Spirit finds office, players, even a title all in 7 months


After the Spirit's regular-season home finale here Sunday, a game the Baltimore team won, 18-14, my mind went back to a sultry day last August at Hunt Valley.

My thoughts wandered even while, out on the Arena carpet, the Spirit players were taking a victory lap and slapping hands with front-row occupants among the 6,191 spectators. Overhead, the scoreboard message told everyone -- over and over -- that the first home playoff game will be held April 6.

Seven months later, I could almost feel the punishing humidity of that summer afternoon when the air-conditioned Marriott Hunt Valley Inn provided such a welcome relief as the Baltimore media arrived to be told of the city's indoor soccer future by -- who else? -- coach Kenny Cooper.

There is a misconception that Baltimore's former team, the Blast, folded. The Blast didn't fold. The Major Soccer League did.

Seemingly within hours, Cooper had found the National Professional Soccer League and he was introducing the new owner, Bill Stealey, a tall, erect man who smiles easily and looks at the world through glasses that must be rose-colored.

I had never heard of Bill Stealey, but that's often the case with new owners. That's also one reason people buy sports teams: so people will get to know who they are.

Stealey, full of energy and enthusiasm, spoke of his love for soccer and his belief that there remained a market in Baltimore for the indoor game that he and Cooper could mine.

I thought: Oh boy, here we go again. Another owner for indoor soccer. And look at some of the cities in this league -- Canton and Dayton, Ohio; Harrisburg, Pa. I wonder if this guy Stealey knows what he's getting into.

The very next day, Stealey, Cooper and director of operations Drew Forrester sat down to map plans for their new franchise, which at that point didn't even have a name. It also had no office, no furniture, no carpeting and no season ticket-holder list. Worst of all, it had no players.

"I hate to admit it," Forrester told the other two, "but we're an expansion team."

They found the office and the furnishings and the name, which was suggested by Stealey's wife, and they obviously found the players.

The Spirit, with only a game at Harrisburg Saturday remaining in the regular season, has the best record (27-12) in the 13-team NPSL. It also has begun to draw some pretty good crowds. Within 24 hours last Saturday night/Sunday afternoon, more than 13,000 showed up to see a team that didn't exist 200 days ago.

At one point Sunday Cooper and the players unfurled a huge banner that called Spirit fans "the world's best". That may not win any awards for accuracy (Baltimore is sixth in the league in attendance) but it's a nice gesture.

Sure enough, in the post-game celebration Sunday, out on the green Arena floor, there was Bill Stealey, microphone in hand, acting like a kid at Christmas.

"This is the greatest bunch of guys I've ever been associated with," Stealey boasted to the cheering crowd. "Come see us in the playoffs!"

Back in the dressing room, as Cooper poured champagne into paper cups held by his players and said repeatedly, "How 'bout them Spirits," Stealey recounted the team's great 26-24 comeback win in overtime the night before against Detroit.

"Greatest comeback I've ever seen in my life!" said Stealey. "We scored 11 points in two minutes and 12 seconds. In the MSL [where all goals counted one point; in the NPSL they count one, two or three] that wouldn't have been possible."

Stealey, as readers of the financial pages know, can use a comeback in his regular business, MicroProse, a Cockeysville-based computer software company with shrinking profits that has had to lay off some employees.

"Oh, we'll fix that," said Stealey with the surety of an auto mechanic about to replace a broken fan belt.

"To him," said Cooper, motioning toward Air Force Academy grad Stealey, "that's just another challenge."

For the sake of Bill Stealey, his family and his employees, I hope he makes as much progress with MicroProse as he has made in a short time with his Spirit.

One of the best things the Spirit has done is bring along local players such as Loyola College's Joe Koziol, who has 101 points for the season; Curley High and Towson State grad Barry Stitz, who had four points and an assist Saturday and a goal and two assists Sunday; UMBC's Jason Dieter; and Roberto Ascenzi, from Curley and Essex Community College, who started the comeback Saturday.

"I wish it had been like this years ago," said 12-year pro Tim Wittman, who went to Calvert Hall.

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