Spirit, Crunch carry on re-heated rivalry Teams, leagues change, not emotion

December 19, 1992|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Staff Writer

Bart Wolstein threaded his way through the players milling about, sought out Kenny Cooper and then, tears in his eyes, gave the Baltimore coach a hug.

Two indoor soccer teams, then known as the Baltimore Blast and Cleveland Force, had just battled in the semifinals of the Major Soccer League playoffs. Before 20,000 fans crammed into The Coliseum in Cleveland, the Force won.

"Thanks," Wolstein, the Force owner, said to Cooper, "for making this rivalry one of the greatest in sports."

The names of the people and the teams may change, but the intensity of the Baltimore-Cleveland rivalry does not.

It's that time again -- the Baltimore Spirit against the Cleveland Crunch tonight at the Arena. First place in the National Professional Soccer League's American Division is at stake; the Spirit (7-1) leads the Crunch (7-2) by a half-game.

The rivalry that began in 1982 has not always been marked by such heart-felt sentiments as Wolstein's, however. The games invariably are fraught with meaning, and ill feeling, with one team in second place trying to overtake the other. Or it's playoff time.

A few years ago, after Cleveland knocked Baltimore out of first place, the Force's new owner, George Hoffman, stuck his head in the locker room and said to Cooper in a tone suggesting the victory had been easy, "I wish we could play Baltimore every night."

"The players had to be restrained from going after Hoffman," Cooper said. "Rusty Troy got hot and said if Hoffman ever did that again, he wasn't going to be responsible for his actions."

A defeat in Cleveland always brought to mind the words of Baltimore goalie Scott Manning.

"I like two things about Cleveland," Manning once said. "Winning and leaving."

Another Baltimore goalie, Keith Van Eron, whipped himself into such a lather before games with Cleveland that he was gesturing angrily and jawing at the opposing coaches during warm-ups.

"If a coach could bottle that emotion," Cooper said, "he'd make a fortune."

One of Cleveland's best players, Keith Furphy, was not very popular here, in part because he was so good. One night Baltimore fans carried a coffin around the upper concourse that was draped with flowers and bore Furphy's name and uniform number.

Tim Wittman recalls the time Baltimore fans were engaged in a countdown in the closing moments of a game the Blast had well in hand. "Five, four, three . . . "

"When they hit zero, Furphy thought the game was over and kicked the ball into his own net out of frustration," Wittman said. "Trouble was, the crowd didn't know the correct time and there were a few seconds left when he kicked it. So it counted as a goal for us. The crowd loved it."

Another Cleveland player, Bernie James, a burly 205-pounder, assumed the roll of villain for the series. He would gesture menacingly to the fans, vowing he would wait for them after the game. He once picked a fight with Stan White, a former Colts linebacker and then the Blast's general manager. Nothing came of it except a little pushing.

During a game against Cleveland last year, Marty Hoggan kicked a ball so hard off Cris Vaccaro's head that the Baltimore goalie was knocked unconscious. During the 10-minute delay while Vaccaro was being carried off to the hospital, Hoffman, Cleveland's owner, came onto the field.

"See what a tough job goalie is," Hoffman's own goalie, P. J. Johns, said to him. "You can't pay your goalie enough."

"You're overpaid," Hoffman bellowed.

Baltimore, which trailed at the time, lent credence to Hoffman's contention by coming from behind to win. All of that was lost on Vaccaro, who to this day thinks he was knocked out in the second quarter.

"It was the fourth quarter, Cris," trainer Marty McGinty gently reminded him.

Spirit tonight

Opponent: Cleveland Crunch

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7:35

Radio: WTMD (89.7 FM)

Tickets: Many available

DOutlook: This is a game for first place in the National Professional Soccer League's American Division. The first 5,000 fans receive free Spirit towels. In posting a 5-0 home record, the Spirit has outscored opponents, 92-39, including 42-6 in the past two games. Cleveland features league scoring leader Hector Marinaro (76 points), who is called by Spirit assistant coach Mike Stankovic "the best finisher in the game. He doesn't miss the target." Crunch coach Gary Hindley directed the Maryland Bays to a 19-2 record in 1991 and was named American Professional Soccer League Coach of the Year. Spirit leader Goran Hunjak has scored 16 of his 42 points in the past two games.

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