Commitment at root of Blast's anniversary

Hale, past owners' focus on community noted at 25-year milestone

Pro Soccer

February 19, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Perhaps the 25-year survival of the Baltimore Blast has its roots in the day the Dodgers left Brooklyn.

On that day in 1957, a Brooklyn native named Bernie Rodin, who loved Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo and Pee Wee Reese as if they were family, cried. And 26 years later, when he was listening to offers to buy his Blast, Rodin remembered the Dodgers' move as "the saddest event in my life."

So he was determined to find a strong owner in Baltimore who would keep the franchise here in 1984.

He found him in Nathan Scherr, a horseman who believed in Baltimore and loyalty. When it was time for Scherr to sell, in 1988, he wasn't going to let the Blast suffer the same fate as the city's Colts, so he sold to a Baltimorean, businessman Ed Hale.

When the Major Indoor Soccer League folded, another local businessman, Bill Stealey, kept the team operating in the National Professional Soccer League.

And when Stealey was ready to sell, Hale again stepped up, in 1998.

"That franchise could have moved many times," said former Blast coach Kenny Cooper. "But, between Bernie, Nathan and Ed and Bill Stealey and myself, when Cincinnati and others came calling, it was totally out of the question."

Because of the commitment of those men to keep the team under local ownership and their efforts to operate the franchise, the Blast will celebrate its 25th anniversary tonight at 1st Mariner Arena.

"The common denominator," said Hale, "was that everyone wanted to do the right thing in the face of extraordinary losses."

Hale estimates Blast owners have lost tens of millions of dollars.

Through the decades, teams with great histories - San Diego, St. Louis, the New York Arrows - have simply disappeared or taken a year off here and there to reorganize.

Only in Baltimore, where the team plays in the smallest arena in the indoor game, has the game survived uninterrupted for 25 years. In fact, as far as can be determined, the Baltimore team is the only professional soccer franchise in the United States - indoor or outdoor - that has played 25 consecutive years.

"It's unique," said Ron Newman, who coached the San Diego Sockers in their most successful years and had a running rivalry with the Blast and Cooper. "I'd be a rich man today if I had been able to predict that. But what they had was good ownership and passionate fans. But teams failing, it always comes down to ownership."

Cooper, who actually chose Baltimore as the place for Rodin's Blast and later persuaded Stealey to take the leap into ownership, said he picked the city because it reminded him of soccer towns in England.

"You could see the people there were the salt of the earth," he said by phone this week from England, where he is managing his son, Kenny Jr., 18, who is under contract with Manchester United.

"Baltimore had people who would get behind a team, but you had to have a strong work ethic, win and give back to the community. From the first day of our organization, we were expected to win.

"But 25 years in soccer is a miracle."

The Blast has won three titles and has been able to attract fans to its arena even in the darkest, coldest months of winter. In the 1980s, the team filled the arena to near capacity, with crowds averaging near 10,000. The numbers dipped precariously in the 1990s, but are rising again. This season's team is averaging a league-leading 5,919.

"Baltimore had a strong Polish-American, Italian-American and German-American population," said former MISL commissioner Earl Foreman, a Baltimore native who, with current Blast coach Tim Wittman and former defender Bruce Savage, will be inducted into the Blast Hall of Fame tonight.

When Scherr purchased the team from Rodin during the 1983-84 season for $3 million, it marked, to the best of Foreman's recollection, the first time an MISL franchise was sold and money actually exchanged hands.

"It wasn't because of bankruptcy or anything negative," Mitch Burke, the team's former general manager, said when that deal was announced.

Of the owners, only Stealey had a longtime appreciation for the game when he bought the team. But, in the end, each of them came to love it.

"I've gone from being a guy who wanted to own a football team to being someone who, if you said, `You can have the Baltimore Orioles or Ravens instead,' I wouldn't do it," said Hale. "I love the game and the people who play it."

Each owner believed he could make the team a financial success. So far, the only one to succeed is Hale. Last season, for the first time, his Blast had a meager, five-figure profit. This year, he said, the profit could reach six figures.

"To own an MISL team, you have to make sure your core business is successful enough to absorb the losses," Hale said. "The good thing for us is we've been trending up. In 1997-98, when I got the team for the second time, the gross revenues were $326,819. Last year, they were up to $982,533."

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