"Welcome to the wake," soccer player/joker Paul Cannell greeted a visitor yesterday at an M Street bar. "Where's your black arm band?"
As far as most of the players are concerned, the Washington Diplomats soccer franchise has expired. The financially troubled club, which did not make the North American Soccer League playoffs, is nearing extinction, and its demise may come within a week if the owners can't find a buyer.
Most of the players and staff members held a "final party" yesterday at The Sign of the Whale, the team's hangout this season. The earliest arriving group of players included Cannell, David Bradford, Willi Kiefer, Benny Dargle and David McGill.
"We have to hang around at least one more day because Friday is payday," said Dargle.
"Yeah, but they're not going to pay us cash," Bradford said. "They're going to give us green stamps."
A source close to the team said that the club's employes would be paid on schedule today.
Considering that the players soon may be out of work and that the team missed the playoffs early yesterday morning when Jacksonville and Portland won, the lads (as they call themselves) were in good spirits.
"I thought about going out and slashing tires," said Cannell. "But I decided I may as well take it in stride."
"I'm not happy, but I may as well smile," said McGill, the 20-year-old Canadian whose ankle is in a cast following surgery last week. "I'll go home Friday to Vancouver and hang out in the bars until this thing is better."
McGill was one of a dozen or so Diplomats who heard the negative playoff news while partying in a Georgetown rock club. Malcolm Waldron, the team's leading scorer, was one of the few players with the presence of mind to call The Washington Post Sportsphone service for the other NASL scores. How did they take the news?
"I don't think many of us were in condition to realize what happened," said Bradford.
"Win or lose, we're in the booze," said Cannell, who said he will remain the "Mayor of Georgetown" even if he never plays another game as a Diplomat.
"I didn't find out until I saw that little box in this morning's paper," Dargle said. "It hurt, but I didn't start kicking the breakfast table or anything."
Surprisingly, the uninhibited Cannell stayed at home and waited for the scores.
"As soon as I heard Ken Droz (the team's public relations director) whimpering, I knew it all was over," he said.
The players accused Duncan Hill, the club's general manager, of being blase about the team missing the playoffs.
"Duncan walked into the office this morning and asked, 'Did anybody hear the Edmonton score?' " Cannell said. "For him to say that was incredible."
Jacksonville beat Edmonton, 5-0, Wednesday night and moved past the Diplomats into the playoffs.
Hill said there was no progress yesterday in talks with prospective buyers. However, Cannell said he thinks someone will purchase the team soon.
"I'm certain there must be some local wealthies who'll ride in on a white horse at the last minute with a bag of money," Cannell said. "I'd be very disappointed in the wealthy people I know if none of them showed any interest. All we need is one organization. Somebody's got to take the team over. If a new owner, with sense, came in, I'm sure Washington could support a team."
The players were very critical of Hill, whom they blame for all the uncertainty surrounding the franchise.
"The worst part of this whole thing is waiting -- just waiting around while somebody determines what will happen to us," said Dargle. "We can't make any plans until we know for sure. We can't talk to any other clubs because we're still property of the Diplomats.
"I've got a car payment and rent due tomorrow. I'm glad my wife is working full time now instead of part time. I don't want to go back to Cleveland unless I have to."
As a North American, Dargle is used to seeing fragile soccer franchises fold. But Kiefer, who joined the team in midseason from Germany, can't comprehend how this could happen.
"In Germany, this never happens," he said. "I don't understand this. Maybe it will take 10 or 15 years for soccer to get big in the United States. I want to stay in Washington. But for now, I'm going back to Germany on Tuesday or Wednesday."
"Maybe I'll go with you," said Cannell.
"Me too," said Bradford.