she shouted. ''I'm a girl!'' She was quickly escorted out.

The MISL was the kind of league that would throw a posh media lunch at New York's 21 Club to kick off the season, yet scramble behind closed doors to figure out how to keep some of the franchises solvent.

During the 1987 season, the New York franchise was re-established amid much fanfare. But the gig folded mid-way through the season after indoor soccer failed to ignite any passion at the Nassau County Coliseum in Farmingdale, Long Island, the site of home games. The team's general manager loaded office equipment into his car to hold it hostage for his final paycheck and other money owed to him. A couple of years later he had gone to law school and still had the equipment in his garage.

Players seemed to migrate around the league in amazing patterns. Two stars especially loathed in Baltimore, Keith Furphy and Andy Chapman of arch-rival Cleveland, abruptly were welcomed to Baltimore as though they were prodigal sons. Players were used as sparkplugs in an opposites-attract chess game throughout the MISL. Coach Cooper, who frequently billed himself as a ''master psychologist,'' was good at this game. Only Billy Ronson, a petite and scrappy player from Mr. Cooper's hometown near Blackpool, England, had a Teflon coating.

The MISL all-star game that year was held in Los Angeles. It was hyped as a classic event to be held at the Forum, owned by Jerry Buss, who also owns the Lakers basketball team and Pickfair, the famous Beverly Hills mansion that was once the residence of movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Mr. Buss sponsored a pre-game bash at Pickfair for MISL officials and media. We thought it would be a chance to glimpse inside the historic estate, but as the school buses dropped us off at curbside, we realized the party was nowhere near the house. Long-haired rock singers played to the announced hoedown theme by trying to sing country-Western songs as the league's yahoos ate barbecue and drank beer.

Traveling with the team was often wild. On a trip to Dallas, our plane almost had a mid-air collision in a thunderstorm. I looked across the aisle at a nervous Coach Cooper, brazenly repeating his motto: ''I'll never die in a plane crash.'' The radio duo of Art ''Dancing Bear'' Sinclair and Charlie Eckman provided comic relief. The ever affable Mr. Eckman once came to my hotel room at 11 p.m., in pajamas with a bottle of scotch. He wondered if I wanted to join him in his room for a drink (I did not).

Blast players like WASP-y Scott Manning and the Yugoslav immigrant Mike Stankovic exemplified the human variety in the league. In mid-season, the Blast signed a player named Drago, ** whom a skin disease had made bald and whom Blast officials called the ''human roll-on deodorant'' because of his appearance. Drago was one of the nicest players on the team and ventured into the community to help children similarly afflicted with alopecia.

It appears that Coach Cooper and some form of the Blast will live to fight on in another professional soccer league. I will miss reading about the exploding soccer ball, the stretch limos that drove onto the field to deliver players, the wannabe Laker girls dancing on the sidelines and aerobics classes performing as halftime entertainment.

Gone is the MISL,the crazy league that tried.

Melody Simmons is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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