Monday, September 29, 2008

Traveling Through Time, 9/26/83

This week, we travel back in time 25 years to September 26, 1983, to try and warn the people of Pinellas County about the folly of building a stadium in St. Petersburg …

I am from the year 2008 and you should heed what I say. Where I come from, Vice President Bush’s oldest son has been president for the last seven years, gasoline hovers near $4 a gallon, and football no longer comes to mind when someone mentions O.J. Simpson. Ignore my warnings at your own peril!

I would like to take this unique time-traveling opportunity to ask -- or if that is not a strong enough sentiment -- beg you not to build a baseball stadium in St. Petersburg. There’s a misguided belief in your time that by one-upping Tampa, you’ll somehow gain an edge in the quest to land a Major League Baseball franchise. Please think again.

In years to come, teams such as the Rangers, Twins, Mariners, White Sox and Giants will all tease you with the allure of relocating to St. Petersburg as leverage to get new stadiums or favorable leases back in their own cities. You will be told outright by the commissioner and various owners not to build a stadium, but you will ignore their warnings. Fools! The financial consequences will be felt for decades to come by the citizens of your county.

Expansion won’t even come around until 1991, and at that point, Miami and Denver will be the cities to land teams. Denver’s team will play in Mile High Stadium until their state-of-the-art stadium is built. Miami’s team will be forced to play in an unpopular, multi-purpose stadium more suitable for football. Around here, our version will be in St. Pete and it will be called Tropicana Field.

The coming years will see the end of multi-purpose stadiums and a renaissance of “retro stadiums” that incorporate elements of classic ballparks with modern amenities. Your barbaric, traditional domed stadiums are a thing of the past as well. Twenty-five years in the future, stadiums will be built with retractable roofs that can open and close in a matter of minutes. The dome you hope to build will be like Chevy Chase and the VCR: obsolete by the end of the century.

What’s that, you say? This area's hunger for baseball will triumph over any odds? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it seems the hunger you speak of was highly overrated. It turns out that what this area loves is Spring Training, and that most of the transplants from the Northeast and Midwest will be unwilling to support the local team.

The group trying to attract an expansion franchise to the Tampa Bay area will tout a season-ticket waiting list of over 27,000 people. The majority of games, however, attract only half that number.

Reasons for refusing to attend games are numerous. The drive is too far. The economy stinks. This thing we call global warming. If excuses were wins, this area would be the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees.

The bottom line is that you should never build the stadium where you do. Don’t get me wrong, downtown St. Petersburg will be on the upswing for years and put downtown Tampa to shame. The problem, however, is that the location of the stadium will not be easily accessible to the majority of people in the greater Tampa Bay area.

Sprawl will cause this community to grow in leaps and bounds that should have been predicted in your day. The lack of mass transit in this area, coupled with congested roads, will make the prospect of driving to St. Pete in rush-hour traffic less appealing than a striking air traffic controller to Ronald Reagan. Sorry, too soon?

In the year 2008, all of the excuses will be stripped. We finally will have a winner – a playoff team -- that makes us all proud. This season will be the greatest in team history. Just one year after finishing with the worst record in baseball, our team will be on pace to finish with at least 30 more wins. Still, attendance has lagged during the playoff run and we will be mocked by the rest of America. It has never been more obvious that baseball will never succeed in St. Petersburg, no matter how well the team plays on the field.

It is very possible that the Tampa Bay area can support baseball, given a stadium in a central location accessible to all the people of Polk, Pasco, Manatee, Sarasota, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Because of your decisions, however, the chance of that happening, or of baseball having long-term viability in this market, will dwindle faster than Gary Hart’s presidential prospects. Trust me on that one, you’ll see.

As I bid you farewell, I ask that you do what’s right. Forget about baseball and worry about the more pressing issues of the day. Leave the quest for a Major League franchise to the people of Tampa. They’ll figure it out and probably get it right, too. Oh, and one more thing. In a few months, a boy with a golden arm named Scott Kazmir will be born in Houston, Texas. On behalf of the Tampa Bay area, please send his mother and father our most sincere thanks.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Gators vs Air Force at Tampa Stadium, 9/21/68

Just one month after Tampa Stadium played host to its first NFL exhibition game 40 years ago, the stadium added yet another first: hosting a home game for a team other than the University of Tampa. In an event several years in the making, the Florida Gators took the field on Sept. 21, 1968, against the Air Force Academy Falcons.

As the Gators prepared for their season opener, the team entered the contest ranked sixth in the nation and a two-touchdown favorite over the Falcons despite a 1967 season that did not include a bowl game appearance.

Five days after presidential candidate Richard Nixon famously uttered "Sock it to me" on "Laugh-in," the Tampa Stadium crowd of 52,000 – mostly Gator partisans – surely expected a resounding triumph in their school’s first game in Tampa since 1949. But if the Air Force cadets were intimidated by the sea of orange and blue, they didn’t show it as the game got underway.

On his first ever kickoff return, Air Force sophomore Curtis Martin fielded the opening kick and sprinted 98 yards for a touchdown. The stunned crowd, which barely had time to settle into their seats, suddenly saw their Gators at the short end of a 6-0 score when Air Force missed the point after attempt.

A field goal by Gator Jack Youngblood cut the lead in half, but Air Force would add to their lead shortly before the end of the first quarter. With the ball at midfield, Air Force quarterback Gary Baxter found Charles Longnecker on a fly pattern that gained 44 yards to the Gator five yard-line. On the next play, Baxter scrambled left and outraced several pursuing Gators to the corner of the end zone. At the end of the first quarter, Florida trailed the Falcons 13-3.

The Gators clawed back into the game, however, when Steve Tannen electrified the pro-Florida crowd with a 64-yard punt return for a touchdown. Trailing 13-9 with the first half winding down, the Gators came up with another momentum-changing play. Bill Gaisford intercepted an errant throw by Gary Baxter and returned the ball 31 yards to the Air Force 26-yard line.

With time winding down in the 2nd, Florida advanced the ball to the 8-yard line, facing 4th-and-2. Rather than kick a field goal, Florida opted to go for the first down. Gator quarterback Larry Rentz then found wide receiver Guy McTheny at the 3-yard line to set up first and goal.

Running back Larry Smith – a product of Tampa’s Robinson High School– capitalized by scoring on the next play to give Florida a 16-13 lead at the half.

In an odd twist to a game that already featured the lack of a functional game clock, the halftime show was to highlight the Air Force’s live falcon mascot. Instead of returning to his trainer, however, the falcon took one lap around the stadium and then headed for parts unknown.

Although the falcon never came back, the same would not be said about the football team. Air Force scored on its first possession of the second half, driving 69 yards on three plays to reclaim the lead. Curtis Martin added his second touchdown of the day, this time a 3-yard run, to give the Falcons a 20-16 advantage.

Trailing by four in the fourth quarter, the Gators took advantage of another big play by their defense. As the Falcons attempted to run precious time off the clock, Florida recovered a fumble by Martin at the Air Force 23 yard-line. Set up with excellent field position, the Gators needed just five plays to put the ball into the end zone. Larry Smith added his second three-yard touchdown of the game to give Florida a 23-20 lead that would cap the day’s scoring.

Graves felt all along that Air Force was an underrated team – and that perhaps his Gators had been rated too highly – so he felt happy to come away with the 3-point victory.

“Even though we played sloppy,” he said, “it makes us proud of the boys that they were able to pull it out over a good football team.”

After the game, Gator players took little solace in their comeback victory. The overwhelming feeling among the players was that they were lucky to win the game and played far below their potential. Mark Ely, a graduate of Tampa’s Plant High School, perhaps put it best when he said, “Boy, we played bad.”

Still, the victory got Florida off on the right foot, as the Gators went on to win their first four games of the season. The Gators then endured a 0-3-1 streak capped by a humiliating 51-0 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville. Florida finished on a high note by winning their last two, but a 6-3-1 record failed to earn the Gators a bowl bid for the second consecutive season.

The Gators were not through with Tampa, however, as the team would come back for games in seven of the following eight seasons, thereby turning Tampa Stadium into their home away from The Swamp.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Spartans vs Toledo Rockets, 9/15/73

Since the debut of their football program in 1997, the University of South Florida Bulls have moved onto the local and national radar because of their rapid rise among the college football elite. The non-initiated might even suspect the Bulls are the first college team of note to come from this area. Prior to the Bulls, however, the University of Tampa Spartans owned the college football scene in Tampa.

This week thirty five years ago, the Spartans prepared for their season opener against the University of Toledo Rockets. Fittingly, the Marvin Gaye hit "Let's Get It On" was atop of the Billboard charts as the teams prepared to clash at Tampa Stadium.

The Spartans featured a new head coach in Dennis Fryzel. The 31-year-old first-time head coach took over the program after the defection of coach Earl Bruce to Iowa State University following the 1972 season. The Rockets entered the game with revenge in mind, hoping to even the score with the Spartans following a 21-0 loss at Tampa Stadium the previous year. That loss snapped a 35-game winning streak by Toledo, then the second-longest in college football history. The win, along with a Tangerine Bowl triumph over Kent State, highlighted a 10-2 season for the Spartans.

UT hoped to build on its successful season of 1972 with a breakout performance by its new starting quarterback, Freddie Solomon. In his third season, Solomon finally became the starter at quarterback after sharing duties for two seasons with Buddy Carter. Solomon did not disappoint.

On September 15, 1973, in front of 17,412 fans at Tampa Stadium, the Spartans opened the season in grand style. Solomon started the scoring on UT's first possession, a 17-yard run to take a 7-0 lead. Toledo answered on a 28-yard field goal by George Keim to cut the lead to 4 before the Spartans went on a run that nearly put the game out of reach.

Put simply, Solomon dominated the second quarter. Solomon added his second touchdown of the game by out-racing Toledo defenders on a 63-yard dash to give his team a 14-3 lead. He added a touchdown run of 10 yards and a 34 yard TD pass to increase UT's lead to 29-3 at the break.

As good as the Spartans played in the first half, a sloppy second nearly doomed the team to a humiliating comeback win by Toledo. In their last game, the Spartans nearly blew a 21-0 halftime lead over Kent State, ultimately holding on for a 21-18 win. Fryzel reminded his team of this during the intermission.

"All I could talk about in the dressing room (at the half) was Tangerine Bowl, 21-0," he said.

Toledo quarterback Gene Swick did his best to answer Solomon's outstanding performance with one of his own. The Rocket ran for a Tampa Stadium-record 71-yard gain in the first half, and in the second half, tossed three touchdown passes to get his team back in the game.

Toledo got the scoring started in the third quarter on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Swick to Randy Whatley. The Rockets dominated the Spartans during a 19-play, 80-yard drive lasting nearly 10 minutes. Following a failed two-point conversion, the Spartans led the Rockets, 29-9.

UT answered with long drive of its own. The Spartans put together a 76-yard drive that culminated in a four-yard touchdown run by Alan Pittman to seemingly put the game away, 35-9 with 9:32 remaining.

Trailing by 26, however, Swick rallied his team on a quick touchdown strike to Whatley about 3 minutes later to cap another 80-yard drive. Hoping to control the clock on the ensuing possession, UT ran into trouble when freshman running back Mark Deeb fumbled at his own 27-yard line. Toledo recovered the ball and added another touchdown, a 16-yard pass from Swick to tight end Don Seymour. With 4:15 left in the game, the Spartans' seemingly insurmountable 26-point lead had shrunk to just 10 points.

Toledo inflicted no more damage, however, as the Spartans were able to hang onto the ball for all but 24 seconds the rest of the way en route to a 35-25 win.

Solomon led the way for UT, rushing for three touchdowns and throwing for another, while adding 112 yards on the ground and 84 in the air for nearly 200 all-purpose yards. After the game, Fryzell gushed about his starting quarterback.

"I told you about Fred," Fryzell said. "I wouldn't trade Fred Solomon for any other quarterback in the country."

As Fryzel would find out -- and anyone who followed Solomon's career at the University of Tampa already knows -- his best days were still to come.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Catching Up With Rodney Marsh, Part II

Rodney Marsh will be forever linked to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. For many years, Marsh was the team’s most recognizable face and a fan-favorite. The one-time captain of the Manchester City Football Club and member of the English national football team, Marsh played for the Rowdies from 1976-79, and then served as head coach from 1984-86. Marsh also spent more than a decade in the team’s front office, serving as the club’s chief executive. Today, Marsh is enjoying retirement and proud to still call Tampa his home. He recently sat down to talk about his career and time with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The following is Part Two of my interview with Rodney Marsh.

Q. You were captain of the Manchester City team, so was there anything extra special about playing Manchester United in Tampa in an exhibition game in May 1978?

A. Definitely, to establish a credibility factor. The fact that we beat Manchester United in Tampa gave us worldwide credibility. People all over the world were saying North American Soccer League was a minor league -- and it was -- but the fact that we could compete with Manchester United was definitely a turning point.

At the time in Tampa, there was somebody who was championing our cause. His name was Tom McEwen, the Tampa Tribune sports columnist. He would write articles about the Rowdies and Manchester United that went around the world. Previously, we had a hard time getting in the American national newspapers. Then because of the Manchester game, we'd be in newspapers in London and throughout the world with Tom McEwen's byline writing about the Rowdies in Tampa Bay.

Q. Did the win over Manchester United help legitimize the NASL around the world?

A. I think that was part of it. But also at the same time, Pele signed with the New York Cosmos about six months before I joined the league. He gave the league massive, massive credibility. He's the greatest ever to play, still is in my opinion. So there’s the Manchester United game, there was an American All-Star team that played against other countries and we did well with that. So there were a few things that added together. The Cosmos would beat teams. They would play teams like Chelsea and win those games. So the more that you did, the more credibility you got.

Q. So by having stars like Pele and yourself in the league, with some international success you were then able to recruit other top players to come over to the United States?

A. After I signed, we signed about a dozen British players within a year. One of the reasons I came -- not withstanding all the other stuff -- was because of Pele. He gave the league credibility.

Q. Using the current example of David Beckham coming to play in Los Angeles, do you think that move has had the same impact on Major League Soccer?

A. No. All over the world, when he signed, people were saying this is serious. America signed David Beckham. This is for real. It was a brilliant, brilliant signing, but the league had no Plan B. You've got David Beckham in Los Angeles playing to a sold-out stadium, and when he goes to play in Dallas, they get big crowds. But without him, everyone else is on their own. The league doesn't have the next stage of players to sustain the interest. It was an enormous mistake, because if you add David Beckham, then a couple months later you need to sign someone like (Zinedine) Zidane to play in New York. If David Beckham doesn't play well, or gets hurt, or is away in England doing something else, then it's back to square one very quickly. MLS should have hired me for a few months as a consultant, because I would have told them this: If you do things in isolation, you'll always fail. You have to follow up, and they didn't have that.

Q. 1978 was a big year for the Rowdies, advancing all the way to the Soccer Bowl championship. What stands out about the playoff run now 30 years later?

A. It was refreshing. It was one of those things that you capture in your life, and it's a moment in time that you remember and never lose the image in your mind because it's so vivid. When I scored the final shootout goal against Ft. Lauderdale to get us into the championship, everybody invaded the pitch. There were people tugging at my shirt, there were players getting their shorts ripped off, and somebody took my gold medallion off my neck. I never saw that again. It was just one of those once in a lifetime things. You throw it all in a cocktail and that's probably the reason why I'm still in Tampa today.

Q. How would you best sum up your experience playing and managing in professional sports?

A. When I look back on my time with the Rowdies, as a player and as an executive, I'd gone 16 years and seen the gamut of everything. There is one phrase I would use, which in my opinion will never change as long as sports are played. I find it amazing that players don't get this. "Nobody is bigger than the team." I don't care who you are. It seems like about 20 years ago, or maybe a little bit longer than that, is when we started to see this "I" and "me" syndrome in life. It was like, to hell with everyone else, as long as I'm okay, I want this. It wasn't about "we" anymore. We've become an "I" and "me" society.

I was born just after the World War II. Back then it was "we are we." There is no "I." We are only we. I like that saying. Players today would do well to remember that. It doesn't matter how big you are, it doesn't matter how famous you are, it doesn't matter how good you are. In five years time, the Green Bay Packers may have somebody come along bigger than Brett Favre. For all he is today, someday he'll just be a memory, and the Packers will still be in Green Bay. No one person is bigger than the game.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Catching Up With Rodney Marsh, Part I

Rodney Marsh will be forever linked to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. For many years, Marsh was the team’s most recognizable face and a fan-favorite. The one-time captain of the Manchester City Football Club and member of the English national football team, Marsh played for the Rowdies from 1976-79, and then served as head coach from 1984-86. Marsh also spent more than a decade in the team’s front office, serving as the club’s chief executive. Today, Marsh is enjoying retirement and proud to still call Tampa his home. He recently sat down to talk about his career and time with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The following is Part One of my interview with Rodney Marsh.

Q. You were an established star in England before you came to play for the Rowdies. What brought you to America?

A. At the time, I was the captain of Manchester City, who are the big rivals of Manchester United. I was 30 years of age and coming to the end of my career, I thought. Then I was traded because of an argument I had with my coach. It was within the English League, but I didn't want to do that. The other options I had were to go to Belgium or come to America. During that time in my life, I was going through some emotional problems, having a bit of a breakdown. The furor that surrounded the trade with the papers and TV really worked me over, so I had an emotional breakdown in my private and professional life. I wanted to get as far away as possible. I'd never even heard of the North American Soccer League. I got a phone call from Elton John's manager. He said, "We've heard what's going on in England. Elton's got a private plane at Heathrow ready to leave for Los Angeles." He was investing in the Los Angeles Aztecs, and he wanted me and George Best to join the team. So we went out to Los Angeles for five crazy days, mostly alcohol- and cocaine-fueled. I wasn't doing cocaine, but it seemed like most everyone else was. Elton John gave his longest version of "Rocket Man." It lasted for 12 minutes. I don't think he knew where he was, really.

Q. So how did you go from Elton John and L.A. to the Tampa Bay Rowdies?

A. During the time that I was there, I got a call in my hotel room from the owner of the Rowdies. He said, "I heard you were in the country. Don't sign with anyone yet. I'll send you a ticket to come to Tampa. Spend a couple of days out here, look around, because we'd love to sign you." My first thought was, "where's Tampa?" But when I flew down to Tampa, the moment I stepped off the plane -- I don't know what it was – I just felt something. Before I even met the coach, I just knew that this was the place for me. I wanted to get as far away from England as possible to somewhere nondescript. Nobody in Britain knew where Tampa was. Hell, there were Americans who didn't know where Tampa was. Within a couple days, though, I signed.

Q. Coming from English soccer, how did you find the level of play here in America?

A. It was like Triple-A baseball. Every franchise had some fantastic players from around the world, but the majority of the teams consisted of journeymen-type players. In England, I played at the very highest level. The thing I noticed when I first got here is that I had a lot of space, but they wouldn't play the ball to me on time. It's like in basketball, when you're wide open, but the ball is passed to you too slow and someone is in your face by the time you receive it. I quickly found that the only way I would survive is to adjust to the level I was playing. Consequently, I wouldn't go looking for the ball. The ball would have to find me.
We had one player who never really got the credit he deserved, named Mick McGuire. He came here in 1978 after playing in Norwich City, England. He was a terrific player. He would give me the ball exactly where I wanted it, not too late, in lots of space. If you give any decent athlete five yards of space, in any sport, they'll kill you. So I had a lot of space to play with.

Q. The Rowdies were a good team from their inception, winning the Soccer Bowl title in 1975, while the Bucs lost the first 26 games they ever played. What was it like to represent the community's winning team?

A. Once in every lifetime something happens where the components work out, and you don't know why and you don't know how, but things come together. I've never known this, and I'd like to ask the original owner, George Strawbridge, if this was planned or it was just circumstances. The team had a fantastic, brilliant marketing campaign. It's been copied many times by major-league sports, including the Tampa Bay Bandits. It was the name of the team: the Rowdies. It gives you the idea of going out on a Saturday night and getting into a fight and having a drink. Incredibly, and I wish I knew if this was intentional, but that's what our team did.

After the games on Saturday night, we'd go out to a place called Boneshakers in Hyde Park and mix with all the other poncers. There'd be about 100 more people shoehorned into this bar because of us. You’d have all the fans, all the cheerleaders, and then regular people as well. When the Rowdies came in, everyone wanted to buy us drinks. By the end of the night, the Rowdies would be getting into fights and next thing you know, we'd be down at the Orient Road Jail. I don't know if it was planned marketing genius, but the players fit the image. It suited me down to the ground because that was my personality. We had some Scottish lads who could really have a drink and a fight too. It was a wild time.

Q. Are the great memories from your playing days one of the reasons you, along with many former players, have chosen to keep homes here?

A. Part of that is because the team was so adored, and still is. The Rowdies were a very successful franchise. The fact is the quality of life I have in Tampa cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world that I would go. It's all those things.