There aren't many professional sports franchises that get a birthday party thrown by fans.
On the Chicago Fire's 15th anniversary Monday night, the staff, current players and former players celebrated with fans who paid $97 to attend a party at the Chicago History Museum, and about 500 people attended the event organized by the Fire's supporters groups. Proceeds from the admission charge and a silent auction benefited the Fire's charitable foundation.
"It's really remarkable for that to happen," said Peter Wilt, the Fire's first general manager. "A team loved so much by their fans that they would volunteer so many hours of their time to put on an event like this, and this is first-class, obviously. It's not just some backyard barbecue."
"We were urged to do it a couple of years ago by the now-head coach, Frank Klopas," said organizer Tom Dunmore of Section 8 Chicago. "We've always celebrated Oct. 8 because it's the day the club was founded and the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, and he urged us to take it to another level, a bigger celebration to really bring the fans and the players and the team together. ... This being the 15th year we thought we really need to blow it out."
On Oct. 8, 1997, Wilt stood on Navy Pier and announced the team's new name on the 126th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. Back then, fans and skeptics wondered if the team was just a novelty and would fade away like so many other sports franchises.
Nobody wonders anymore.
Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov, a legend of the international game and a Fire player 2000-2002, returned to Chicago just for the celebration, as did Fire originals Ante Razov, Peter Nowak, Chris Armas, Zach Thornton and Diego Gutierrez. Hometown hero Brian McBride of Arlington Heights posed for countless photos. Much of the expansion Montreal Impact coaching staff was there, led by former Fire midfielder Jesse Marsch, now the Impact coach, and assistants Mike Sorber, Denis Hamlett and Impact scout Lubos Kubik, each with a Fire connection. Even former Fire midfielder Justin Mapp, a current Impact player, was there, mingling with fans along with most of the current Fire players, while a video of the Fire's 1998 MLS Cup win played on the big screen.
"It's fantastic," Gutierrez said, "and it just lets us know that what really seems to be a short time, 15 years, building and cultivating a tradition, is something that these fans and this team have been very successful at. I feel honored to be a part of it. ... But really what I like most about this is that it's done by the fans. For guys like me, Peter, Chris, that means the world. It really does."
For young Fire players such as defenders Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba, in case they didn't understand their club's culture before, Monday's celebration gave them an eye-opening lesson.
"We have tremendous memories, and that's the true wealth that you get from playing a sport that you love," Gutierrez said. "It may not pay you the biggest dollars, it's not paying you in euros, but you're really left with a whole lot of wealth in terms of who you are as a person."
For the supporters throwing the party, there were no regrets.
"A lot of work, a lot of volunteers not getting paid," Dunmore said. "But it's a lot of fun too, and it's an honor seeing some of the legends come back into town and the current team is mostly coming tonight, so getting all those guys together, for us as fans makes it worth all the effort."
That the party came just a day after the current squad clinched a playoff berth just added to celebration.
"I'm just really happy that we're having this party at a time when we're being successful at the present moment," Fire president of soccer operations Javier Leon said. "Maybe we should have this party every year."
Follow Orrin's soccer reports on Twitter @Orrin_Schwarz.