Monday, June 30, 2008

Tampa Bay Bandits vs Denver Gold, 6/27/83

As the first regular season in the history of the United States Football League neared its conclusion 25 years ago this week, the Tampa Bay Bandits found themselves on the cusp of a playoff berth. With a 10-6 record and two games left to play, the Bandits needed wins in both games, and a lot of help from other teams, to force a three-way tie atop the division along with the Chicago Blitz and Michigan Panthers.

Multiple losses to the Blitz, as well as a disappointing setback to the Boston Breakers in Week 16, threatened to derail Tampa Bay's once-promising season. With virtually every tie-breaker working against the Bandits, even victories in their final two games offered no guarantee of a playoff berth. Despite the long odds, the Bandits had much to look forward to as they prepared for a Week 17, Monday-night showdown against the Denver Gold on June 27, 1983.

On June 22, news broke that the Bandits had reached an agreement with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver - and former University of Florida standout - Cris Collinsworth on a multi-year deal worth nearly $3 million. The team would have to wait for Collinsworth until 1985, however, as his contract with the Bengals ran through the 1984 season. Luring away one of the National Football League's premier wide receivers was a major coup for the Bandits and the USFL. The Bandits planned to formally announce the Collinsworth deal during halftime of the nationally televised Monday-night game.

Of more immediate concern to the Bandits and their fans was the impending return of quarterback John Reaves. While the summer blockbuster "Return of the Jedi" packed theaters and dominated the public consciousness, Bandit wide receiver Danny Buggs likened the comeback of Reaves, who had missed nine weeks with an injury, as their very own "Return of the Jedi."

Missing nearly 2½ months with a broken right wrist, Reaves expressed excitement about returning with his team still in the thick of the playoff chase. Tampa Bay head coach Steve Spurrier, however, coyly offered no guarantees that Reaves would start against Denver, even though he took a majority of repetitions in practice that week with the first-team offense.

Spurrier also hinted that even if Reaves started over backup Jimmy Jordan, the quarterbacks could possibly split time under center.

"If we have a little trouble, if we fall two touchdowns behind or something, we're going to have to put somebody else in," Spurrier said.

In his one previous appearance against Denver, Reaves set a league record with 63 passing attempts -- completing 38 for 357 yards -- in a 22-16 overtime triumph. Reaves would struggle to match those numbers in his second go-round against the Gold.

In front of a Tampa Stadium crowd of more than 46,000 on "Fan Appreciation Night," Reaves encountered a rocky reception from the Denver defense. The clearly rusty quarterback struggled to get into a rhythm, throwing two interceptions while completing 7 of 13 passes for just 72 yards. Fortunately, Tampa Bay managed to stake itself to an early two-touchdown lead.

Nose tackle Greg Nordgren intercepted a Craig Penrose pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown. The Bandits then converted the two-point attempt to take an early 8-0 lead. Running back Gary Anderson added a rushing touchdown from the one-yard line with 6:55 left in the first quarter to cap a six-play, 56-yard drive.

The Gold, however, stormed back and took the lead before the half. Opting for six points over a field goal attempt, Denver successfully converted a 4th-and-2 from the 3-yard line when Penrose hit tight end Bob Niziolek across the middle for the score. Following a touchdown plunge from the 1-yard line by Harry Sydney and a failed two-point conversion, the Bandits held a 15-13 lead.

With the first half winding down, Reaves' second interception of the game gave Denver the ball back with a chance to take the lead. After a promising start to the game, a 41-yard field goal by the Gold with just 17 seconds left before intermission sent Tampa Bay into the locker room trailing 16-15.

True to his pre-game warning, Spurrier relieved the ineffective Reaves and put Jordan in at quarterback to start the second half. But Jordan fared no better than Reaves early on as his first pass was intercepted by Denver in Tampa Bay territory. The Gold quickly marched down the field and Sydney's second score of the game - this time from two yards out - increased Denver's lead to 23-15.

Zenon Andrusyshyn's 47-yard field goal with 13:03 left in the game cut the Gold lead to 23-18, and with Tampa Bay's playoff hopes dwindling by the minute, Mother Nature intervened on behalf of the Bandits. Despite a forecast that only predicted a 20-percent chance of thunderstorms, the fourth quarter featured a mega-downpour typical of the summertime in Tampa.

The severity of the storm, coupled with thunder and a few nearby lightning strikes, prompted Spurrier to take his team off the field and into the locker room with 8:32 remaining. A 50-minute delay followed, which allowed enough time for the team to regroup and come up with a key offensive play to put them over the top.

On the Bandits' second play after the game resumed, Jimmy Jordan lofted a perfect touch pass to Eric Truvillion for a 44-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion run by Greg Boone gave the Bandits a 26-23 lead with less than 7 minutes remaining.

"During the break, we talked about that long pass," Spurrier said. "We hadn't tried to go long that much. (Eric Truvillion) ran a curl-and-go and Jordan made a great throw."

Fortunately for Tampa Bay, the three-point lead held up and the Bandits were able to run out the clock to preserve the much-needed victory. Unfortunately, it would be their last one of the season. With the playoffs on the line the next week at Birmingham, the Bandits fell to the Stallions, 29-17, to end their inaugural season with an 11-7 record. It was a bitter finish for a team that won nine of its first 12 games, only to stumble down the stretch and fall short of the playoffs.

Unbeknownst to the Bandits at the time, the future had more bad news in store: prized acquisition Cris Collinsworth would never play a single down for Tampa Bay. Immediately prior to the 1985 season, he failed a physical for the Bandits because of an ankle injury, voiding his contract with the Bandits. Collinsworth went on to play four more years in the NFL, while the Bandits and the USFL folded after the 1985 season.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Stroh's Basketball Challenge, 6/18/83

On May 31, 1983, the Philadelphia 76ers completed a dominating post-season by sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in four games in the NBA Finals. The MVP of the regular season and the Finals, Moses Malone famously predicted before the playoffs that the Sixers would win "Fo, fo, fo," intimating that his team would sweep each of the three rounds of the playoffs. Malone nearly hit the mark, as the 76ers won 12 of 13 games en route to the title.

Remarkably, less than a month after wrapping up the season, Malone, along with 17 other NBA stars, were scheduled to appear in an exhibition game on June 18 at the USF Sun Dome. Officially called the Stroh's Basketball Challenge, the game boasted an impressive list of stars, such as Artis Gilmore, Darryl Dawkins, Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith, and Adrian Dantley. The exhibition game was meant to promote the sport of basketball in Tampa, at the time seen as a possible future location of an NBA expansion franchise.

On the morning of the game, Sally Ride made history by becoming America's first woman in space as a crewmember of the space shuttle Challenger. While Ride described her experience as "definitely an E-ticket," back on Earth a few hundred basketball fans in Tampa would soon be demanding refunds on their own tickets.

Prior to the game, Stephen Greenberg, spokesman for game promoter Leisure Entertainment, announced to the crowd of 7,000 that Malone had backed out of the game and would not play because of a knee injury. In fact, Malone had not even made the trip from his home in Houston to Tampa. Showered by boos, Greenberg offered refunds to anyone wishing for their money back. Nearly 400 patrons took advantage of the offer.

"We tried to get him to at least come in and make an appearance, but he declined," Greenberg said. "We don't want to be known as fly-by-night promoters. This really upsets us from a credibility standpoint in the area."

For his part, Malone said he suffered the knee injury playing in a game of pick-up basketball a few days earlier, and severe swelling prompted his doctor to advise him not to play. Malone expressed regret at disappointing the fans in Tampa, but felt optimistic about perhaps bringing the 76ers down for an exhibition game in the fall.

Malone wasn't the only player, however, to pull out at the last minute. Other no-shows included Calvin Natt, Tom McMillan, Bill Garnett and Eric "Sleepy" Floyd. Leisure Entertainment scrambled at the last minute and were able to bring in Gene Banks, Danny Schayes, and Malone's teammate in Philadelphia, Maurice Cheeks.

Although the game would have to go on without its headliners, fans were still treated to a high-tempo performance featuring end-to-end action showcasing some of basketball’s finest playmakers.

Guard Darrell Griffith of the Utah Jazz, the 1981 NBA Rookie of the Year, led all scorers with 36 points, including three 3-pointers, to spark his West stars to a 154-150 triumph over the East.
"These summer games are definitely made for the guards," Griffith said after the game. "Everyone's trying to get themselves in shape for the regular season so they want to run the transition game during the summer. Quickness was the big factor. (The East) definitely couldn't keep up."

Charles Bradley of the Boston Celtics, who tallied 24 points and played for the West to even up the rosters, said of the fast break-heavy game that he'd never "been involved in anything that required this much running."

The no-shows not withstanding, the event promoters could not have been more pleased with the level of play or the turnout at the Sun Dome, nearly 3,000 more fans than were needed to break even on the event.

Now twenty-five years later, the NBA still comes back to Tampa nearly every October for exhibition games at the St. Pete Times Forum. The league has settled on Miami and Orlando as its permanent outposts in the state, so it remains unlikely that Tampa will ever become anything more than an occasional host. A visit from Moses Malone, however, would still be most welcome.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Catching Up With Don Zimmer, Part II

Don Zimmer, a senior baseball advisor with the Tampa Bay Rays, is one of the true legends of the game. Zimmer, in the midst of his 60th season of professional baseball, has played with and managed Hall of Famers, played on and coached World Series winning teams, and seen all there is to see in the game of baseball. His resume too long to list, his accomplishments too numerous to mention, Zimmer epitomizes the sport and has a story for every occasion. “Zim” recently sat down to talk about his career, the state of the Rays, and other observations. The following is the conclusion of a two-part interview with Don Zimmer.

Q. You played alongside and managed numerous Hall of Famers during your career. Who stands out in your mind among those players?

A. Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Ryne Sandberg, Carl Yastrzemski, oh my God! I was with all of them. Some of them I managed, some of them I played with. You can go on and on. It's great that I can even sit here and even think about those guys and how lucky I've been.

Q. What about some players who aren't in the Hall of Fame?

A. Now, two guys that aren't in the Hall of Fame that I can mention real quick are Jim Rice and Andre Dawson. As far as I'm concerned, they are Hall of Famers. They were the total package. Jim Rice came to Boston and had to play in front of the Green Monster. He wasn't very good defensively at first. Johnny Pesky and I were coaches with Boston at the time. Never once did we have to tell Jimmy Rice to get out in left field to hit him balls. He'd come to us. He wore Pesky and I out hitting him balls off that Monster. Then Jimmy Rice went on to become a very, very good leftfielder through hard work. As for Andre, he'd come to the ballpark and got his knees taped up, first thing. Then he'd head out for practice. After that he would go back in the clubhouse, take the tape off, and get re-taped to be ready for the game. Andre is a man's man. He was a phenomenal player, and better than that, a phenomenal human being.

Q. Does this Rays team remind you of any teams that you managed during your career?

A. I don't like to compare players or compare teams, but in 1989 I managed a team, the Chicago Cubs, that everyone in America picked to be last coming out of Spring Training. If I was a writer, I would have picked us last, too. After 35 games we were 17-18, and I thought that was a hell of a record for us since we had several rookies in the starting lineup. We'd win a game, lose a game, win a game, and then before you know it was the All-Star break and we're up there with the Cardinals, Mets and Expos. We were all within two games of each other.

So at that point, we said, "Hell, why can't we win?" Then the media said we couldn't win with a rookie catcher. So I said, "What do you want me to do? Go out and get a veteran catcher who can't do anything, or a rookie catcher that's doing a little bit of everything." That catcher was Joe Girardi, who won a couple of World Series rings with us in New York and is now the manager of the Yankees.

When we clinched the Eastern Division championship up in Montreal, it was the biggest thrill I ever had in baseball in 60 years. If we'd have won in Boston, we were figured to win. We won 90 games every year, but always wound up second. They picked us to win. Everyone picked the Cubs to finish last.

That team reminds me a little bit of this team. Some youth, a few veterans, and before you know it you start believing in yourself. Instead of coming to the ballpark everyday thinking, "Here comes another loss."

When you lose so many, it's only natural that you're going to feel that way. I mean, these guys can't wait to get to the ballpark. I'm having fun today watching them have fun. For someone to hit a walk off double or home run, and I see them jumping up and down at home plate, that's a thrill for me.

Q. What has been the main difference this year?

A. Well, there are a lot of differences. One, we went into Spring Training with a better bunch of guys. We've got a better clubhouse. A lot of people don't want to buy that, but that to me is a very important thing of having the right chemistry with your 25 men, your manager and your coaches. I could see this spring, before we even played a game, that we had a better group of individuals. Now even the writers can enjoy walking into the clubhouse, instead of walking in and waiting for something to explode. I think that's where it started, having a greater group of people. Not only that, but we've got more talent.

It's great for me to see some of these guys pitching the way they are. The catcher, Dioner Navarro, playing the way he is. The third baseman, Evan Longoria, doesn't have to take a backseat defensively to anyone in baseball. He's going to struggle at times at the plate because he's a young kid in the big leagues for the first time. But if you watch him, he looks like a ten-year veteran. When a guy's not hitting, lots of times his defense falls. Well, I don't know who could play any better than he has at third base. So many things, the trade that the organization made to get Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. That was a big move.

Last year when we made that trade, people wondered how "Aki" (Akinori Iwamura) was going to make the transition to second base. I said, "There's gonna be nothing to it, this guy's an athlete. He's gonna go over there and play like heck." Which to me, he has. He's done a great job. We're better. How much better, I don't know. It's actually fun to watch them, though.

Q. So can we expect to see you again next season?

A. First of all, I'll tell you the same thing I tell everybody. People come up to me around September and ask if I'm coming back. I never answer that, because first of all you've got to be asked back. Then you make a decision. If I say to you, "Oh I'm going to be back next year." Well, how the heck do I know that? They might have different ideas. So I just play it by ear. The way I feel today, if I am asked back, I'll be in Port Charlotte for Spring Training next year. If I'm not asked back, that's alright too. I've had a great ride, and nobody could be any luckier than I've been in this game.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Catching Up With Don Zimmer, Part I

Don Zimmer, a senior baseball advisor with the Tampa Bay Rays, is one of the true legends of the game. Zimmer, in the midst of his 60th season of professional baseball, has played with and managed Hall of Famers, played on and coached World Series winning teams, and seen all there is to see in the game of baseball. His resume too long to list, his accomplishments too numerous to mention, Zimmer epitomizes the sport and has a story for every occasion. “Zim” recently sat down to talk about his career, the state of the Rays, and other observations. The following is Part One of my interview with Don Zimmer.

Q. Why did you decide to make the Bay area your permanent home?

A. In 1953, when I was playing for St. Paul of the American Association, I got hit in the head by a pitched ball and was unconscious for 13 days. It left me in bad shape. I was 175 pounds when I got hit in the head, and when I got out of the hospital 31 days later I weighed 138 pounds. I had to learn how to walk again and I had brain damage. So when I got to the point where I was finally getting back to my feet, my general manager with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Buzzi Bavasi, said to me, "Take your wife, and kids to Florida, recuperate, and I'll see you in Vero Beach in the spring." Well, luckily my in-laws had just moved from Cincinnati to St. Petersburg, so we stayed with them for a couple of months while we looked around to try and find a place to live.

Well, I loved the warm weather, and one day we went out on Treasure Island. It looked like a nice place, so that’s where we built our home. We lived in that house for 52 years, and a year and a half ago my wife decided she wanted to move to a condo, so now we live in up in Seminole.

Q. What has been your favorite thing about spending extra time in the area, first as a coach with the Yankees and now in your role with Tampa Bay?

A. Being able to spend time with family. My son, Thomas, who is now a scout with the San Francisco Giants, went to Boca Ciega High School, but I never got to see him play baseball because I was always in some other state. When I started working with the Yankees 13 years ago, his two boys played baseball at St. Pete High. Sometimes when our practices would let out in the afternoons, I would drive over and watch their games. I really enjoyed this because of what I missed out earlier in life with my son.

Q. In all of your time living in this community, you must have come across Al Lopez on a few occasions?

A. Oh yes, what a wonderful man. I think my favorite Al Lopez story goes back again, to my son when he played football at Boca Ciega High School.

Al's grandson played for Jesuit, or some school in Tampa, and they were playing down in Gulfport. My wife and I drive into the parking lot, and who do I pull alongside but Al Lopez. I said to him, "Al, what are you doing here?" He said "I've got a grandson who's the quarterback." I told him that my son is a halfback on the other team. It was funny running into him there of all places.

You know, I'd been over to his house and we'd sit around sometimes and have lunch in the afternoon. We had a lot of things in common. He had more age on him than I did, but while I knew some of the guys he was talking about, he knew all of the guys I was talking about! It was fun. He was one of the finest gentlemen in the world. You talk about class, he was the tops.

Q. You spent the 1983 season with the New York Yankees as an assistant coach for Billy Martin. Can you talk about what it was like to work with him after managing against him for so many years?

A. Billy was a baseball man - he knew the game and was a hell of a manager. He was tough on (assistant) coaches, though. Not so tough on players, but tough on coaches. We had a pitching coach named Art Fowler. We were sitting on the bench, and our pitcher would throw a curveball and they'd get a hit. Billy would say, "Art, how in the hell could he throw a curve in that situation?" Art had a great temperament, and he knew when Billy got hot to just back off. He'd let him rant and rave. So three innings later, the same hitter would come up and we'd throw him a fastball. So Billy would say, "Art, how in the hell could he throw him a fastball in that situation?" Fowler could not win any way he went, but he knew how to handle Billy.

Q. Do you think Billy Martin should be in the Hall of Fame?

A. I don't know the criteria for the Hall of Fame. What do I know? I thought (former Red Sox outfielder) Jim Rice should have been in the Hall of Fame seven or eight years ago and he isn't. I think (former Dodgers first baseman) Gil Hodges should be in there too, but I'm not the man to make that decision, anyhow. I guess I'm not qualified to make that decision. I know how I feel, but I'll let other people handle that.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tampa Bay Rowdies vs Manchester United, 5/28/78

Last week in Moscow, Manchester United outlasted rival Chelsea in penalty kicks in a thrilling UEFA Champions League final. As a result of winning the game -- the equivalent of our Super Bowl for fans of European soccer around the world -- the renowned club owned by Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer captured its first Champions League trophy since 1999.

Thirty years ago this week, however, the stakes were considerably lower as Manchester United made its first-ever trip to the United States -- the only time it has ever visited Tampa -- for a "friendly" (known in the U.S. as an exhibition match) against the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL on May 28, 1978.

As Americans prepared for the impending rise in the cost of postage stamps from 13 to 15 cents, Rowdies Coach Gordon Jago tried psyching up his lads, struggling with a 5-6 record, for the challenge of facing Manchester United. Prior to the game, Jago praised the British squad known as the Red Devils, calling it "the finest team that has ever been to Tampa" and said "it may be some time before we have a team of this caliber in our area again."

By the late 1970s, Manchester United could boast of a pedigree not unlike today's squad. In 1968, "Man U" became the first British team to win the European Cup, and the Red Devils were the proud owners of four Football Association Challenge Cup championships -- awarded to the best team in England's top league -- with its most recent in 1977.

The evening prior to the game, the aura and mystique surrounding Manchester was only enhanced when a British youth team of 14- and 15-year-olds known as the Manchester Schoolboys throttled a squad of their peers from Temple Terrace by a score of 20-0.

Then on Memorial Day weekend in front of more than 15,000 at Tampa Stadium, the Rowdies simply shocked every fan in the house. To nobody's shock, however, Manchester United opened the scoring at the 16:04 mark of the first half. Stuart "Pancho" Pearson, one of the team's best strikers, took a crossing pass from Stewart Houston and put it in the back of the net to make the score 1-0 in favor of the Red Devils. Pearson, a colorful figure in English soccer once ejected for calling a linesman a "bloody onion," celebrated the goal in his trademark style with a single raised right fist.

Anyone expecting Pearson's goal to be the first of many for Manchester United, however, would be sorely disappointed. Pearson had a chance for his second of the game at the 20:28 mark, but Rowdies goaltender Paul Hammond made a spectacular save to keep the deficit from doubling.

Trailing against a potent offense and in need of some firepower of their own, the Rowdies got much-needed contribution from their new acquisition, Mirandinha. Purchased from Sao Paulo of Brazil for $250,000, Mirandinha was Tampa Bay's largest cash deal to date and certainly came with credentials to match. The striker played for Brazil in the 1974 FIFA World Cup, and as a member of the Sao Paulo club, led his league in scoring from 1971-74. Just prior to joining the Rowdies, Mirandinha also helped guide Sao Paulo to the Brazilian Championship in February 1978.

His arrival came at the perfect time and the Rowdies got an almost immediate return on the investment. As the first half neared its conclusion, Mirandinha leaped to receive a high pass from midfielder Wes McLeod, settling the ball on his right thigh. He then flicked the ball to Mike Connell, who beat Manchester United goalkeeper Paddy Roche from 15 yards out to even the score, 1-1, at 41:11.

Connell later said he was "surprised to get the ball, but a soccer player is supposed to be ready for anything."

Tampa Bay forward Dave "Big Red" Robb was ready for his moment in the sun when a scoring opportunity presented itself at 71:56 of the second half. Steve Wegerle's attempt at a crossing pass resulted in a collision between Roche and Manchester defender Ashley Grimes. Robb, who entered the contest with seven goals in 11 games on the season, took possession and easily put away the loose ball to give the Rowdies a 2-1 lead.

The Rowdies spent the remainder of the game concentrating on defense, and thanks to the afternoon's blazing sun and the 87-degree heat, were able to wear down and hold off the fatigued and red-faced Red Devils.

Afterward, Rowdies players strived to keep the outcome in perspective while still taking satisfaction in the win. Noting that Manchester United played without its starting keeper, Alex Stepney, as well as four others preparing to play for Scotland in the World Cup, Robb said "it would be foolish to think we're world-beaters." He added, however, that "we should take some credit. Our younger players showed they could play a first-division English side and beat them."

Looking back at the contest today, Mike Connell cautions against anyone equating Manchester United of 1978 with the powerhouse team that just won the Champions League.

"Manchester United was big," Connell says, "but not nearly as big as they are now. While it was an upset as far as the score, these tours that clubs made through the United States were really vacations for the players. They treated it like just another game at the end of a season."

He believes, however, that the outcome still went a long way in boosting Tampa Bay's reputation overseas.

"The victory was of great value to us and towards the stature the Rowdies already enjoyed in Europe. Playing in this game was a great opportunity for us to show that we were a quality team. The result definitely got the attention of people in Europe and helped establish that we were a serious and committed club."