"This thing is going to be big. The NASL blew it. They're stupid. And they know it." -- Tim Leiwecke, GM of Baltimore MISL franchise

"Me? My friend's one of the officials. He asked me to come, so I did.

I prefer soccer." -- Anonymous spectator in the $7 seats

Outside the Baltimore Civic Center on a midweek winter night, the wind lashes West Baltimore Street like a whip. Indoor anything sounds like a good idea. In the building's lobby, serenaded by loudspeakered warnings about bottles and beverages, a quiet crowd files past a bright red Maverick filled with fluorescent orange soccer balls: a lot of kids with youth soccer jackets, a lot of parents in tow. They've come to see the limbo between the majors and the minors.

Inside, behind the heavy curtain on the stage at the Hopkins Street end, a professional indoor soccer team loosens up prior to its oficial warmups, sneakered feet slapping orange soccer balls around in the dark. On the carpeted rink, two youth league indoor teams finish their game and file off. A signal is given; the Baltimore Blast queue up behind a yellow tunnel that leads from behind the curtain, down a ramp, out of the mouth of one plasticnetted goal and onto the playing surface.

Suddenly, the crowd noise builds to a dull roar, then crests with an avalanche, thousands and thousands of voices. Hanging speakers bark out the opening bars of Weather Report's "Birdland," the live version, and the soccer players pop out of their plastic tunnel to see maybe two thousand passive fans punctuating acres of empty seats.

The crowd noise is on the record.

A quarter of an hour later, they run through the official intros, red-vested Blasts popping out of the tunnel again -- only this time the lights have gone out, the spots come up, the song is 'I'm Coming Out' and a large yellow soccer ball with human legs does a spasmodic jig atop a platform to accompanying fireworks. No kidding. A dancing ball. The effect is a little like watching a good friend make a fool of himself at a party.

But the cavernous Civic Center has started to warm up and a comfortable crowd of 4,200 is caught in the carnival midway atmosphere. The lights go up to reveal $80,000 worth of Civic Center renovation: purple, yellow, red and orange. The players take their positions on a bright green field. They look like gumballs in an outsized gumball machine. Let the game begin.

A well-dressed woman in the complimentary seats leans toward her date, a scarfed gentleman with a Scotch, served by waitresses filtering through the stands. "It's kind of undignified," she says. "Isn't it?"

"I'd rather have a team with a .500 record and people in the stands than a winning team with no people," says Leiwecke, "because you know which franchise is going to stick around at the end of the season,"

Leiwecke, at 24 the promotion savant, is everything Willie Loman wasn't. Gray-flanneled pitchman, Barnum in blazer. Ex-ace life insurance salesman (they called him rookie of the year). Carter campaign manager in '76 in Missouri (he carried the state). The face of a 12th-grader just reelected to the student council. You probably wouldn't buy a used car from him, but it wouldn't make any difference, because he's just sold a model that's half-Eldorado, half-jeep to a city badly in need of a vehicle for professional sport. It's tough to build a national profile with a team from the Eastern Hockey League, Orioles and Harborplace notwithstanding.

Sitting at a plasticene-wood desk in a windowless red cinderblock office filled with more orange soccer balls, he faces a financial bath at the box office tonight; Harford is this league's Cleveland Cavaliers. But he still can't keep the smile off his face. Something about orange soccer balls, heavy advance sales, good media attention, an adoring office staff and a perfect conjunction of the promoter's planets. It seems too easy.

A young entrepreneur's dream, Tim Leiwecke's last two years. Last year he guaranteed the league's legitimacy by promoting St. Louis into a 14,000-a-game franchise that now outdraws the NHL Blues with ease. He's doing it again, with 1,000 promotions in a year in the Baltimore area (that's two or three a day) and three 9,000-plus crowds in the last week of January. And a perspective on sports management that owes something to his sense of humor.

A couple of weeks ago he spent five hours selecting the music for his home series: New Wave one night; Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder another; Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers another. Donald Schaefer is "the greatest mayor I've ever seen." The people of Baltimore are "honest and real. Like St. Louis."

He could promote softshell crab races between halves if he wanted to. He just hasn't thought of it.

"This is not a team identity we're trying to sell, it's a sport. That's where some of our teams have gone wrong -- trying to sell a team instead of entertainment. We're like a movie theater, a Broadway play."

Sort of. It's also a schoolyard sort of game that rubs the purist like fingernails on a blackboard.

"It's professional. Maybe I'd feel otherwise if I played soccer. But from my standpoint it's professional. I don't let anyone around me think minor league. Pro football is the consummate professional league, and I'd never compare myself to that, but there's 18,000, 19,000 people in St. Louis now who'll tell you indoor soccer's the greatest thing they've ever seen."

On the upper level, the thick scent of marijuana seeps out of the men's room. Little kids kick a miniature orange soccer ball against the wall in the empty concrete corridor. The echo of sporadic cheering filters down the tunnels.

The $3 seats at the Civic Center are like the $3 seats anywhere. The strongest throats, the universal shouting fans for whom the game's only part of the thing.

From the upper seats, high above the bright green surface, the Baltimore Blast and the Hartford Hellions look like little men in a table hockey game. You'd expect two large people, at either end, to be playing with the controls. When Baltimore scores first, the cheers in the $3 seats are the loudest. When they score again, less than a minute later, on a kick that rolls along the hockey boards, hits the Hartford goalie's hip and bounces into the goal, an old usher in a dark green uniform holds up two fingers and grins.

The dancing ball is named Ed Cuthie. He's a 16-year-old high school student. "It's a living," he says back-stage, after struggling to pull the giant yellow ball off his head.

Halfway through the league's third season, Commissioner Earl Forman voices few complaints. The former co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Bullets and Virginia Squires, he is no stranger to strange leagues, the promotional arts or corporate inroads. After all those false starts, he may have hit the vein. He has seen league attendance grow by 15 percent, to 6,500 per game. He has an all-star game in Madison Square Garden. As his NASL counterpart stumbles through federal court injunctions and realignment, his stronger franchises grow stronger. In two years, six teams have become 12 teams and he plans expansion -- not a desperate, NHL-type blitzkrieg; he'll move when he can get the cities he wants (rule out Washington; Capital Centre available dates are Mondays).

He has selective local television exposure, thanks, mostly, to Terry Leiwecke, Tim's brother, the director of Sportsview, the network that brings the games to most of the local markets; it's a regular Rooney family of indoor soccer. But Foreman is determined not to repeat the NASL's mistake by lunging for a network contract before he has a solid core of fans. He has time. His five-year plan is ahead of schedule.

Less and less does he feel like the man at the helm of a box lacrosse league.

"There's been talk of a game between ou best and the NASL's best," he says now. "I'm not sure I want to give the NASL a chance to share the spotlight. Of course, we'd win. Our best team is the Arrows."

The flagship of the Major indoor Soccer League (there is no Minor) is the New York Arrows. They lead their division by double figures. The axiom for all leagues holds for this one: a strong New York franchise is a must.

Halfway through the third quarter, the Hartford goalie lofts a three-quarter length pass to a forward, Tittle to Shofner, adding another ingredient -- football -- to this gumbo of a sport. Moments later, though, the Blast scores again -- No. 5 -- and Kool & the Gang's "Celebrate" rocks and echoes off the empty spaces. Tim Leiwecke has nothing if not the best sound system in indoor soccer.

"That's one thing about this league," he says, standing now on the stage, surveying his dominion. "You can think up weird things for promotions and o ahead and do them. Although I'm not sure they're ready for 'I'm Coming Out,'".

"No question we're getting classier," says goalie Sep Gattenheimer in the postgame locker room, sprawled across from a tacked-up Baltimore Sun clipping that reads "Poor Attendance Could Send Colts Packing." "It's all first-class. Phoenix is great, so's Denver. Even Buffalo. San Francisco and Cleveland are a little shaky. But we're treated well. The fans enjoy it. I wouldn't play in the outdoor league now even if they asked."

Not so with ex-Dip Sonny Askew, flown to be a Manic in Montreal, or Neil Cohen, heading for Dallas at the end of this season. "Got to try," says Cohen, whose wife sings God Bless America at each game. "If it doesn't work, I make a beeline back here."

At the final buzzer, a Blast player kicks the ball around the boards in the corner and a Hellion player chases it. The artificial carpet tears loose and the Hellion trips on the edge, like someone stumbling over a welcome mat. The Hellions are the runt of this litter, and tonight they've been beaten, 5-2.

As soon as the carpet is cleared, though, an amateur game begins, men in their early 20s in an intramural league. Some of the kids who played earlier stick around for the show. Wives and friends fill up a couple of rows.

"Did you know that 85,000 kids play soccer in the Baltimore area?" says Tim Leiwecke, heading for something called the VIP Lounge. And still smiling.