Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Hot Winter Nights" - Epilogue

Time to conclude my tribute to the original Kansas City Comets indoor soccer franchise.  First off, a few more misc. reminiscences, then a final overview of my devotion to this team...


How much did I love the Kansas City Comets?  Well, this blog is partially-named in their honor, and I took my radio name, “Captain Comet”, from them as well.  The latter was probably not the best choice in the world, but I enjoyed the anonymity of not having to use my real name on the air, so it kinda stuck.  Besides, "Captain Fantastic" was already spoken for by E. John.  Anyway, I was also probably the only fan in the building at Comets matches who kept score during the games.  I figured baseball fans keep scorecards, why not soccer?  The idea came to me by accident on the night of February 26, 1986 (easy to remember—that’s the day of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster) during pre-game warm-ups at Kemper Arena.  I attended alone that night, and had come straight from school (I was attending UMKC at the time) and tried to do a little studying before the game, and since I had my spiral notebook with me, just for hoots and grins, I decided to keep track of that evening’s goals.  Unfortunately, most of the goals were scored by the evil San Diego Sockers, as they drubbed K.C. 13-3 in easily the worst game in Comets history.  Before the next home game, I designed my own homemade scorecard on graph paper (see photo) and a couple years later when scanner technology came about, my friend Tom put together a more professional-looking model, although I’m still more partial to my original.  I continued to use my scorecards even after the Comets’ demise when the Kansas City Attack replaced them, and even adapted them for hockey, as well.  There are times when I wish I’d become a sports statistician instead of a DJ…

On two separate occasions when a Comets game was played on snowy nights that impeded many folks from reaching the Kemper Corral, the team was good enough to allow us fearless fans who did manage to make it to those games to exchange our ticket stubs for a free ticket to a future home game.  Let’s see the NBA do that!  One such night was a freak early April, 1990 weeknight snowfall that dumped about 7” on the city.  I was working downtown by that time, and the Comets game worked out perfectly for me, because if I had tried to navigate my way home in the snow after work, it would’ve taken me two hours or more.  By attending the game, it allowed enough time for the rush hour traffic to dissipate and for the crews to plow the roads, and I was able to cruise home rather easily following the game.  And the Comets won that night, too.  Timing is everything.

After that thrilling 1985 playoff victory against the St. Louis Steamers (see Chapter 3), I couldn’t get enough of the Comets and started attending each and every home game, and several road games in Wichita, St. Louis and Cleveland as well.  From April 19, 1985 until the bitter end on May 4, 1991, I only missed two Comets home games, both because I had to work at the radio station, but even for one of those I still got to run game broadcast on the radio anyway, as KKJC was an affiliate on the Comets Radio Network.  About midway through the ’85-’86 season, I got tired of having to do the box office thing every night, so I came up with the bright idea of getting season tickets.  My friend Tom and I went down to Kemper Arena one fine afternoon bought a half-season ticket package.  We decided to go the Bob Uecker route and sit right down in the front rowwww behind the Plexiglas in Section 119, seats 5 and 6.  There were actually better seats available throughout the building—from these seats, the view to our left was obstructed by the player benches and we basically couldn’t see the corner at the other end of the field on our side.  But, I had ulterior motives for choosing this pair—besides the obvious perk of being right on top of the action, I figured we could see ourselves on TV a lot during game broadcasts, being’s as we were on the side of the arena opposite the press box, plus we would be able to participate in the Comets victory laps where the players would run along the glass and high-five the fans after every win.  It worked out great, and we kept those seats for the ’86-’87 season as well before we got burned-out on sitting in the same place for every game, not to mention getting annoyed with the family of four that sat to our left and their squirmy little ADHD kids.  Working in the radio biz at the time also netted me more than a few free Comets tickets for the next couple seasons anyway.

I must now confess that I’m a little embarrassed by how overboard I went with my enthusiasm for the Comets those last six years or so, to the point where it sometimes came at the expense/exclusion of family, friends and even career obligations as my priorities got a little out of whack at times.  Example:  when I was given my first shot at a live air-shift on KKJC, filling in for our afternoon drive guy on a Wednesday, I was initially peeved because it conflicted with a Comets home game scheduled that evening.  It all worked out and I got to the game on time, but you’d think I’d have cared more about my future livelihood than a sporting event.  Another time, my mom had an important grand poohbah wing-ding with her Eastern Star organization that I probably should’ve attended with the rest of the family, but I chose a Comets game instead, and I’ve always felt bad about that.  I was also inconsolable immediately following the Comets demise in 1991.  Not to be melodramatic or anything, but it felt a little bit like having your heart ripped out—hell, I took it harder when the Comets folded than I did when two of my three (count ‘em, three) serious relationships with women ended and I felt very empty, angry and sad.  Given the precarious state of the MISL/MSL during those last years, I had prepared myself for the possibility that there would be no more Comets, but I never dreamed it would be the team pulling its own plug—I always figured if the team ever did fold, it would be because the entire league went under, considering what a successful and model franchise the Comets had been.

Hell, my devotion to the team was such that I even passed up a Saturday night Kiss/Ted Nugent concert over at Municipal Auditorium in early ’88!  I chose the Comets game because I’d already seen Kiss two months earlier in Topeka (with up-and-comers White Lion) on the Crazy Nights tour, which is considered by most Kiss fans (me included) as one of their worst, and Nugent’s career was in irreversible free-fall by that time.  In retrospect, I almost wish I’d done the concert now anyway—the Comets lost that night, and it was one of those rare times when the team seemed really listless with no sense of urgency.  I also faced a dilemma during my 1991 vacation regarding the Comets, who were in the midst of that final playoff series with the Cleveland Crunch at the time.  Games 6 and 7 (if necessary) were slated for Cleveland, but I was also trying to hit some Major League Baseball stadiums on this road trip, including Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, which was in its final season.  I could’ve skipped Game 6 and gone onto Baltimore, hoping the Comets could extend the series to Game 7 (which they did), but I didn’t want to chance it, thus I never saw an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium.  With all apologies to Cal Ripken and Co., I still stand by my decision, as seeing the last two games in Comets history was a privilege and I had a great time that weekend at Richfield Coliseum.  Sorry, Baltimore…

I’ve been reluctant to fully embrace any other teams that have emerged since the Comets (including the Kansas City Blades hockey club, whom I also miss greatly), and I’ve kinda kept them all at arms-length because it hurt so much when the Comets folded.  The Blades did manage to take some of that sting away by having a magical 1991-92 campaign in which they literally went from worst to first after their dismal inaugural 1990-91 season, and had the best record in the International Hockey League, culminating in a Turner Cup championship.  The Comets’ replacements, the National Professional Soccer League’s Kansas City Attack, also filled the void, but only so much.  The team spent its first season playing at Municipal Auditorium (where the rent was cheaper) instead of Kemper Arena, but the sightlines in our venerable basketball venue were terrible for indoor soccer, and it was like being in the Twilight Zone.  Even though Gino Schiraldi returned for one more year and former Comets Zoran Savic, Iain Fraser, Chad Ashton, Chris Duke and Kim Roentved were members of the Attack at one time or another, it just wasn’t the same anymore.  The team wisely moved back to Kemper Arena in 1992-93 and even though the Attack franchise was even more successful that the Comets on the field, winning NPSL championships in 1993 and 1997, the fire just wasn’t there anymore for me.  It was like having to watch black-and-white TV after your color set was stolen from your living room—or for you youngsters out there who can’t relate to B&W, it was like having to watch analog TV after your 52” HD digital flat screen got nabbed.

And I don’t mean to slam the Attack here:  their players worked just as hard as the Comets did (both on and off the field), but the NPSL had such a small-time attitude and I hated their rinky-dink scoring system—two points for a regular goal, 1 point for a power play or shootout goal, 3 points for a goal from beyond the arc, 5 points for goals scored on Ground Hog Day, 10 for goals scored on Thursday nights by Eskimos, etc.—to me, a goal is a goal, period!  Another example of the low-rent nature of the NPSL:  to save on travel expenses in the postseason, the league would settle a 3-game series that was tied 1-1 with a 15-minute “mini-game” immediately following the second game—in effect, a 15-minute overtime to decide the whole series—which I thought was totally crass.  The whole thing just seemed so cheesy and inferior compared with the MISL and I never fully recognized the NPSL as a “major” sports league.  It also didn’t help that the NPSL seemed devoid of the characters and charismatic players the MISL had, like Tino Lettieri, Tatu, Karl-Heinz Granitza, Preki, and the late Stan Stamenkovic and Slobo Ilijevski, et al.

Not surprisingly, the Attack (and the Blades, too, for that matter) suffered from the same indifference the Comets received from our local media.  When their move from Atlanta was announced in September of ‘91, the K.C. Star relegated this news to the back seat behind the Chiefs, Royals, U.S. Open tennis and Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield, only managing a small blurb about the new team on the front page.  Radio coverage for the Attack was spotty at best, too, and even when the Attack honored several former Comets during a halftime ceremony in 1992, the Comet players still had to take a back seat to something else.  Comet greats like Alan Mayer, Tim Clark, Elson Seale, Enzo DiPede, Kevin Handlan and Ben Popoola were forced to wait for some local aerobics group to finish performing their little demonstration before they were finally honored.  So typical of the way this team never got any respect…
While the Attack drew respectable crowds at Kemper, their numbers never came close to approaching the attendance figures of the Comets, and never once did the Attack sell out a home game in their entire history.  The team even changed its name back to Comets in 2001 (while the NPSL cleverly renamed itself the Major Indoor Soccer League—confused yet?), but it made little difference.  I like to call this period the “Faux Comets” era, as they were Comets in name only, with a much lamer logo and bland uniforms compared with the originals.  Even sillier, the team’s mascot, Fuzzy The Attack Cat, was forced to morph into Fuzzy The Cosmic Cat!  During the early ‘00s, owner Donald Kincaid was hopeful of moving the team to a proposed 8,000-seat arena (i.e., lower overhead) in Johnson County, KS that would’ve been similar to the Independence Events Center where the new Missouri Comets now play (minus Fuzzy).  But, the mythical Johnson County venue never materialized, and the team ceased operations after the 2004-05 season and hardly anyone even noticed.

I’m still a fan of our current “niche” teams like Major League Soccer’s Kansas City Wiz(ards) and the Missouri Mavericks CHL hockey team, and I’m cautiously excited about the new Comets franchise, but I don’t care to put myself through the agony again of being a “SuperFan”.  Having said all that, however, I loved the original Kansas City Comets for a reason—they made us fans truly feel like we were part of the team!  I actually felt like I’d be letting them down if I didn’t attend the home games and show my support.  As I wrote at the time of their demise, “It was refreshing to see a group of athletes playing their asses off, not worried about who was making more money than who, or how many Ferraris they owned.  I’d take one wounded Jan Goossens over a hundred Bo Jacksons any day.  When I see people forking out $12 for Yogi Berra’s autograph, it makes me wonder what’s wrong with our society.  Comet autographs have always been free, plus you could probably get a handshake and a nice chat, to boot.”  There was a purity to this franchise (and league) that just doesn’t exist in sports anymore—it was all about winning and the love of the sport, without all the trappings of ego, exorbitant salaries, steroids, et al.

Just an aside, Comets defender Tom Kain, an up-and-coming young star at the time, abruptly retired from the team during the 1990-91 season.  He saw the writing on the wall that the league was in trouble and had a job offer to go to work for Adidas back home in New Jersey.  It’s a rather warped commentary about the league that a good young healthy player was forced to take a real job to support his family instead of playing the game he loved.  Yet, these guys in the old MISL probably worked as hard—if not harder—than their overpaid NFL, NBA and MLB brethren and easily spent more time out in the community with their own fans than the big-league sports guys did/do.  On the day the Comets folded in 1991, it spoke volumes that Kevin Hundelt and Jim Gorsek carried on conducting their Comets-sponsored youth soccer camps—in 100º heat, no less—even though they had both just lost their jobs.  Many MISL/MSL players were barely making more money than I did as a working stiff at Boatmen’s Bank—and I was woefully out-of-shape!  True, no one forced these guys to take up soccer as a vocation, but somehow, this just didn’t seem right.

Despite their popularity, the Comets certainly had plenty of detractors in this town as well.  I often chafed when I read the numerous letters-to-the-editor in the Star criticizing/mocking the team and the sport, and I often wrote rebuttals in defense.  There were also short-sighted bozos like the guy who called in on the radio one time who deemed the Comets and MISL, “Just a bunch of foreigners with funny names running around in shorts.”  Oh, like funny names are a just reason not to like something.  Based on that line of thinking, the NFL (Marty Schottenheimer, anyone?), Major League Baseball (Dale Sveum?), NBA (Detlef Schrempf?) and college basketball (Mike Kryzyzewski?) must have sucked back then too, eh?

Another example of simple-minded thinking is the charming Mongoloid who anonymously commented on my previous post about the Comets and the media:  “but indoor soccer sucks. it's not interesting and no one that's why it always got the short shrift.  it sucks.  You can almost hear the conversation repeated in every newsroom:  'we're not going to devote much resources to indoor soccer.'  'why not?'  'you know...'cause it sucks and no one is interested.  we cover football and baseball because they have leagues with big television contracts.  who watches indoor soccer?  nobody.  little manboys.  weirdos.'  'oh.'"  Wow, this is Rhodes Scholar material here!  And such great sentence structure, too.  Must be a University of Hee-Haw grad.  Seriously, I never understood all the vitriol heaved at the Comets back in the day, much less now.  I never gave a rip about professional boxing or golf or team tennis, but you didn’t see me trying to run Tommy “The Great White Dope” Morrison or Tom Watson or the K.C. Explorers out of town on a rail back in the day.  Lighten up, folks—to each his/her own…

[And as I’ve stated before on the blog, I don’t mind dissenting opinions or any reasonable challenge to what I write on here, BUT…if you’re going to criticize what I write, at least have the balls to sign your fucking name to it—I do NOT suffer cowards gladly!  Try writing in complete sentences, too, if you want me to take you seriously...]

Curiously, I’ve never been able to get into Arena Football in the same way I embraced indoor soccer.  Football needs to be played in a big open (preferably outdoor) space, and Arena Football is too claustrophobic for me—it looks to me like they’re playing in a phone booth!  On the other hand, Indoor soccer on a hockey rink makes a lot more sense and is a much better fit.  And while it’s true that outdoor soccer is played in a big open space, it’s a freakin’ bore!  Like most Americans, I have great difficulty getting into watching 22 guys just trotting around kicking the ball back-and-forth for 90 minutes, with only a scant few scoring opportunities sprinkled in.  And what’s up with this tie business?!?  Some soccer teams are delirious if they can just finish in a tie!  Americans like scoring and they want to see someone win the bloody game—a 0-0 tie just don’t cut the cheese over here.  That’s what made/makes indoor soccer so much more appealing to me—it’s fast-paced end-to-end action that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout the game, unlike football and baseball with their inherent lulls and stoppages.  True, indoor soccer loses a little something on TV (as does hockey), so it’s better viewed in-person, and when the music cranks up, the Rock concert mentality just adds to the intensity of the game.

Another perk about the original MISL was how the league was virtually devoid of prima donnas like Brett Favre, showboaters like Terrell Owens (apart from Tatu, anyway, and even HE was pretty benign) and insatiable egos like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.  The rivalries the Comets had with St. Louis, Wichita, San Diego, et al, were both fun and intense, which just added fuel to the fire.  I tend to root for the underdog/little guy anyway, and I really thought indoor soccer had a chance to become the fifth major league sport in the U.S. along with the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, so it was quite disappointing when it all fell apart.  Several indoor leagues have come and gone since the original MISL died (the CISL, the WISL, the NISL, the PASL, etc.), and for whatever reason, indoor soccer just can’t seem to capitalize on the current rising popularity of World Cup soccer in America, either, so it’s always going to be considered a “niche” sport, unfortunately.  Damn shame, because it’s a fun game and far more entertaining (to me, anyway), than the outdoor game, no matter what my “soccer hooligan” friends in England might say.  I’ve gradually learned to appreciate the subtle nuances of outdoor soccer, but it’ll never come close to matching the excitement and intensity of the indoor game for me.  And it’s the ONLY sport (besides mini-golf, anyway) where I approve of the use of Astroturf!

I hope y’all don’t mind me indulging myself in this little series here, but it’s one I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while now.  I also hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series as much as I’ve enjoyed reliving so many great memories while researching this material, many of which I hadn’t thought of in years and some which I’d blotted out altogether, for some strange reason.  Thanks to the magic of YouTube, there are numerous MISL video clips out there for your entertainment pleasure.  The history of the Wichita Wings series is especially good—hell, I like their highlight reel better than the Comets’!  In closing, to the original Kansas City Comets players, coaches, owners and front office folks out there who might be reading this, I send out a hearty salute to you.  You were a fine body of men (and women) and I hope I’ve paid proper tribute to this wonderful sports entity.  Those “Hot Winter Nights” somehow even managed to make an awkward and star-crossed venue like Kemper Arena feel like home and THE place to be, and they were some of the best times of my life.


Anonymous said...

Great series, Brian. I have links to it now on my site.

Brian Holland said...

Thanks, dude! Sorry I'm so long in responding--I thought I had done so already. I'm honored to be linked on your Wing-A-Lings page, which is outstanding. One of these days, there will be a similar one for the Comets...