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Non-stop Stealey accepts new challenge

Bill Stealey moves through life like one of the mirrors in a kaleidoscope. He is constantly moving, creating an ever-changing and colorful landscape. He's a gamesman, a salesman, a businessman and the owner of the Baltimore Spirit soccer team.

He has been an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and a U.S. Air Force flight instructor and jet fighter pilot. He graduated from the Air Force Academy, earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and worked for several management companies before creating his own business, MicroProse.

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In between he has found time for marriage, family and dancing -- though he almost blew the marriage part by not writing or calling Laura, then his girlfriend, now his wife, for two months while rollicking through Europe on his motorcycle. The Stealeys, who live in Sparks, have three children. Besides being a ballroom dancer, Stealey knows how to tap.

"I can do the old soft shoe," Stealey says. "I'm light on my feet."

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If anyone doubts it, all he or she has to do is attempt to follow Stealey on a tour of MicroProse, his entertainment software company in Hunt Valley. Stealey moves at light speed, talking in rapid-fire sentences that would rival the missile fire in his million-seller F-15 Strike Eagle.

During the tour, he talks about the success of his business and points to awards on the walls -- best action, best fantasy, best you name it. "We are world famous," he says, never slowing down -- let alone stopping -- long enough for a visitor to take it all in.

They called him "Wild Bill" during his days in the Air Force "because I liked to play games." They should have called him Whirlwind.

"I loved every second of it -- it was an exhilarating big game," he says of the Air Force. "It was, 'I'm better than this airplane, the weather, the lightning.' "

And nothing much has changed over the years. Stealey, 45, is still a games player. His company has made five of the most successful computer games in history, including Civilization, the one voted Best Consumer Product, Best Strategy Program and Best Entertainment Program by the Software Publishers Association.

Stealey is still pretty wild, too, for who but a wild man would take on the ownership of a pro team in a sport that hasn't made money since it was created in the late 1970s?

"All you have to do is look at that team's new motto, 'Catch the Spirit,' and you see Bill," says Gregory Barnhill, a principal at Alex. Brown & Sons. "I've known Bill 10 years as a family friend as well as a businessman, and he has the kind of personality that can ignite a team and its fans.

"If you look at what he does, it all overlaps -- his business, the games, the sports. He is extremely dynamic and he has the enthusiasm for something like this kind of new venture."

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A risk-taker

Stealey's energy seems boundless, and he is a risk-taker who revels in a good gamble. Stealey is known to enjoy side bets, even as he races through a game of golf.

One of the best risks he ever took came in 1982, when he and Sid Meier co-founded MicroProse as a private company. They did it with $1,500, without a lawyer or an accountant. (Later, Stealey bought out Meier.) In October 1991, Stealey took the company public.

For the fiscal year ending March 31, MicroProse reported a profit of $4.1 million, or 70 cents per share of stock, compared with a loss of $658,000, or 10 cents per share, in the same period a year earlier.

Revenues of $41.4 million were up 35 percent from the year before and marked the sixth annual increase in revenues for the company. Stealey, according to the most recent document filed with regulators, owns 3.6 million shares of the company worth $40.3 million at current prices.

The company, housed in 50,000 square feet of office space in Hunt Valley, employs 180 people and has branch offices in England and Japan. The office in England employs 160 people, doing exactly the same things. In Japan, the operation is much smaller, employing about 17.

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"We come up with ideas and generally they are ideas of something in real life that most of us would have liked to have done, but because we have real jobs, can't," Stealey says. "So we are the Walter Mitty in all of us. We put it on a computer disk so you can be a jet pilot, a famous pirate captain, a submarine commander, an outer space person, a great railway tycoon. You can be God in a game called Civilization, if that's what you'd like to do."

Stealey has "carved out his own very profitable niche at the high end of the entertainment software business," says Steve Eskenazi, who works in research for Alex. Brown & Sons in New York.

Eskenazi also says that the sophistication and complexity of the games produced by MicroProse keeps it in front of the approximately three dozen companies it competes against.

It doesn't hurt that Stealey is a true salesman. There are three people you don't want to meet on an airplane, he says: "A Hari Krishna, they'll ask for a contribution; an insurance salesman, he'll sell you insurance; or the chairman of MicroProse because he'll ask you if you have a home computer and then want to talk about it. I've sold at least two pieces of software on every airplane I've ever been on." And he usually flies coach.

All of this success gives Stealey the financial stability to buy and maintain an indoor soccer franchise. And now that he has hired Mark Barnett to be the president of MicroProse's U.S. operation, Stealey is free to spend more time with the Spirit.

The question is, why would he want to? There are a lot of people out there with money who don't want to spend it on soccer. So why does Stealey, who grew up in Winchester, Va., where soccer in the 1950s was not exactly the favorite sport?

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"I just love the game," he says.

A soccer family

Soccer has been a diversion for Stealey since 1980. At that time, he was on a five-month work assignment in Amsterdam, and he and his son, Bill Jr., then 7 years old, discovered the local soccer field.

"The other kids were playing with a round ball, and I found I could play the game with him," Stealey says. "I could roll it up to him, and he could kick it back."

Since then, the Stealey family has been involved in the game. His daughters, Tiffany, 17, and Alyson, 12, play for local soccer clubs and Stealey plays for an over-30 team on Sunday nights at Hereford High School, where, he says, he is "notorious for fouling."

Though he and his family had been Blast season-ticket holders for five years, the first anyone heard of Stealey in the professional indoor soccer world was two years ago, when MicroProse sponsored the Blast's first trip to England for an indoor tournament. Stealey says he agreed to sponsor the tournament because he could see a business tie-in with his MicroProse company in England. Blast management was grateful, but no one expected him to show up for the game. But there he was.

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Stealey approached then-Blast owner Ed Hale about buying an interest in the Blast, but Hale, who knew the Major Soccer League was on shaky ground last spring, suggested Stealey wait until the tremors stopped. When the quake was over, the MSL was out of business, and that meant the Blast was, too.

When former Blast and now Spirit coach Kenny Cooper approached Stealey about owning a new team, Stealey saw a challenge he couldn't refuse.

"I've always described Bill as the consummate entrepreneur," says Eric Pietras of Signet Bank, who has known Stealey since Signet became MicroProse's bank in 1987. "He believes in himself, he has great marketing skills and he's not afraid to take a risk. When it comes to the Spirit, all I'd say is that what someone else might see as a risk, he might see as an opportunity."

High energy level

Stealey's wife, Laura, who is credited with naming the Spirit, says she was surprised when he told her he was going to own a new indoor soccer team in the National Professional Soccer League.

"I was surprised, but, given his character, it wasn't unusual," she says. "And I was glad. We've attended every Blast home game for years, and I think he enjoys the challenge of this."

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When Stealey was 8 years old, his father was killed in a highway accident in Akron, Ohio, by a college fraternity pledge who had been drinking. When that happened, his mother packed up the family and headed East, not knowing where she was going, just knowing she had to go somewhere and make a fresh start.

She settled in Winchester, Va., because it appealed to her and because it wasn't too far from her mother, who lived on Northwood Avenue in Baltimore.

At Handley High School, he competed in football, track and basketball.

"I was a class B athlete, just above average," he says. "But I moved up to the A team, because I was very enthusiastic. I'd run into you or over you. Effort and desire can take you a lot of places."

Stealey's enthusiasm isn't for everyone. One of his friends, Bob Katz of Horn and Horn, said: "That energy, along with a good product that he loves, is the key to his success. But I would say when people meet Bill, they either like him or they don't."

When Laura Stealey first met the man who would become her husband, she wasn't sure she liked him.

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"He seemed infatuated with me, but I wasn't used to such a strong personality and he had a strong, aggressive personality," she says. "He seemed to know exactly what he wanted and I wasn't sure I wanted to be part of it."

But after a long-term relationship, they decided to make the commitment and he slipped a $125 engagement ring on her finger. They were married at Fort Meade 22 years ago.

The Stealeys live in a medium-sized brick house in Sparks that they built in 1987. It has four bedrooms, a basement and a computer room, plus a large side yard for soccer games.

And now he's up for his latest challenge: making the Spirit a success. It is a challenge Bill Stealey expects to meet, just as he has met all the rest.


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