The Spirit may be broke, but pro indoor soccer has a future in Baltimore that will blend new management ideas with some features that are definitely retro.
Banker-entrepreneur Edwin F. Hale Sr. confirmed yesterday reports over the weekend that he has bought the Spirit, whose out-of-town owner was going to put the money-losing team out of business tomorrow if 50,000 tickets for the 1998-99 season were not sold.
That ticket drive became moot, at least as the Spirit's salvation, and Baltimore will play -- with cheaper tickets, the new owner said -- in the expanding, likely 15- or 16-team National Professional Soccer League this fall.
Hale said he will rename the team the Blast, the name Baltimore's indoor club had when the sport was the hottest winter ticket in town. He also promised a return to the team's literally explosive, light-show introductions and aggressive community involvement as ways of improving the team's gate pull.
Hale was the Blast's last owner, too, operating the team between 1989 and 1992, when it went out of business along with the then-Major Soccer League. He pointed out that the league failed, not his team, which averaged 8,550 fans a game over those three years, although he said he lost about $30,000 a game in that time.
He would not talk about financial details in acquiring the Spirit, which finished its sixth season Saturday night and missed the NPSL playoffs with a 12-28 record.
New ideas will come from Hale, whose ownership deal was signed Friday night and will begin formally tomorrow, as well as two new executives he named yesterday.
Kevin Healey, controller of Hale's First Mariner Bank and coach in recent years of the semipro Baltimore Bays indoor team, will be general manager. Billy Ronson, an English-born ex-Blast player who now coaches Goucher College's women's soccer team and also plays for the Bays, will be Healey's assistant.
The coaching picture was vague yesterday. Spirit coach Mike Stankovic, who originally came to Baltimore to play for the former Blast and has been here since a player or coach, was still in the picture. But Hale told players the team also is seeking UMBC's permission to talk with its men's soccer coach, Pete Caringi.
Stankovic said he has spoken only briefly with Hale and would prefer to say nothing more publicly at this point. Caringi, who coached the then-Columbia-based Maryland Bays to the American Professional Soccer League's national title in 1990, said he knew his name was mentioned, but had not talked with Hale or Healey.
Left jobless in the ownership change is Drew Forrester, the Spirit's general manager whose only jobs in 18 years have been with Baltimore indoor pro soccer teams, starting with the old Blast.
Forrester, though, complimented Hale for keeping the game alive in Baltimore, adding: "My tenure is over, but I met my wife, Janet, I have a championship ring, and I've met a lot of great people through soccer."
Hale's acquisition included the contracts of all of the Spirit players, except one -- that of the team's top scorer, Bo Vuckovic.
Bill Stealey, the Raleigh, N.C., computer software maker who says the Spirit cost him more than $3.2 million in losses over the past six years, apparently has sold Vuckovic's contract to the Kansas City Attack, although, as of midday yesterday, the player said he had not been told of such a deal.
Hale and Healey both said Vuckovic's contract was specifically excluded from the Spirit's assets.
Stealey could not be reached for comment, and Kansas City general manager Zoran Savic did not return calls. Forrester, however, bluntly confirmed the deal.
"That whole thing stinks, and that's all I'm going to say," he said, emphasizing he had nothing to do with it. "I feel sorry for Bo, who's put in two good years here."
Hale stressed in separate meetings yesterday with Spirit players, the team's front office and the media the importance of improving involvement with youth teams and communities.
"We're going to bring back what used to be an exciting time for all of us," Hale said. "We're going to do this in a fashion that is affordable for families. In no way, shape or form are we going to be able to compete with baseball or football."
Hale said he also talked yesterday with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersburger about his plans and that he had gotten encouragement from both. The city will provide improved police scrutiny of the area around the Baltimore Arena at game times, Hale said.
The new owner said he is optimistic about increasing ticket sales to area businesses, something the Spirit had trouble doing, with corporate season tickets having sagged from several thousand for the old Blast to about 100.
Hale, meanwhile, will have to divest his ownership of the Bays, the I-League's national champion for the past three years.
Pub Date: 3/31/98