In his day, Cal Ripken, Sr. was known to be a pretty serious soccer player. There's a strong tradition of soccer in the Baltimore area, particularly the indoor flavor of the game. Over the past three decades, the Blast (and the Spirit, as the club was known from 1992-1998) has been one of the premier teams of their various leagues. They've won ten division titles and six league championships, including five league crowns in the past seven years. I've never had an overwhelming interest in soccer, but I can generally talk myself into watching any sport and I thought that it couldn't hurt to support the one consistent winner in Charm City. With that in mind, I took a trip to the 1st Mariner Arena (known in previous lives as both the Baltimore Arena and the Baltimore Civic Center) last night to watch the Blast take on their longtime rivals, the Philadelphia KiXX. That may be the worst team name in all of professional sports.
My cohorts for the night were my 18-year-old cousin Brittany, a diehard Blast fan, and her parents. It was remarkable that Brittany made it to the game, as she'd had a fairly major surgery on Wednesday to remove a shunt (essentially, a tube to funnel fluid away from her brain). She still wasn't feeling all that well, but her desire to cheer on the home team won out. That's dedication. We had great seats two rows from the field; my sister's company provides the special effects for the team's pregame ceremonies, so she gave us the hookup.
As for the game itself, it was fairly exciting. Indoor soccer is an undeniable Americanization of a sport that's more popular in almost every other part of the world. You take the original game and put it on a hard floor overlaid with carpet, cut the field size in half, encircle the field with hockey-style boards, increase the value of goals (2 or 3 points each, depending on your position on the field), and pump up the noise with rock and pop music and a PA announcer who bellows cheering instructions to the fans. God bless the U.S.A.
I was struck by the diminutive size of most of the players. Denison Cabral, Baltimore's leading offensive player, stands in at 5'4...at least four inches shorter than O's second baseman Brian Roberts, one of the smallest players in MLB. In all, eight of the 20 Blast players are 5'9" or less, including forward Giuliano Celenza, a former schoolmate of mine in high school. The tallest player on the field for most of the game was forward Machel Millwood, a lanky Jamaican who towered over the other players and seemed to the naked eye to be at least 6'5". In actually, he was only 6'2". When it comes to soccer, I guess size doesn't matter so much.
I've been to dozens of baseball games in my life and never caught a foul ball. Wouldn't you just know that at my first indoor soccer game, an errant kick would send a ball sailing over the boards, bouncing past the couple next to me, and straight into my hands? I'm proud to say that I fielded the ball cleanly (thereby likely saving my recuperating cousin from further injury), though I did have to toss it back onto the field to the waiting referee. The Major Indoor Soccer League is not made of money, you know.
After a slow start (2-2 at the end of the first quarter, which soon turned into a 6-4 Philly lead), the Blast turned on the jets and took an 11-6 lead into the half. The careful teamwork of the players on both sides was a sight to see, with eight to ten men maneuvering in very close quarters for much of the game. Many times, one player would seem to know what his teammate would do before it happened, and there's no question that there's a great amount of skill involved. There was even a Baltimore goal on a diving header, which was an amazing sight. It was still 11-6 when we left after the third quarter (trying to ensure that Brittany didn't overdo it), but the Blast put the game away for good in the endgame and emerged with a 19-8 laugher.
The season is only two games old, so there are still nine opportunities to catch a game at the arena. Tickets start at $16, and you can find more information at the team's website. After all, you've gotta find something to do with your time until pitchers and catchers report.