Decorum vanished. Mania prevailed. As the Baltimore Blast sashayed jubilantly from the Civic Center floor last Friday night after the team's first Major Indoor Soccer League championship, several players stripped off their shoes and filthy socks and flung them into the standing-room-only crowd, where they were battled over like the wondrous strange treasures they were. Three Blast players, one wearing a jersey of the vanquished St. Louis Steamers, stayed behind to do a bump-and-grind number on the awards podium with the MISL trophy held aloft—"Ce-le-bration time, come on!"—while still others circled the arena kissing swimmy-headed fans over the Plexiglas.
Moments later the air inside the Blast locker room became misty with tears and champagne. Coach Kenny Cooper embraced each of his players even as defender Juan Carlos Michia crawled atop the lockers drenching coach and compadres with bubbly from above. Stan Stamenkovic, the Blast's rotund Yugoslavian scoring star, spread his arms wide when asked if he would be attending that night's victory party. "Of course. Champagne, whiskey, beer," he said in his halting English. "You know Stan!"
Most ebullient of all, though, may have been lame-duck team chairman of the board/director Bernie Rodin, who, after helping found the MISL six seasons ago, had just seen his final game as an owner. Last March Rodin sold the Blast to a local businessman, Nathan Sherr, for $3 million, effective June 15. "I'm the only original owner left in the league," Rodin said, grinning. "I helped write the rules for this sport. It's an incredible feeling. Like being Abner Doubleday, only I've got one thing Abner never had. A team that won the championship."
Twice before, Rodin's teams had advanced to the MISL finals and lost. In 1979-80, the league's first season, Rodin owned the Houston Summit, which was beaten in the championship game by the New York Arrows, winners of the first four MISL titles. In May 1980 Rodin moved his franchise to Baltimore, a city with a strong soccer tradition and no major league basketball or hockey teams with which to compete. Renamed the Blast, Rodin's club made it to the finals again in 1982-83, losing to the San Diego Sockers in the fifth game of a best-of-five series. On the plane home Rodin asked Cooper what the team needed to put it over the top. "One player," Cooper told him. "A guy who, by doing something impulsive and instinctive, can break a game wide open."
Enter Stamenkovic, a.k.a. the Magician, a.k.a. the Human Soccer Ball, who in 77 games over two seasons with the Memphis Americans had 101 goals, 213 points and 563 pizzas. His passion for his favorite food was such that the Americans once ran a promotion in which a lucky fan got to go to a pizza party with Stan. In Memphis, Stamenkovic blimped out at 223 pounds (he's a hair under 6 feet) despite the best efforts of Memphis's coach and general manager, Kyle Rote Jr., to get him to trim his weight. "A diet to Stan is cutting down from a 14-inch pizza for dinner to a 12-inch pizza," Rote says. The Blast bought Stamenkovic's contract over the summer for a league-record $150,000 (Memphis also threw in midfielder Ray Kunovac, another Yugoslav), and Baltimore suddenly had the game breaker Cooper coveted.
Almost immediately Cooper flew to Yugoslavia to visit Stamenkovic at his home in Titova Uzice and persuaded him to accede to a weight clause in his $100,000 contract. It called for the Magician to make 20 pounds vanish into thin air. "As a franchise we went out of our way to make Stan feel welcome," says Cooper, 38. "I told him that in Baltimore he was just going to be one of the guys, that we weren't going to build the team around him like they tried to do in Memphis. Baltimore is a blue-collar city that doesn't take to superstars that much. The last thing he told me before I left Yugoslavia was, 'Kenny, I'm going to win the championship for you.' "
The Blast had the best record in the MISL regular season, 34-14, winning 21 of its final 24 games and finishing first overall in offense (5.83 goals per game) and second to St. Louis in team defense (4.23 goals against). Stamenkovic won the scoring title with 97 points—63 of them on assists. "He makes other people play," says Cooper. "That's the main reason we wanted him." Before meeting Western Division champion St. Louis in the best-of-seven finals, the Blast had annihilated their two previous playoff opponents, New York and Cleveland, winning six of seven games by a combined score of 55-32.
The Steamers were making their third appearance in the finals but had never won the championship. Known for its disciplined defense, St. Louis shocked the Blast by taking the opening game of the series in Baltimore 7-3 despite being outshot 45-28. The game's turning point came in the final seconds before halftime when, with the score tied 3-3, the Blast gambled and pulled goalie Scott Manning on a power play to gain a six-on-four-man advantage. But the Magician promptly pulled a goat out of his hat by coughing up the ball after an inbounds pass, allowing the Steamers' Jeff Cacciatore to score a short-handed open-net goal that proved to be the winner. Afterward Stamenkovic tearfully explained to his teammates, "My fault we lose. But we lose no more games. I score many points, and we go on to win championship."
The Blast evened the series by taking Game 2 at home 5-3, then swept the Steamers in St. Louis 5-2, and 5-4 in overtime. Goaltender Manning, the playoff MVP, was brilliant in both games, and in the overtime contest—the key game in the series—Stamenkovic put on a show, with an assist and two goals, including the game winner. "He can make a soccer ball do everything but grow legs and walk," one St. Louis fan grumbled.
That set up Friday's clinching victory, which attracted a Civic Center record 12,007 fans despite the fact that the Detroit Tigers were in town to play the Orioles and the Blast game was being televised locally. As the theme from Flash-dance blared over the sound system, the Blast players ran out of a smoking stage carrying long-stemmed roses; the darkened arena sparkled with flecks of light cast from a mirrored ball. Then the players took a victory lap—this was before the game—at the completion of which three deafening explosions shook the Civic Center. Smoke and a burning odor engulfed Baltimore's defensive zone. It was game time.
And it was game over. The Blast took a 3-0 halftime lead and then, when the Steamers scored two goals in 28 seconds, it was left to the Magician to douse the rally. Moments earlier, Stamenkovic had left the floor in the arms of the Baltimore trainer, limping as if he would never play again—indoor soccer has a terrific sense of the theatrical—but now he bore down on two Steamer defenders, faked this way, juked that, then burst between them and fed teammate Mike Stankovic at the right post. Stankovic put the ball away, and the assist gave Stamenkovic—who even at 195 pounds has the physique of the Pillsbury Doughboy—33 points for the playoff's, breaking the record held jointly by Steve Zungul and Julie Veee, the two legends of indoor soccer. Four open-net goals by Joey Fink, who had five for the game, locked away a 10-3 win and the championship.
Rodin was hoisted onto his players' shoulders and carried around the arena to the strains of Auld Lang Syne. Later on he said, "I'm not that good-looking a guy, so I don't really want to say this, but I feel like Robert Redford in The Natural. In my final time at bat I hit a homer. The lights are exploding, the fans are going wild; it's like fantasy city."
The man was having a blast.
Stamenkovic (center) "makes a ball do everything but grow legs and walk," says a fan.
Cooper (right) got Stan, the man he needed to complete his team. Fink (below) got five goals to complete the rout of the Steamers.