Incident in California deals heavy blow to homegrown soccer figure's legacy

Wittman loses more than cool

March 30, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG | JOHN EISENBERG,SUN REPORTER

Tim Wittman is a local sports legend, raised on the streets around Herring Run Park and the fields of Calvert Hall, a pro athlete at age 17, a fixture on the indoor soccer scene for more than a quarter century.

But a single burst of anger is threatening to tarnish his legacy.

On March 18, Wittman, an intensely competitive former All-Star who was then the head coach of the Blast, admittedly pushed one referee and put another in a chokehold at the end of a Major Indoor Soccer League game in Stockton, Calif.

He was arrested on a misdemeanor battery charge and later suspended for the rest of the 2005-06 season. The league and the U.S. Soccer Federation are investigating and contemplating further sanctions.

"It's a sad day to have this happen," said Ed Hale, the Baltimore businessman who owns the Blast, "because all the things he did just pretty much go away in an instant. He was a great player, an assistant coach, won a league title as a coach. But you're only as good as your last performance."

Hale said he doubts Wittman, 42, will return as the team's head coach.

"I don't think there's any way," Hale said. "Once you lay your hands on an official, I believe you're not going to be able to come back."

MISL commissioner Steve Ryan called it "a very serious incident - the most serious that has happened in the MISL, and maybe the most serious we have seen in soccer. That kind of conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in pro or amateur sports."

Wittman, who operates a thriving real estate business, said yesterday, "I don't want people thinking this is something I do all the time. I have never done anything like this. But if this is it [for his career], I will move on and not look back. That's just how I am.

"I am fine with whatever happens. But I hope as [the league and federation] study this, they take the time to get the facts right and be fair. Because there is another side to this story than the one everyone is hearing."

Wittman's involvement in the altercation has surprised many in Baltimore's soccer community. Although he was known as a feisty player and coach, he seemed to know when to pull back.

"You couldn't see anything like this coming. He was an extremely physical player who competed hard, but he never crossed the line," said former Blast coach Kenny Cooper, who coached Wittman in the 1980s.

Mike Cichowicz, a retired Baltimore city policeman who played for Archbishop Curley High when Wittman played for Calvert Hall, said they competed hard for years on the field, but never fought.

"If he had it in him to go off like a firecracker, he would have gone off back then," Cichowicz said, "because I [was physical with] him. But he never did go off."

Wittman grew up on Bainbridge Avenue and excelled at soccer as soon as he started playing. He was small and fast, strong and relentless.

"If he played on your team, you loved him, but if he was on the other team, you hated him. He was a pain," Cichowicz said.

Wittman scored 54 goals for Calvert Hall, displaying so much potential that after graduation he fielded offers from two pro teams, the indoor Blast and outdoor Tampa Bay Rowdies. He went with the hometown team.

"We saw ourselves as a blue-collar team representing a hard-working town," Cooper said. "I had come from the streets of Liverpool [England]. We wanted guys like that. Timmy was a natural."

Knee injuries curtailed his early career, but then he came on. The Blast was in its heyday, attracting sellout crowds to what is now 1st Mariner Arena, and Wittman was the flashy homegrown star. He had rock star red hair, drove a Corvette and wore expensive suits.

But contrary to the image, he was no night owl.

"He was very disciplined," said his former roommate, Mark Mettrick, now the soccer coach at Loyola College. "Some of the English guys liked to go out and have some beers - maybe too many. He never did that. He was very committed to being in shape."

Though just 5 feet 8 and 145 pounds, Wittman worked out voraciously, practiced martial arts and brought a take-no-prisoners approach to the game.

"No one wanted to mess with him. Opposing players didn't want to mess with him," said former Blast general manager Drew Forrester, now a local radio talk show host. "He was one of those guys, when you sat around talking, people said, `Don't get him mad. He's a good guy, but don't get him mad.' "

His Blast career ended abruptly when he and Hale, who bought the team in 1989, had words during a 1991 team meeting. Wittman took offense at Hale's comments.

"He was swearing at me. He was escorted out of the building. I traded him that day," Hale said.

Wittman laughed last when his new team, San Diego, won a championship in his only season there. Then he returned home to play for a Baltimore indoor team known as the Spirit. Hale had sold the franchise.

After retiring as a player in 1995, Wittman started some businesses, married and had two children.

"The word that comes to mind is stable," Hale said.

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