Business aside, players find pleasure in the sand at volleyball tournament

Teams at Inner Harbor event balance professional lives, professional sport

August 22, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

The commodities broker returned to his office job and the accountant flew home to Florida, but for a few scorching hours yesterday at the Inner Harbor, Wall Street's B.J. Soldano and Miami's Gaston Macau lived their alter egos.

Like most of the 46 other volleyball players who competed this weekend at Rash Field's Toyota Pro Beach East men's volleyball tournament, Soldano, 28, and Macau, 30, balance professional lives with professional sport. On a tour where no admission is charged and beer is cheaper than lemonade, winners don't typically sign endorsement deals or win large purses.

In yesterday's championship, Soldano and teammate Mike Dipiero, a 24-year-old elementary school teacher from Pompano Beach, Fla., defeated Macau and Andre Melo, a 26-year-old environmental engineer living near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The winners split $2,000 and a pair of round-trip US Airways tickets.

For second place, Macau and Melo split $1,000, more than enough to cover their airfares and the accommodations they shared with Melo's older brother, a Baltimore mechanic.

"I'm an accountant so when I don't break even on this I'll know to stop," said Macau, who has won a total of about $1,500 in seven pro beach volleyball tournaments this year. "I'm doing it now pretty much just to stay in shape."

He played yesterday's championship in front of five Comcast TV cameras and heard his name announced repeatedly on a loudspeaker, as if he was playing at Camden Yards. There were 40 tons of fresh sand trucked in for the tournament, more than 300 spectators at the finals, and enough jolts of adrenaline that Macau and Soldano were mouthing off at one another between points.

Not bad for some weekend exercise.

"This is one way to live the best of both worlds," said Melo, a former all-American volleyball player at George Mason University. "You keep your professional career, and you don't forget to have a good time with something like this, something you really enjoy."

The weekend marked the second year that the four-event Toyota Pro Beach East volleyball series stopped in Baltimore. The tour is a minor league in a minor sport that's driven by the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour - much as the PGA dominates professional golf.

Baltimore's tournament conflicted with an AVP event rescheduled for this weekend in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and it cost Baltimore some of the sport's elite players, said event organizer Lee Corrigan of Baltimore's Corrigan Sports Enterprises.

At times yesterday, during Baltimore's semifinals, there were fewer than 100 spectators, and announcer Matt Romanowski seemed unable to rouse interest.

"How are you doing out there Baltimore City?" he barked into the microphone.

Nothing.

"If you're happy to see some beach volleyball, make some noise."

Nothing.

"If you're happy the beer trucks are open, make some noise."

Finally, a few shouts and whistles.

But by the finals, the crowd had tripled in size. Corrigan, who helped boost the popularity of the Baltimore Marathon, said he doesn't know whether pro beach volleyball will return to Baltimore next summer. It's about $10,000 more expensive - or one-third of the total cost - than each of the tour's other stops, Ocean City and Virginia Beach, Va., he said.

Unlike the other cities, however, Baltimore allows the sale of beer at the event.

"We have to look at the economics of it," Corrigan said of the tour's chances of returning here. "An event like this you need to build equity in - the word-of-mouth that helps perpetuate the event year after year after year. ... And, really, what's not to like?"

There were $2 beers, free live music and tanned professional athletes who had traded in their business suits for swim trunks, if just for the weekend.

Afterward, Soldano drove three hours home to Middletown, N.J. Macau caught a 7 p.m. flight to Miami. They had to be back at work this morning.

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