Monday, November 26, 2007

Turkey Bowl in Tampa, 11/23/67

Yankees-Red Sox. Michigan-Ohio State. Coke-Pepsi. Aniston-Jolie.

Heated rivals all, but frankly those feuds are child's play compared to the bitter rivalry that once took place annually on Thanksgiving Day in Tampa: Hillsborough vs. Plant.

Forty years ago, the Hillsborough Terriers and Plant Panthers had their 40th meeting on the gridiron. The clash was extra special because it was held for the first time at the newly opened Tampa Stadium. A then-record 16,500 fans were there, making it the most-attended high school football game in Tampa's history.

With a 7-3 record, Henry B. Plant High School entered the contest reeling from a defeat the previous week to King, a 6-0 setback that cost the Panthers a share of the city and Western Conference championships. In addition, the Panthers lost offensive standout Tommy Trent to a broken collarbone suffered during practice. Trent had scored eight touchdowns for the Panthers during the season, and his contributions would be sorely missed against Hillsborough High School.

Meanwhile, the Terriers entered the game with a two-game losing streak and their own set of problems. The day before the game, Hillsborough Coach Bernie Wilson wrestled with allowing two Terriers to play. Split end Ronnie Rodgers -- a potential All-America candidate -- and defensive standout Gene Brito had been suspended from the team for skipping class without permission. A unanimous team vote allowed them to play in the game, and the Terriers agreed to obey certain punishment standards in the future.

The game played out as defensive struggle. Plant's stingy defense forced Hillsborough quarterback Cecil Kent into three first-half interceptions. Chris Anderson provided Plant's only score of the game on a four-yard touchdown run with 2:46 left in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.

Hillsborough's defense, which allowed 101 yards on the ground in the first half, rose to the challenge in the second half, allowing only five rushing yards. Trailing by seven near the end of the third quarter, the Terriers put together a 56-yard drive on the back of senior running back Roger McKinney, who carried five times for 49 yards during that series. Cecil Kent capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown run and the extra point tied the score, 7-7.

Late in the fourth quarter, Hillsborough’s Don Lynn blocked a punt by Plant’s Gary Segar, putting the Terriers at the Panthers’ 44 yard line. Hillsborough advanced to the 15 before calling on its star running back one more time.

With 5:48 remaining, McKinney's 25-yard field goal -- the first of his career -- sailed over the crossbar with little room to spare, giving Hillsborough a 10-7 lead. His superlative performance occurred despite twice leaving the field with leg cramps. After the game, McKinney gave credit to the wind for assisting on his game-winning kick.

"The wind was blowing from the right to the left so I kicked it to the right, and the wind did the rest," he said.

In his final high school game, McKinney accounted for 151 total yards and the game-deciding points. The senior finished his Hillsborough career by running 20 times for 151 yards on the day. The Western Conference and city scoring champion in 1967, McKinney no doubt cherished his records that year, but as the clock showed goose eggs that afternoon, he likely took great pride in one other achievement. In three years of high school football with the Hillsborough Terriers, he never knew the sting of defeat against the Plant Panthers

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tony Saunders Joins the Devil Rays, 11/18/97

This month, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as we knew them ceased to exist – they will heretofore be known as the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago this week, not only were the Rays devils, but the team had no players – at least, not at the major league level. That’s why Nov. 18, 1997, should hold special significance as the day the Tampa Bay Devil Rays finally acquired major leaguers.

It was the day fans had longed for since March 9, 1995, when Major League Baseball announced that two new franchises would be placed in Phoenix and St. Petersburg starting in 1998. Up until November 1997, both franchises stockpiled their minor league systems with free agents and amateur draft picks. The expansion draft, however, presented the first opportunity to acquire bonafide major leaguers, and gave fans the chance to see the team’s Opening Day roster take shape.

With their first pick, the Devil Rays selected Anthony “Tony” Saunders, a coveted left-handed starting pitcher from the Florida Marlins. During his rookie season of 1997, Saunders went 4-6 and struck out 102 batters in a little more than 111 innings pitched, playing a key role in the Marlins’ first-ever World Series championship. Devil Rays General Manager Chuck LaMar likened Saunders’ changeup to that of another lefty, Tom Glavine, who has won two Cy Young Awards and more than 300 games. Conventional wisdom held that Saunders too would eventually become a dominant starter and assume the role of staff ace for the Devil Rays. Fate had other things in mind, however, for Saunders and Tampa Bay.

The term “hard-luck” barely even begins to describe Saunders’ debut season with the Devil Rays. He had the unfortunate distinction of winning just one of his first 19 starts, losing his first 12 overall at Tropicana Field. Even by the standards of an expansion team, Saunders seemed to get a raw deal whenever he took the mound. Despite a team-high 20 quality starts, no pitcher in the American League received worse run support in 1998 than Saunders. The Devil Rays, whose 620 runs were the fewest in the American League since 1992, scored two or fewer runs in 15 of Saunders’ 31 starts that season.

Saunders hoped to rebound from his dismal 1998 record of 6-15 with a breakout season in 1999. On April 22, he pitched one of his best games as a Devil Ray, a 1-0 victory over Baltimore in which he came within four outs of a no-hitter – despite plunking a batter and walking seven. The victory capped a three-game sweep of the Orioles, helping the second-year Devil Rays emerge as a surprise team in the American League East. The Devil Rays raced to a 22-20 start, and on May 21 found themselves only two games out of first place.

On May 26, Saunders took the hill against the visiting Texas Rangers. Facing Juan Gonzalez in the third inning, Saunders delivered a 3-and-2 fastball that went at least 10 feet wide of the plate. To those in attendance and watching on television, it quickly became apparent that what just transpired was more than a wild pitch. Saunders’ humerus bone – which runs from the shoulder to the elbow – shattered as he released the ball, leaving his left arm dangling grotesquely to the side. The sound of his arm breaking, followed by his screams of agonizing pain, are sounds those in attendance that day at Tropicana Field will never forget.

Tragically, history would repeat itself on Aug. 24, 2000. During the fifth start of his rehabilitation, Saunders broke his left arm again while pitching for the minor league St. Petersburg Devil Rays. This appeared to be the end of his career and soon after he took a job in Tampa Bay’s front office job as assistant to scouting and player development. Saunders officially retired from baseball in 2005 after an abbreviated comeback attempt with the Orioles in spring training.

Despite the disappointing trajectory of his career, it would be difficult to argue against Tampa Bay’s selection of Saunders. After all, who could have predicted that Saunders would only win just nine of his 40 starts for the Devil Rays? On that November day in 1997, his future, and that of the Rays, looked as bright as the team’s multi-colored logo. Few could have predicted the misfortunes that were ahead for Saunders, both in terms of his injuries and the shortness of his career.

As for Tampa Bay, after 10 seasons the newly renamed Rays appear to have finally found another staff ace on whom to pin their hopes. He’s another young lefty, just like Saunders, by the name of Scott Kazmir.