THE TEMPERATURE outside may be falling, but the indoor soccer season is heating up in the only place you can see the professional sport hereabouts -- Baltimore.
Indoor soccer, Baltimore Blast-style, is something you're never going to believe unless you see it in person: It's got its own video takeoff on "Ghostbusters," rock music, fireworks, spotlights, billowing clouds of smoke and a large, slowly descending soccer ball a la New Year's Eve at Times Square.
Going to a Blast game -- they were the champions last year of the Major Indoor Soccer League -- is like going to a three-ring circus. There's something going on virtually all the time, not all of it soccer. So even a young, lukewarm soccer fan -- and we had one with us last Sunday -- can find a lot to enjoy.
Certainly the crowd, generously sprinkled with children, seems to love it. They cheer and sing and stand up and clap in rhythm and eat -- oh, how they eat -- and, yes, Washington, they watch the game.
Of course, Blast fans are unashamedly partisan; they brook no cheers for the opposition. Last Sunday, as the Blast faced the New York Cosmos, a renowned outdoor team in its first year of indoor soccer, a lone voice called out "Go, New York!" and was immediately shouted down. When a Cosmos player lay injured on the artificial turf, Blast fans initially forgot all about good sportsmanship and began to cheer. (The organist covered for them, striking up the theme from "M*A*S*H" as medics and trainers moved onto the field.)
Organist? Oh, yes. She plays "Celebration" after each home goal, inciting the crowd to rise, sing and clap joyously. She pounds out chords as the fans cry, "Let's Go, Blast!" In fact, the organist and the super-enthusiastic announcer, who must be exhausted at the end of the two-hour ordeal, do everything but race into the stands and clap your hands for you. They've got to be stockholders.
But we're ahead of ourselves.
First, get yourself to the Civic Center on Baltimore Street, plunk down your $4, $8, $9 or $11 bucks a seat (no discounts for kids). If you arrive early enough, you get the treat-of- the-day. At the Cosmos game, kids got small plastic soccer balls. At the Dallas Sidekicks' game this Saturday, early-birds will get free "cheer towels." Then you run the gamut of edibles -- pizza, nachos, French fries, cotton candy, giant pretzels, soft drinks, beer and more. Our Reluctant Soccer Fan, annoyed that she had not gotten a plastic soccer ball, was placated by the goodies.
By the time we arrived, the rock music was turned up full Blast (heh, heh). We walked in to Pat Benatar pleading "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" as the two teams warmed up. While they retired to their locker rooms before the game, several local children tried to kick a soccer ball through holes in a wood partition placed in front of a goal. At the opposite goal, a black-curtained arrangement was being constructed.
Suddenly, the house lights were lowered, an oversized video screen emerged, and the audience began cheering for "Blast Boosters!" That's right, folks, there's a "Ghostbusters"- type video featuring Blast players and various prominent Baltimoreans calling for help: "Who're ya gonna call? BLAST BOOSTERS!" The crowd clapped and sang along. At the same time, a huge orange-and-white soccer ball descended slowly from the ceiling. As soon as the ball was down and the video finished, the letters B-L-A-S-T began twinkling in lights, accompanied by -- yes! -- fireworks.
The spotlight shifted to the black curtain. The Cosmos had come drifting in without fanfare. But not the Blast. Wearing their fiery-red and yellow uniforms, they ran from behind the black curtain amid clouds of smoke -- to introductions by the announcer (who may suffer a stroke some day if he continues to shout "YOUR BAL-timore BLAST!!" like a cannon exploding throughout the game).
After the showbiz, we thought, would come the athletics. But within 10 seconds, YOUR BAL-timore BLAST had scored and the organist and the fans struck up "Celebration." It looked for a while as though the party would never settle down. Our 14-year-old soccer player and his buddy were awed by the crowd ("Boy, Baltimore really supports this team!").
Indoor soccer, you should know, is best described as a blend of traditional soccer and ice hockey. The game (four 15-minute quarters) is played on a hockey-rink-sized field 200 feet long and 85 feet wide covered with artificial turf and surrounded by a low board wall topped with plexiglass that does not always stop the ball from sailing into the crowd.
MISL teams field only six men on a side, five field players plus the goalkeeper. Players are sent to a penalty box for ungentlemanly conduct, delay of the game or fouls (two minutes) and violent conduct (five minutes or ejection) while the team plays a man short. At one point last Sunday, the Cosmos had lost one-third of their team, with two men in the penalty box.
Unlike outdoor soccer, the MISL does not use throw-ins, but it does use corner kicks and penalty kicks. Two referees man the field while a third stands on a platform at midfield off the field of play.
There's a three-minute interval between quarters and a 15-minute halftime, which is an opportunity for yet another sideshow. Last Sunday, a 19-year-old college student and her two border collies, Scotland and MacTavish, demonstrated that the canines -- father and son -- are world champion Frisbee players. As the dogs leapt and somersaulted, the organist played -- what else? -- "Jump." The Reluctant Fan loved it.
Throughout the game, the announcer continued his mile-a-minute patter over the loudspeaker, combining play commentary with advertisements, greetings to groups and announcements of gift-certificate winners (if you sat in the lucky seats).
At the end of the game (a 6-1 victory by the Blast), fans could trade in their ticket stubs for a special giveaway -- a replica of the Blast's MISL championship ring. The hefty gold- colored ring had an adjustable band, "Baltimore Blast" in red lettering and a "diamond" in the center. Tossing the rings in their hands as they left, the boys talked about going back to another game. The Reluctant Fan took refuge in a book -- but she wore the ring. HAVING A BLAST -- The Blast have 21 home games remaining, the last April 12. Here are the team's weekend home games through January: this Saturday at 8 against Dallas; Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 against Los Angeles; Friday, Dec. 14, at 7:30 against Kansas City; Friday, Dec. 21, at 7:30 against Las Vegas; Saturday, Dec. 29, at 7:30 against Las Vegas; Sunday, Jan. 6, at 1 against Chicago; Saturday, Jan. 26, at 7:30 against Dallas. GETTING THERE -- From the Capital Beltway, take I-95 North to I-395 leading into Baltimore. (Do not turn off to Harborplace.) Turn left on West Baltimore Street to Civic Center. Prices: $4, $8, $9 and $11. Call 301/659-7165 to charge tickets (no discounts for children). Call 301/528- 0100 for group sales ($1 off 20 or more tickets). Or write: Baltimore Blast, 201 West Baltimore Street, Baltimore 21201.