Thursday, April 01, 2010

A cruel April Fool's Day

Rhode Island really isn't known for much. You would think that such a small state would have a massive Napoleon complex. But we don't - unless you confuse us with Long Island. We like being small time. We drink coffee-flavored milk, eat quahogs, but not together. And when we find the time, we send a few of our best residents to various reality shows. Richard Hatch, you did us proud.

Right now, you've probably heard on CNN or MSNBC that we got a bit of rain. Not alot. Just enough to turn Warwick into a lake and surrounding streets into raging rapids. Our governor called it "the worst flooding the state has seen in 100-500 years." Lucky us.

And while that sucks more than the wet vacs we'll need to clean this mess up, I just found out some news that makes the week even worse. But before I get into that, the backstory.

As I've said many times, I didn't grow up surrounded by soccer. There was no major pro league when I was growing up, so the only soccer player I knew at the time was my best friend Nate. He played AYSO at Hull Street Park across the interstate, and had a tan team shirt that read "Nate" over his number - you guessed it - eight.

However, there are traces of soccer-related memories from my childhood. I remember Tatu, the insanely-talented indoor player who showed up on a couple of my "ESPN's Amazing Plays" videos that I always seemed to get at Christmas. I also remember watching Benfica matches on RTP with my VoVo and not understanding what the heck the announcers were saying. And of course, I remember USA '94.*

(*USA '94 afforded me the very first opportunity to watch soccer with an English-speaking announcer behind the mic. Benfica matches, obviously, were hard to follow. But once I was told what was happening in crystal-clear English - wait, they call games in English? - I got into it pretty quickly. In fact, I watched the 0-0 Brazil-Italy final in its entirety, and distinctly remember a few cars beeping by my window with shouts of "Viva BRAZIL!" echoing through my neighborhood and wondering where I could watch more.)

It's amazing what the human mind can recall. Events that were once inconsequential not only remain, but can be vividly recalled should they achieve greater consequence.

In saying that, I can tell you about the time I discovered the Rhode Island Stingrays. It was the summer before my freshman year of high school. Per the routine of a sports-obsessed adolescent, I woke up every morning and performed the following:

1. Retrieved the newspaper
2. Plucked the sports section out
3. Poured a bowl of cereal
4. Carried said sports section and cereal to the living room
5. Carefully placed the bowl and paper on the living room carpet,
6. Grabbed the remote, flipped the station to Sportscenter
7. Crawled down on my stomach, read the paper, ate my cereal, and listened to Keith Olberman and Dan Patrick talk about the O.J. Trial.

Listening and reading at the same time isn't hard. I read about the Red Sox. The Patriots. I always read the transactions section, of course. And once in awhile, the local sports short grabbed my attention.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Hoping to ride the heels of the most successful World Cup to date, professional soccer has returned to Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Stringrays Football Club has announced that they will compete in this year's United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues Pro Division. The club will play its home matches at a location to be determined.

The state previously hosted professional soccer back in 1977, when the Rhode Island Oceaneers of the American Soccer League called East Providence their home.*

(*Note: I created this short. I don't actually know how the Providence Journal reported it, but only that, if my memory hasn't completely failed me, it wasn't a majestic 750-word write-up. Two, I want to say that the club started off playing in my hometown - East Providence - but I've received conflicting reports on that. Three, I also want to say that the original name of the team was "the Rays", but again, I can't corroborate that, either. Four, I love the name of the league: United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues. United, yet independent. American pro soccer, circa 1995: where oxymorons live.)

My initial interest piqued to the point that I asked some friends about it. Mind you, this was before I knew what an internet was. So word of mouth, local television, and the newspaper was how I learned about anything that happened outside the parameters of the wiffleball field in my backyard.

Sadly, nothing materialized, and the interest fell into abeyance for years.

But, it pulled a Santino Quaranta and came back in 2006. Spinning the clock ahead eleven years, I was driving up 95 North from a then-dry Warwick and glanced ahead of me at the light hovering above Pierce Field. It was June. It couldn't have been football. And it was definitely too early for Heritage Days.

My curiosity steered me two exits early and a brisk ride along Veterans Memorial Parkway before taking me left onto Mercer Street. I pulled my car into the parking lot. The large, lush field could be seen through my windshield. Should I get out and see what all the fuss is about? Then, I had one of those inner deliberations where you try to decide what to do even though it's clear you should just do it because the situation completely low-risk.*

(*When I was in college, I used to do this quite often at the Taco Bell drive-thru. I would literally repeat, out loud, with people in the car, "cheesy gordita crunch or big beef burrito?" until my I reached the speaker. Both were equal in taste, value, and caloric content. In hindsight, ordering one over the other would obviously not redirect my path in life. But my stubborn, 19-year-old mind would've argued that it did. Everything had consequence, including a side of nachos.)

Then, it began to pour. Decision made.

I went home, checked out the schedule, and returned a week later for my first taste of Rhode Island's lone pro soccer team.

"Hooked" is too mild a term. Spellbound? Maybe, I guess. But whatever I was, it began a love affair with the club.

A year later, I bought season tickets - the first and only time I’ve ever bought season tickets for any club.* And a year after that, I asked Manager of Operations Liz Balasco if I, as a writer, could do anything to help.

(*Rhode Island Stingrays eason tickets: $50. Hot dog: $1. Watching pro soccer in your hometown: Priceless.)

"Sure - do you want to be the media director?"

It's pretty obvious what my answer was. So, every match, I arrived an hour early, bantered with Chuck, our animated PA guy*, Liz and her daughter, Chelsea, and her cousin Liz in the pressbox. Then, I got to watch free soccer and then write about it. I know. I'm a total soccer dork.

(*One of my regrets: I never found out Chuck's last name. He was on a first name basis with everyone, so it's possible I simply forgot.)

Last year, same situation, but a different stadium. The club stationed itself at my alma mater - Rhode Island College - for the 2009 season. There were whispers that Pierce Field had become too expensive. Toward the end of the season, there were more disturbing whispers: the club was losing alot of money. It probably wouldn't survive next year. Yeah, right.

Well, my skepticism croaked this morning when I asked Liz about the upcoming season. The following reply, for all intents and purposes, obliterated my morning:

"There is no longer a Stingray team."

Liz went on to say that it was too expensive to run the club and the return (or lack thereof) wasn't enough. And I understood. They didn't draw much. There were times where the players literally outnumbered the fans. Coach Pereira sometimes granted kids free admission. And for a few games, the Stingrays had a makeshift supporters section composed entirely of sugar-riddled (I hope) pre-teens loudly cheering the club on.

From a business perspective, it makes perfect sense to close shop. Stadium rentals are expensive. So are the kits, food service, and travel accommodations. I suspect the gate receipts and sponsors barely covered basic expenses. If someone told me today they actually made a profit, I would've thought it was an April Fool's Joke.

I wrote earlier this year how hard it was to swallow the LA Sol folding. And it was. They were a great team.

But this one hurts alot more. It hurts for a host of reasons. The first being that they played a short bike ride away. Of course, it wasn't just that. They were a Rhode Island team, even if 90% of the state didn't even know they even existed. Good players came though. You've probably heard about few of them: Geoff Cameron, Danleigh Borman, and Nico Colaluca.

It's true: Rhode Island isn't known for much. We may be the smallest state in the union, but we have a rich soccer tradition. To me, the Stingrays were more than what you could see on the pitch. Way more.

Despite their won-loss records, the nearly-empty stadiums, and the financial losses incurred, they were the baton holders of that tradition. It was handed to them by the Oceaneers, who grabbed it from Punta Delgada, who grabbed it from the Pawtucket Rangers, who grabbed it from the Howard & Bullough, who grabbed it from J & P Coats.

You have to understand: the Stringrays were more than just another club in PDL. They were a part of a legacy.


Tony Biscaia said...

Please say it ain't so, and I'll forgive you for the worst April Fools joke ever.

Tony Biscaia said...

wow, posting comments got errors and didnt seem to work? Just call me mr. commentaminute.

BrianTheOC said...

I wish it weren't true, Tone. Of course, this opens the door for me to start my own PDL club. Now, if I could only find a few $10,000 bills between now and next season...

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