Monday, April 28, 2008

"Two Gun" Tommy Licata, 4/26/73

Boxer Tony Licata, who turned pro in 1969, did not originally hail from Tampa. The southern middleweight champion from New Orleans, however, found that his success here made Tampa feel like home sweet home.

Leading up to his April 26, 1973, bout with Ernie Burns, Licata posted an overall mark of 16-0 in the city of Tampa, with three of those wins coming as an amateur. Pretty impressive, but not nearly as impressive as his overall career numbers at the time: 30 wins, zero losses, and three draws.

Burns, whose career mark at the time was just 14-7, would have his hands full against Licata in their bout at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. Although trained by the legendary Angelo Dundee, Burns’ record seemed to indicate that he would serve as little more than a tune-up for the undefeated Licata.

Licata, in fact, had his eyes on a target much more formidable than Burns: a title shot at middleweight champion Carlos Monzon of Argentina.

“I hope it is this year,” Licata said.

Although his crack at Monzon would not come until June of 1975, Licata had no intention of looking past Burns, a converted southpaw from Miami who earned the nickname “The Upset Kid.”

As fighters, Licata and Burns could not have had less in common. “Two Gun” Tony, as he was known for his quick combination use of left and right punches, relied on speed to compensate for his lack of a power game. Burns, on the other hand, came in with ten knockout victories to his credit and a reputation for being hard to intimidate.

His manager, Lou Fleischer, described Burns as a “fighter who can go into a strange and hostile ring, meet the opposition and bring home the bacon.” He added that Burns would not be intimidated by Licata or the Armory setting because “he (Burns) carries his own referees – his fists.”

In 33 fights, Licata had tasted the canvas only one time. In a match in Tampa against Santiago Rosa on June 8, 1970 – almost a full three years earlier – Licata took a vicious right when expecting a left, going down for a mandatory eight-count. Licata captured the bout on points and learned a valuable lesson in the process: never discount a fighter’s “lesser” hand.
Still, Licata entered the fight knowing where Burns could hurt him the most. “I know his hardest punch,” Licata said, “will be in his left hand.”

His left, as it turned out, was the hand Licata used to the greatest effect in the match. A judicious use of jabs and hooks with his left, while keeping his right hand mostly holstered, allowed him to register enough points with the judges to cruise to a comfortable decision.
The fight lacked any knockdowns, although one of Licata’s rarely-used rights buckled Burns’ knees in the tenth round. Licata took his share of shots from Burns during the briskly moving affair, though the punches seemed to have little impact on the tough Licata.

Still undefeated after 34 fights, Licata continued his run of success with 18 more wins to improve to 52-0-3. He lost the first match of his career on points to Ramon Mendez in Milan, Italy, but returned the favor against Mendez just one month later in New Orleans.

This set the stage for his long-awaited tilt against Carlos Monzon at Madison Square Garden for the WBA Middleweight title. Although he would go down in defeat as a result of a TKO in the tenth round, Licata’s place in Tampa boxing lore would remain secure.

After a decade-long career, Licata retired in 1980 with an overall mark of 61-7-4. His record in Tampa, however, was a dominating 22-0. He may have hailed from the Big Easy, but Licata couldn’t have felt more at home in the ring anywhere else.

Note: Rounds 9-10 of the Monzon-Licata fight can be seen on YouTube at the address.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Three-Way Doubleheader, 4/20/73

In the days before the pursuit of a Major League team became the focus of the Tampa Bay area, the Class A Florida State League dominated the local baseball scene.

Here in Tampa, the Tarpons reigned supreme, playing their home games at Al Lopez Field. Although both the Tarpons and the stadium are now part of history, today the Tampa Yankees carry the flag locally for the Florida State League.

Now in its 10th decade of organized baseball, the FSL began its 43rd season of play 35 years ago this week. It would prove to be a season like no other in the history of the league.

The departures of Orlando and Cocoa from the FSL left each division with only five teams: Tampa, St. Petersburg, Winter Haven, Lakeland and Daytona Beach in the Northern division, and Miami, Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach and West Palm Beach in the Southern division.

An unusual scheduling solution would be needed to correct the imbalance of having an odd number of teams in each division. Rather than having one team per division sit out each night, costing the team much needed revenue, the league found a way to keep every team playing, every night.

The answer: a three-way doubleheader.

Here's how it went down on April 20, 1973, when the Winter Haven Red Sox and Lakeland Tigers both visited the Tampa Tarpons. Following Tampa's 1-0 victory over Winter Haven in the evening's first contest, Lakeland took the field for a brief practice on the infield.

Shortly after that, the second game of the doubleheader began. The Tigers topped the Tarpons in the nightcap 2-1, perhaps the beneficiaries of playing only one half of the doubleheader.

Despite a seven-inning limit per game, the strange promotion seemingly put the host team at a disadvantage. Factor in the normal fatigue associated with a doubleheader, then consider the second game played against a completely fresh opponent.

Major league farm directors and even the players themselves contended that the abundance of doubleheaders would stunt the development of young players. A longer season, up to 150 games from 138 the previous year, and a paired down roster from 25 to 21 players, were other concerns.

In 1972, the Florida State League did not schedule a single doubleheader. By July 4, the Tarpons were scheduled to have participated in at least 64 doubleheaders, 48 of the three-team variety.

George McDonald, Jr., in his first season as the president of the FSL, acknowledged the unusual schedule would be hard on players, create long waits for teams, and could foresee the difficulty of two teams sharing one clubhouse. Still, McDonald believed that because the scheduling had been incorporated once before by the Carolina League that it could succeed in Florida as well.

Club owners, McDonald said, "wanted to retain the divisional set-up and minimize travel between divisions." And, he said, "The schedule is great for the fans in that they can see more than two teams play at one time."

Three teams, two games, one night, to be precise.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Dixie International Tennis Championship, 4/68

The 41st Dixie International Tennis Tournament open play 40 years ago this week under somber circumstances. On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, setting off several days of both rioting and mourning throughout the country. Here in Tampa, tournament organizers scheduled matches around the national day of observance for King.

The tournament also took on a different look in 1968 because this was the first Dixie International played in the so-called “Open Era” of tennis. The “Open Era” at last allowed professionals and amateurs to compete together in the same events. In prior years, only amateurs were permitted to play in the most prestigious events such as Wimbledon. As a result, some of the top players of all-time were not eligible to compete in Grand Slam events. For the first time in many years, standout amateurs turned professionals such as Roy Emerson and John Newcombe would not be on hand for the Dixie International, an amateur-only event.

As usual though, the Dixie featured an array of international stars mixed together with the best local talent. This included a 36-year-old Harry Lee Coe III, who had starred on the mound as a pitcher for the Tampa Tarpons before beginning his rise in the Hillsborough County legal community. The future-judge, who would earn the nickname “Hangin’ Harry,” hung a surprising first-round upset on Israel’s Joseph Stobblitz, 6-8, 6-3, 7-5.

Several other locals were not so fortunate in their first round match-ups.

Second seeded Istvan Gulyas, a 37-year-old from Hungary, dispatched of Tampa’s Bill Cantrell, 6-1-, 6-1. Cantrell, then just a 16-year-old high school student, today recalls the thrill of playing in the tournament.

“I remember being a ball boy for the tournament as a kid, so to play in the event was just a great experience,” Cantrell says. “I even got to play my match on Court One. The players like Guylas and Santana were such gentlemen, too.”

Australian Ray Ruffels likewise made quick work of Tampa city high school champion Mike Strickland, 6-2, 6-1.

In his second round match, Coe would feel the wrath of the Hungarian nicknamed the “Road Runner.” The defending Dixie International champion Gulyas simply outmatched Coe, dominating from start to finish in a 6-0, 6-2 rout.

Manuel “Manolo” Santana of Spain, who dominated the Dixie International by winning the title three times from 1962-64, arrived in Tampa at 11 a.m. on the day of his first match. The tournament’s top seed, Santana earned an automatic berth into the quarterfinals. By 2 p.m., Santana was on the court to face his doubles partner, Tampa’s own Andy Garcia. Despite playing his best tennis of the tournament, Garcia proved no match for one of the top amateurs in the world, going down in defeat 6-3, 6-2.

“I thought I played as well as I ever played,” Garcia said. “He even got points on some of the best returns I’ve ever made.”

A 6-4, 7-5 upset in the quarters by Mark Cox of England over Yugoslavian Zelko Franulovic set up a date in the semifinals with Guylas. The lefty from London took the defending champion to the brink, and nearly pulled off another upset.

After taking the first two sets by the shocking scores of 6-2, 6-0, Guylas humbled Cox in the third by posting a 6-0 score of his own. In the fourth set, Cox had a chance to finish off Guylas, leading 5-2 with a match point. Guylas would rally, however, taking the set 9-7, before closing out the fifth by a score of 6-2 to take the match in five grueling sets. Guylas overcame five match points by Cox en route to the victory.

Santana ran into a determined opponent in New Yorker Herb Fitzgibbon, whose booming serve helped keep the semifinal match close. Ultimately Santana’s experience and shot-making abilities helped him prevail 6-4, 8-6, 6-4, to set the stage for a clash of champions in the men’s final.

The 29-year-old Santana would find himself in a dogfight against the exceptionally conditioned Guylas, almost eight years his senior. Santana outlasted Guylas, however, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 to capture his fourth Dixie title.

“Open Era” or not, Santana expressed at the time a lack of interest in turning professional.

“I’ve got a good position,” he said, “and I’ll just keep on playing amateur tennis and playing for my country.”

That summer Santana would go on to win a gold medal in men’s singles – a demonstration event -- during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. One of the great champions in the history of the Dixie International, the Spaniard’s career would forever be immortalized in 1984 with his enshrinement into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Devil Rays 1st Ever Win, 4/1/98

The date March 31, 1998, should always hold special significance to Tampa Bay baseball fans. After two decades of wishing and hoping for a major league team, ten years ago this week the Tampa Bay Devil Rays finally took to the field against the Detroit Tigers.

In front of a packed house at Tropicana Field, the first game in Devil Rays history didn't exactly qualify as a storybook beginning. Detroit’s four-run second inning off $35 million pitcher Wilson Alvarez soon turned into an 11-0 deficit after five innings, and the historic day ended on a dismal note with the Tigers winning 11-6.

The following day, April 1, Detroit became an April Fool’s Day victim as the Devil Rays recorded the first victory in team history. With nearly 15,000 fewer fans in attendance than on Opening Day, the Devil Rays unveiled their prized acquisition Rolando Arrojo, a defector from Havana, Cuba, who signed a free agent contract with Tampa Bay.

The starting pitcher won 160 games in ten seasons on the Cuban National Team and earned a gold medal as a member of the 1992 Olympic team. At one point during his baseball career in Cuba, Arrojo made as little as $11 per month. In 1997, Arrojo signed his first major league contract for $7 million.

The pitcher, who after the game admitted to being "anxious and excited," surrendered three runs in the first inning. Tony Clark and Tampa native Luis Gonzalez hit back-to-back doubles to spark the inning for Detroit. Following a walked batter, Arrojo rallied by striking out the last two hitters of the inning to keep the score a respectable 3-0.

Tampa Bay responded with a two-run first inning, which featured doubles by Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff. Boggs and McGriff, products of Plant and Jefferson high schools in Tampa, were brought in by the Devil Rays to add some local flavor to the expansion franchise. Outstanding players in their own right, the two would contribute offensive and defensive production, as well as name recognition, throughout their stints with the Devil Rays.

Tampa Bay took the lead in the fourth, breaking out with a four-run inning. John Flaherty singled with one out, and then advanced to third base on an opposite field single by Rich Butler. Kevin Stocker, who tripled on his first at-bat in the second inning, came to the plate with runners on first and third with one out.

The shortstop, whose trade to Tampa Bay in 1997 for outfielder Bobby Abreu would prove to be one of the most debated and maligned in franchise history, nevertheless came through in this situation, lining a single to left to even up the score at 3-3.

Leadoff hitter Quinton McCracken followed Stocker's hit with a single of his own to load the bases. Miguel Cairo's ground ball to short forced McCracken at second, but a hustling Cairo beat the throw to first, allowing Butler to score and give Tampa Bay a 4-3 lead.

A Wade Boggs single then drove in Stocker from third and forced Tigers' starter Brian Moehler out of the game. McGriff knocked in his second run of the day to complete the scoring for the Devil Rays, who ended the fourth with a 6-3 lead.

Tampa Bay tacked on another run in the sixth to make the score 7-4, and after 107 pitches thrown through six innings of work, Arrojo was pulled from his first major league start. What followed would foreshadow the following decade of Tampa Bay baseball -- inconsistent pitching by the bullpen.

Over the following two innings, Detroit would put seven of its following nine batters on base. Reliever Ramon Tatis alone allowed four of the five hitters he faced to reach. Despite the Detroit surge, however, the Devil Rays allowed only two runners to score and held a fragile 7-6 lead. Rich Butler gave his team some breathing room with a home run – the first of his major league career -- to make the score 8-6 after seven frames. Detroit answered back in the eighth by scoring a run off Albie Lopez, who had walked the first two batters of the inning.

Jim Mecir, who would go on to be the bullpen workhorse throughout the 1998 season, set down the side without allowing any more damage. Tampa Bay put an end to the suspense by batting around in the home half of the eighth inning.

Fred McGriff, who finished the game with 4 runs batted in, provided a two-run single and Dave Martinez singled in a run to increased Tampa Bay's lead to 11-7. The Tigers tacked on a run in the ninth off closer Roberto Hernandez to provide one last dose of drama, but the Devil Rays would hold on for an 11-8 victory.

In many ways, the first win in team history was as memorable as the first game played just a day prior. The Devil Rays cranked out a season-high 18 hits, batted around the lineup twice (in the 4th and 8th innings), and Rolando Arrojo earned the victory in his major league debut.

Arrojo would go on to win 14 games in 1998, earn a selection as the team's first ever All Star representative, and finish second in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting. Although Tampa Bay only won 62 more times during that inaugural season, the first win certainly proved the sweetest for both Arrojo and the Devil Rays.