Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Hot Winter Nights" - Chapter 1--A Night At The (Comet) Opera

Alright, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girlsI am finally delivering on my long-promised blog tribute series about my favorite sports franchise of all-time, the Kansas City Comets of the original Major Indoor Soccer League.  After all, this here blog is partially named for said sports entity, so it's only natural that I pay tribute to this fine body of men.  This thing took far longer than I imagined it would to compile and write, but there were so many memories and facets to this wonderful team, which existed from 1981-91, and a mere single post simply won't do justice to them.  I'll delve into the history and minutiae of the team in later installments, but first, I want to give you a little taste of a typical "Hot Winter Night" (as the team's original slogan went) with this amalgam of my favorite in-person game memories, all merged into a single fictional game...

6:30PM—Down in the stockyards of Kansas City, the natives begin gathering at 1800 Genessee (aka Kemper Arena) for another Major Indoor Soccer League match.

6:55PM—My longtime friend and tag-team partner (in the loosest sense) Tom and I arrive at Kemper and take our seats.  If it's 1986-87, we're in our season ticket seats right in the front rowwwww in Section 119, Row A, Seats 5 (me) and 6 (Tom) right by the Plexiglas.

7:00PM—The visiting St. Louis Steamers emerge from the bench area and trot out to midfield and half-heartedly wave to the halfway-assembled multitude, receiving a smattering of applause (from those who made their way up I-70 to see their heroes), but mostly boos and hisses from the crowd before they disperse to the south end of the field to do their pre-game warm-ups.  About 30 seconds later, the crowd erupts into applause as the Kansas City Comets charge out of their bench area and acknowledge their loyal legion of fans before taking the north end of the field to warm up.  For the next 20 minutes, both teams perform various stretching and exercise drills, and practice passing and shooting while using the goalkeepers for target practice.

7:05 PM—An errant practice shot soars over the Plexiglas behind the south goal and lands in some unsuspecting fan's lap, crushing the poor sucker's newly-bought nachos.  Said fan sheepishly tosses the cheese-coated sphere back to the field and checks for collateral damage, plucking jalapenos off his Levi's Dockers.  Meanwhile, senior referees Gino DiPollito and Bill Maxwell enter the field at some point and try to look authoritative while they monitor the proceedings.  The building continues to fill with fans while the latest hits from Madonna, Tears For Fears, Mr. Mister and Starship play on the P.A. overhead.

7:10PM—Randi Schoenstadt, lovely daughter of team owner Dr. David Schoenstadt, emerges from the bench area and makes her way across the field toward the penalty box area to deliver the Comets lineup card to the refs.  Picture singer Ronnie Spector (only about 20 years younger) struttin' her stuff in that Eddie Money video and you get the picture—Miss Randi had Tina Turner-esque legs and often sported very short skirts, five-inch stilettos and various manner of sexy hosiery, including fishnets.  My heart races, I drool profusely, and I lust mightily after her until she disappears into the bench area again.

7:15PM—Ceremonial drooling now completed, I turn my attention back to the matter at hand, perusing and preparing my homemade Comets scoresheet, which I modeled after a baseball scorecard, all the while trying to ignore the annoying Johnson County family that always sits to our left with the squirmy little kids who never really give a rip about the game itself.  I'm sure I was the only fan in the building who ever kept score at Comets games, and I'm soooo glad I did—it was a huge help in compiling this series.

7:20PM—The horn sounds signaling the end of pre-game warm-ups, and the teams file back to their respective locker rooms as the lights dim partially while arena workers set up the various pyrotechnic and lighting apparatus (apparati?) for the upcoming player introductions.  Meanwhile, several pre-taped commercials play on the P.A. (and on the video board if it's 1988 onward), including a message from KCTV-5 Sports Director Jack Harry extolling the virtues of Channel 5's "special coverage" of Comets game broadcasts. Yeah right, sure, Jack—whatever you say, buddy.  [I'll deal with that "special coverage" in a future installment of "Hot Winter Nights".]  Interspersed with the pre-recorded ads are messages from Public Address Announcer Mark Fitzpatrick (before 1988) and Ed Bishop (1988-91).  Mr. Fitzpatrick was a bank president by day who moonlighted (moonlit?) as the voice of Comets inside Kemper Arena.  Mr. Bishop, who succeeded Mark when bank duties took up too much of his time, was a Communications major and classmate of yours truly at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and is back today as PA man for the new Missouri Comets MISL franchise, too.  Both gentlemen served the dual roles as master of ceremonies and head cheerleader for the Comets, and served it well.

7:28PM—The remaining arena lights go dim and the building is plunged into total darkness until spotlights shine on the visitors' bench, where the St. Louis players have reconvened.  Using Emerson Lake & Palmer's "Fanfare For The Common Man" as a music bed, Fitzpatrick/Bishop introduces each player on the squad as they enter the field one-by-one in numerical uniform order as they run around north end of the field in the dark and he concludes the intro with "Ladies and gentlemen, the visiting St. Louis Steamers..."

7:30 PM—The spotlights now train themselves on the huge disco mirror ball hovering over the south end of Kemper Arena, sending a few thousand points of light circulating around the seating area.  Giorgio Moroder's "Midnight Express Theme"—the Comets' "call of the wild", if you will—pulsates over the P.A. while the neon Comets logo sign you see in this photo illuminates and flashes.  On a special night, a bright green light beam might shoot out from behind the south goal and signal the start of the legendary Comets lazer show.  Come 1988 or later, a nifty video appears on the scoreboard showing an animated comet passing 'round the Borealis (space truckin' 'round the stars?) then orbiting Earth before zeroing in on North America and taking dead aim on the Kemper Arena roof (yes, the same roof that collapsed in 1979).  A loud explosion jolts the crowd and sparks fly from the arena rafters as a fiery red ball (later changed to a light-up Comets logo) illuminates and begins descending on a cable aimed in the general direction of the neon Comets sign.  When the ball/logo reaches the Astroturf "earth", another KA-BOOOOM! goes off and two bright flash pots spout flames in front of the goal—if you didn't know any better, you'd think you were at a Kiss concert (not that that's a problem with yours truly or anything).  After fever pitch is achieved, Fitzpatrick/Bishop goes to work:  "Ladies and gentlemen, would you welcome YOUR KANSAS CITY COMETS!!  At goalkeeper, number double-zero ENZOOOOOO DiPEDE!  At defender, the captain of the Comets, number #2, GINOOOOOOO SCHIRAAAAALDIIIII!" and so on, through all 16 players suited up as they make their way through the door and charge on to the field through the neon-lighted "runway" laid out on the turf near the goal.

7:33PM—Following the intros, the players line up along their respective red lines, the refs stand at attention in front of the penalty box, the music dies down, the spotlight hits Old Glory up in the rafters and Fitzpatrick/Bishop introduces singer Ida McBeth to perform the national anthem.  Ida is a legendary local K.C. jazz/R&B artist who was the Comets' equivalent to what the late Kate Smith was to the Philadelphia Flyers in the '70s—a secret weapon/good luck charm, so to speak.  The woman has a voice so deep, I thought she was actually a guy in drag the first time I heard her sing!  But man, when she'd reach down and belt out her stirring a capella rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" (or even better, "God Bless America"), if that didn't get you fired-up for the game, nothing would!  All other Comets anthem singers paled in comparison to Ida.  When she first started singing for the Comets, McBeth was bigger (literally) than Heart's Ann Wilson at her heaviest—easily 300 pounds—but when her health started to suffer, she lost an impressive amount of weight and slimmed down to the svelte, Patti LaBelle-like figure you see in the photo above.  Ida still performs regularly and has quite a following around town.  Okay, back to the game...

7:35PM—Let's get ready to rumble!  The Steamers kick off to begin the match, and we are underway.  The Comets gain control of the ball and "Midnight Express" kicks in again on the P.A.—unlike in other sports, it's okay for music to blare overhead while the game is going in the MISL.  Fitzpatrick/Bishop urges the crowd to get into things by intoning, "C'mon everybody!" or "Here come the Comets!" and the crowd begins cheering and clapping rhythmically.  The game continues from one end of the field with several shots by both teams narrowly missing the goals.

7:40PM—My all-time favorite Comet, Yugoslavian forward Damir Haramina, takes a beautiful feed from midfielder Tasso Koutsoukos and rams home a one-timer from the top of the arc past sprawling goalkeeper Slobo Ilijevski of the Steamers for the first goal of the night.  The red light behind the goal illuminates and Fitzpatrick/Bishop orgasmically screams "GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLL!!!!!!!!" as the crowd goes berserk.  After a brief pause, Mark/Ed resumes: "KAN-za City GOOOOOOALLLL!!!...His 15th of the season for number 11, DAMEEEEER HARAMEEEEEENAAAAAA!!!!...And with the assist, number ten, TASSOOOOO KOUTSOOOOOOUKOS!!"  After just a few games, I got the routine down pat and loved to chant right along with Fitzpatrick/Bishop after every goal—it was just like singing along to a favorite song.

7:45PM—Mad Mike, an annoying self-appointed "Super Fan" with a snare drum makes his first appearance of the night, charging up to the Plexiglas in the aisle to our left adjacent to the Steamers' bench.  I roll my eyes as he bangs his drum and hollers toward the field, "Let's go Comets" (thump, thump), "Rip their lips off, Comets!" (thump, thump), etc.  Then, being the inconsiderate rube that he is, rather than walk up to the concourse and go around to reach the aisle to our right, Mike decides to cut through our row, and in the process, he bonks some little kid in the head with his drum, causing the child to burst into tears.  Mad Mike, meet Mad Parent—he's about to show you a new place to put that drumstick...

7:52PM—During an official's timeout, Fitzpatrick/ Bishop says, "There's an official's timeout on the field," to which Tom would alternately respond, "Well, get it off the field!" or "Yeah? They need one!"  Fitzpatrick/Bishop then introduces the night's very special guest, the Famous Chicken, who immediately bolts across the field to the Steamers' bench area and puts his special "whammy" on Team Steam, then proceeds to lay soccer "eggs" at midfield, and does his usual humorous shtick.

7:58PM—Now in the stands next to the Plexiglas, the Chicken attempts to "distract" the St. Louis players by holding up pin-up posters of Madonna and Loni Anderson, et al.  This doesn't work, so he then holds up a cheesecake poster of a morbidly-obese woman in a bathing suit.  Still, no dice.  As a final resort, the Chicken whips out a poster of Richard Gere!  Later on, the Chicken attaches the obese woman poster to the Plexiglas, then takes a bottle of windex foam and draws an arrow on the glass pointing to the poster and spells out "MISS ST. LOUIS".  This Chicken cat was/is friggin' brilliant.

8:02PM—Referee Gino DiPollito calls a phantom foul on the Comets when St. Louis' Ricky "Captain America" Davis trips and falls on his own in front of K.C.'s Dave Boncek right in front of us.  I jump up and scream "WHAT?!?"  Davis, by the way, was the Comets' whipping-boy, as it seemed like we were always knocking him on his keister, yet the little weasel kept getting right back up and playing.  Tough little goomer, this Davis was...

8:04 PM—Referee Bill Maxwell makes a phantom call on the Steamers when the Comets' Pato Margetic stumbles over Carl Rose of the Steamers on his own.  I remain seated and chuckle.  Dippo and Maxwell are laying almost as many "eggs" as the Chicken on this night.  To this day, I honestly believe that Ray Charles, Ronnie Milsap and Stevie Wonder could've called better games than these two.  But I digress...

8:15PM—Comets midfielder Barry "Boomer" Wallace lives up to his nickname and launches a line drive shot that sails out of play and goes hurtling toward the auxiliary scoreboard on the upper deck façade and crashes right into the backlit Diet Coke sign flanking it.  The crowd erupts in applause as if to say, "Take that, corporate America!"  Meanwhile, the hole that Wallace's shot gouged into the signage inadvertently forms the forms the word 'DIKE'.  Oops.  The damage is probably later taken out of Barry's paycheck.  By the way, rest in peace, Boomer—you left us way too soon.

8:17PM—During the stoppage triggered by Wallace's moon shot, the Chicken pulls out a gym bag with a Steamers logo on it and starts rummaging through it, pulling out all matter of shorts, shoes, jock straps, and finally a lacy bra, which he holds on high while the crowd hoots and hollers.

8:45PM—It's halftime, with the Comets leading St. Louis 3-1.  For the next 15 minutes, there's no telling what you'll see on the pitch—Comet halftimes could be a mixed bag.  It could be anything from local youth soccer teams playing a mini-game (with the Chicken "officiating" when he was there) to a Folf (Frisbee Golf) demonstration to some promotional contest emceed by local radio DJs like Dick Wilson, Randy Raley or Dan Donovan, to 400 off-key little kids from some local school singing (after taking ten minutes to get lined-up and organized on the field) to the semi-legendary 23rd Street Marching Cobras, an inner-city drum-and-dance corps who were/are very talented, yet rather headache-inducing.

Two rather infamous halftimes leap to my mind.  One was called Lazer Tag, and the Comets hyped the hell out of it for several weeks prior, claiming it was something not to be missed.  What actually unfolded was a bunch of people chasing each other around on the field in the dark waving flashlights, with no apparent point to the proceedings.  "Lazer Tag" immediately became Tom's and my catchphrase for anything lame or inept.  Another time, the Comets were honoring the folks at Ringling Bros., who were coming to Kemper following the Comets game, and halftime featured a tug-of-war between two sets of kids, and a baby elephant was brought in to "anchor" one end of the rope with his trunk.  Much to the chagrin of all involved, the little pachyderm reared up his hind leg and proceeded to take a wiz on the carpet.  And we ain't talkin' some piddly doggie stream—this critter had more water pressure than some fire hoses do!  The subsequent puddle—no, pool—Mr. Elephant left in his wake took nearly ten minutes to clean up with a Shop-Vac, and I imagine that hunk of the rug smelled pretty rancid the rest of the night...

Another popular halftime "tradition" was the annual paper airplane toss.  Fans could buy sheets of paper to fold into paper projectiles with their name and address on them and attempt to win a car by tossing the planes into its sunroof or onto other targets on the field to win free trips from the sponsoring airline or TVs and stereos, etc.  This of course, left the field littered with paper, and the jaundiced looks on the faces of the visiting team returning to the field were priceless, as if they were saying, "What the f---?..."  I could never fold an aerodynamic paper airplane to save my soul, and even from our front row seats with a target five yards away from us, I still never came close to hitting it!

The most popular Comet halftime shows were undoubtedly the annual "Food Characters" games, sponsored by local grocery store chains.  Where else could you see the Pillsbury Doughboy tending goal, not to mention seeing Fred Flintstone lose his hair (the man wore a rug—who knew?) and even worse, seeing Hostess' Twinkie the Kid literally lose his head?!?  The carnage got pretty ugly at times, but it was always a hoot watching these poor schlubs trying to navigate around the field with their vision impaired by the costumes.  I remember Dino from "The Flintstones" always ran kinda funny—like one of those old Chevy Novas that was always out of alignment.  Chester Cheetah was a prolific goal scorer, if memory serves.

9:06PM—As he's known to do from time to time, the legendary Slobo Ilijevski gets a little too adventurous and wanders way too far out of his goal, wanting so desperately to be part of the Steamers' offense, and finds himself in no man's land when there's a steal in the midfield and the Comets' Dale Mitchell lofts a long one and burns Slobo like the midday sun and scores.  As great as Ilijevski was, he was good for a least one of these brain farts in nearly every game he played against the Comets.  Sorry to pick on you here, Slobo, but I just couldn't resist.  And believe it or not, I actually do miss you—you were a worthy opponent and great warrior.  Rest in peace, Slobo.

9:20PM—Comets defender Kim Roentved gets tangled up with Steamers forward Don Ebert near the boards in the corner and next thing you know, we're playin' The Feud.  "The Rocket" don't back down from nobody, and a brief melee ensues, resulting in packed quarters in the penalty boxes.

9:25PM—During the intermission between the 3rd and 4th quarter, Fitzpatrick/Bishop says, "Tonight's attendance, 15,192—the Comets players, coaches and front office staff thank all of you for your continued support."  The Comets players interrupt their bench huddle with head coach Dave Clements to acknowledge the fans by applauding the people who help pay their salaries.  If it's the final home game of the season, the entire team walks around the pitch with a large banner that reads, "Thanks, Kansas City, for another great season!"  Ever see this happen in the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL?  Didn't think so...

9:50PM—With the Comets ahead 6-4 and less than 4:00 remaining, the Steamers pull goalkeeper Ilijevski in favor of 6th attacker Ricky Davis.  This gambit has a 50-50 success rate and on this night, it backfires as forward Jan Goossens gains possession near the penalty box and rolls the ball goalward with Davis chasing the ball in vain as I go into my Harry Caray "It might be, it could be, it is!" chant, as the ball crosses the goal line.

9:56PM—As the crowd counts down the game's final seconds, Fitzpatrick/Bishop proclaims "We got a winner!" as the Comets defeat St. Louis 7-4.  The teams shake hands and mill about briefly at midfield as the intro to Bob Seger's "Old-Time Rock 'N' Roll" (the live version off Nine Tonight) kicks in on the P.A., and as soon as Bob sings "Just take those old records off the shelf..." the Comets form a line and trot around the perimeter of the field and high-five the fans (Tom and me included) hanging over the Plexiglas.  Once the circuit is complete, the team reconvenes at midfield and applauds the fans one more time before heading off to the locker room and a good time was had by all.

I'd give almost anything to be able to turn back time and do just one more Comets game all over again...


john said...

Great stuff. I miss the good old days of indoor soccer in KC, for sure. (fan from the beginning, season ticket holder from the time I could drive until I moved away for college / life.)

Thanks for the memories.lannymir

Unknown said...

I know you wrote this series a long time ago now, but I must say I loved it. You were really, really into it and I think that's great. Thanks for doing these.