Monday, August 25, 2008

Belmont Heights Hits Williamsport, 8/22/73

This week, the Tampa Bay area sent a team from Citrus Park to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The boys from Citrus Park joined a long line of successful youth baseball teams from this area to play on the national stage. Win or lose, they have earned an esteemed place in local history.

Another group of youngsters representing Belmont Heights in East Tampa had their shot at Little League glory this week in 1973. Their journey to Williamsport began by winning the state title at a tournament in Auburndale, followed by the Southern Regional Tournament at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. The Belmont Heights All-Stars entered the tournament on a seven-game winning streak, and won their first two games over teams from Texas and Kentucky before facing South Carolina in the final.

Belmont Heights used a four-run outburst in the sixth inning to hold off South Carolina, 7-3. Their berth in the Little League World Series was the third time in seven years a Tampa area team advanced to Williamsport, but the first time a local team from somewhere other than West Tampa advanced. Following the game, shortstop Barry McNish made a bold prediction: “I really feel we can win the World Series,” he said. “But we will have to give 100 percent.”

Belmont Heights’ manager Zeke Thomas called them the best all-around team he ever coached. Officially the best Little League team in the South -- and the region’s first ever all-black squad -- the Belmont
Heights youngsters now had a chance to prove themselves against the best Little League teams from around the world.

Their first challenge was against the team from Canada, whose catcher, 160-pound Jerry Scramstad, opened the scoring by clobbering a hanging curve from Belmont Heights starter Darryl Mitchell for a two-run home run in the first inning. In an early hole, Belmont Heights answered in its half of the first inning with two runs to reverse the momentum.

Belmont Heights went on to score 11 unanswered runs in the 11-2 triumph over Canada. Outfielder Quinton Kincy’s fifth-inning grand slam put an exclamation point on the game, in which he had a total of 6 RBI. After allowing two runs in the first inning, Mitchell settled down and gave up only one hit the rest of the afternoon while striking out 10 batters in six innings.

The triumphant victory earned Belmont Heights a date in the semifinals with powerhouse Taiwan. Zeke Thomas put on a confident face in assessing his team’s chances against Taiwan, whose teams had won the previous two Little League World Series titles.

“[Taiwan] has a great team,” he said. “But I think we can win. We’ve played teams of their caliber before. It’ll just be a case of one good team playing another.”

After the game, neither Thomas nor his team could say they had ever seen a team of Taiwan’s caliber. Taiwan opened its tournament with an 18-0 rout of Germany, Europe’s best. Pitcher Huang Ching-Hu recorded just the third perfect game in LLWS history. He so dominated the German team that only two batters managed to put the ball in play - both weakly hit infield grounders.

On August 22, in his first news conference since March 15, embattled President Richard Nixon announced to reporters that his critics “want me to fail. I’m not going to fail. I’m going to do the best I can.”

Like the president, Belmont Heights would need to do their best not to fail. What happened the next day against Taiwan, however, can only be described as merciless. Despite overwhelming love from a crowd that cheered their every move while often booing Taiwan, no amount of support could have helped. By the end of the second inning, Taiwan had scored 10 runs off pitchers Bobby Graham and Bryce Mattox. Thomas, so optimistic before the game, quickly realized his team simply could not compete with Taiwan.

“As soon as I saw them at bat,” Thomas said, “I knew there was no way we could win.”

Taiwan hit a LLWS-record five home runs in a 20-hit onslaught. Pitcher Kuo Wen-li threw a no-hitter, allowing just one base runner on a walk to second baseman Marlon James. A 13-run sixth inning in which 17 Taiwan batters came to the plate turned the rout into a farce with a final score of 27-0.

Thomas provided the understatement of the day when after the game he said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before and I hope I never see anything like it again.”

Despite the loss, Belmont Heights still had one more game to play with a chance at third place on the line. In a game more resembling baseball than a circus, Belmont Heights showed the heart of a champion against Michigan. Third baseman Lemuel James scored the winning run in the top of the seventh to break a tie, and Darryl Mitchell scattered three hits while fanning 13 to lead Belmont Heights to a 2-1 victory over Michigan. With the win, Belmont Heights could proudly claim to be the second-best team in the country behind only Arizona, victimized 12-0 by Taiwan in the championship.

The whirlwind experience for the kids from Belmont Heights -- many of whom had never been outside Florida -- continued after the Series. Visits to Gettysburg, Washington, D.C., and a Baltimore Orioles game rounded out their memorable week. The team returned to Tampa as heroes, receiving a parade from Al Lopez Field to their home park in Belmont Heights. A dinner banquet that night attended by more than 500 people at the Sweden House restaurant capped the festivities.

Belmont Heights may not have come back to Tampa with the title, but the heart and dignity they showed in the face of adversity has made them an enduring source of pride in a community steeped in rich baseball tradition.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. San Diego Sockers, 8/17/78

Late one summer night 30 years ago this week, Tampa Bay soccer fans took in one of the must unusual contests in the history of this area.

At stake in a North American Soccer League playoff game between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the San Diego Sockers was a trip to the American Conference finals against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. Earlier in the week, Tampa Bay defeated the Sockers in San Diego, 1-0, and earned a chance to clinch the series on home turf at Tampa Stadium.

The game carried an interesting caveat. Should San Diego defeat Tampa Bay, the two teams would immediately play a sudden-death mini-game to determine the winner of the series. The complications of such a setup presented numerous headaches for the players to contemplate.

For example, the two teams could conceivably play an entire 90-minute game with the score tied at the end. Fifteen minutes of sudden death would follow, and then if the game were still tied, a shootout would be needed to decide a winner. If San Diego came out on top, the teams would then play another 30 minutes of sudden-death soccer.

NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam defended the league’s playoff format, saying it really wasn’t that complicated. Many Tampa Bay players disagreed with Woosnam, using words such as “stupid,” “crazy” and “messed up” to describe the possible worst-case scenario.

Rowdie right wing Steve Wegerle boldly predicted such madness wouldn't occur.

“There is no way (the sudden death) will happen," Wegerle said.

Oh, but it did.

In front of a crowd of more than 32,000 at Tampa Stadium on Aug. 17, 1978, the Sockers won the game with a 2-1 regulation victory over the Rowdies. San Diego opened the scoring early in the second half at 48:25 on a goal from outside the penalty box by Laszlo Harsanyi.

The Sockers kept the Rowdies off-balance throughout the game by employing an “offside trap” - San Diego moved its defenders away from its own end of the field, creating less space for the Rowdies offense to move the ball while staying onside. This plan worked to perfection, resulting in eight offside calls going against Tampa Bay and helped negate a goal by Graham Paddon that would have given the Rowdies an early lead.

“It was the right thing to do,” said Rowdies defender/midfielder Peter Anderson, “because they have a good defense.”

Not good enough, however, to prevent Anderson from tying the game at 1-1. At the 64:42 mark, Anderson found himself on the receiving end of a pass from team captain Rodney Marsh that began on a Paddon corner kick.

Less than four minutes later, some aggressive play by San Diego resulted in the deciding goal. Following a Tampa Bay scoring opportunity, Walker McCall blew past out-of-position Rowdy defender Mike Connell and put the ball just inside the left post. McCall’s goal gave the Sockers a 2-1 lead they did not relinquish. After that, the Sockers played keep-away.

Still, San Diego paid a severe price for its success with just 20 minutes left in regulation. Goalie Alan Mayer, American Soccer Magazine’s Player of the Year, suffered an injury to his thigh when, attempting to play a ball, he collided with Marsh. As a result, the Sockers played without their star goalie during the sudden-death game to decide the series victor.

As if the evening needed any more drama, a monstrous summer downpour added even more urgency to the situation. With lightning in the sky and sheets of blowing rain blanketing the entire stadium, visibility and safety became a legitimate concern. Officials delayed the start of sudden death while deciding whether to postpone because of the weather.

Tampa radio personality Jack Harris, then the Rowdies play-by-play announcer, remembers the scene vividly to this day.

“I can well recall the water cascading down the steps of the stadium like a waterfall,” he says. “For some reason we had been relegated to the roof of the old press box in a makeshift little shack. Lightning was striking nearby, and there we were holding microphones at the highest point of the stadium.”

Rowdies coach Gordon Jago capitalized on the delay by reminding his players to take advantage of the conditions and pressure San Diego’s replacement goalie, Gary Allison, who had less than a half-game’s worth of playing time all season. Just 3:24 into the sudden death, Jago’s advice paid dividends.

Arsene Auguste, who scored the only goal in Tampa Bay’s 1-0 victory three days earlier, took a shot on Allison from 25 yards out. Despite San Diego’s best attempts to guard against a long-range strike – the Sockers resumed their strategy of keeping 11 players back to defend -- the ball ricocheted off the goalie’s outstretched hands and rolled a few feet along the soggy grass directly to Rodney Marsh. In what amounted to a basketball alley-oop dunk, Marsh put the ball into the net for his 21st tally of the season.

Like the rowdy celebration earlier that day in France when three Americans became the first to cross the Atlantic by hot air balloon, Marsh’s goal set off a delirious, field-charging party by the remaining rain-soaked fans.

Despite being outplayed most of the night, the Rowdies ended San Diego’s season and advanced on to play the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in the American Conference finals.

Following the game, San Diego coach Hubert Vogelsinger railed against the official’s decision to continue play, calling the conditions “illegal and dangerous.”

“The better team lost,” he said. ‘We were better than them out in San Diego and we were better than them here. The (Marsh) goal was rubbish. We had two great goals, they get rubbish. There’s no question who is the better team. No question.”

Perhaps Vogelsinger was correct, but the Rowdies appeared to be a team of destiny. Despite dropping their first game to Ft. Lauderdale, the Rowdies returned to Tampa and beat the Strikers 3-1 to force yet another mini-game. This time, the Rowdies won in a shootout to advance to the 1978 Soccer Bowl championship.

Unfortunately, the Rowdies ran into the juggernaut New York Cosmos, who were gunning for their second consecutive championship. Tampa Bay fell to New York, 3-1, but an exciting season and memorable playoff run helped cement the love affair between the Rowdies and their fans that remains to this day.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Redskins vs Falcons Exhibition, 8/10/68

As the city of Tampa readies itself for the upcoming Super Bowl XLIII in February 2009, it is interesting to think about how much the local sports scene has progressed in the last 40 years.

In the absence of Major League Baseball, going to a ballgame meant a trip to Al Lopez Field to see the Class-A Tampa Tarpons of the Florida State League. The University of Tampa still had a football team, and had just moved into brand-new Tampa Stadium. Professional sports such as soccer, football and hockey were either years or decades away. Late in the summer of 1968, however, the dream of professional football in Tampa took its first major step towards becoming a reality.

On the afternoon of Aug. 10, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson hosted lunch at his Texas ranch for the just-announced Republican presidential ticket of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew to discuss the war in Vietnam. Nearly 1,900 miles away, the city of Tampa rolled out its own welcome mat as host for the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins. The worries of the day – the war, inner-city riots, and political assassinations - were briefly put aside because, for one night, the National Football League had come to Tampa.

The contest, dubbed the Suncoast NFL Football Classic, was sponsored by the Tampa Jaycees (Tampa Junior Chamber of Commerce) and spearheaded by Jaycee president Bill Marcum. In the years that followed, Marcum played an instrumental role in bringing the NFL to Tampa full-time.

The crowd for the game exceeded all expectations. The Jaycees would have broken even at the 20,000 mark, and would have considered 30,000 a major success. More than 42,000 showed up for the game, at the time the largest crowd to ever attend a sporting event on the state’s West Coast. This despite weather reports warning of a 90-percent chance of rain and gridlock in traffic that caused thousands to miss the start of the game. Many, in fact, couldn’t find nearby parking and weren’t able to reach their seats until after the start of the second half.

By contrast, a game played four years earlier had set a low standard for success. The upstart American Football League came to town for an exhibition between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets on August 9, 1964. The game, held in a breadbox of a stadium called Phillips Field, drew a crowd of only 5,887. To compound the embarrassing attendance, game promoter Mac Mascioli found himself $39,000 in the hole for his efforts. The construction of Tampa Stadium truly paved the way for exhibition games such as these to succeed. While professional teams could be lured to Tampa because of its state-of-the-art facility, fans would turn out in droves out of curiosity or to take pride in the city’s newest jewel.

Many raved about Tampa Stadium, which had just opened in November 1967. Redskin head coach Otto Graham called the turf the best he had ever seen and likened it to a putting green. Bill Kastelz, a reporter for the Jacksonville Times-Union, called the stadium “perfect” and suggested Jacksonville start over by leveling its own stadium, the Gator Bowl.

Certainly the teams on the field didn’t much matter to those in attendance. The Falcons and Redskins hardly represented the best and brightest of the NFL. The Falcons were an expansion team created just two years earlier, and finished the 1967 season with a 1-12-1 record. Washington, mired in mediocrity, hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1955. The Redskins could at least boast of a few marquee players in future Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, the NFL’s leading passer in 1967, future Hall of Fame wide receiver Charley Taylor and tight end Jerry Smith, two of the best ball-catchers in the league. Jurgensen, however, did not play in the game due to an injury to his throwing arm.

The game itself provided plenty of excitement after a scoreless first half. Atlanta opened the scoring on an interception return for a touchdown with 8:59 left in the third quarter. Trailing 7-0, the Redskins answered on their ensuing possession with a 24-yard field goal by Charlie Gogolak to trim Atlanta’s lead by three.

The Falcons responded just 39 seconds later with a 52-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Randy Johnson to tight end Ray Ogden to make the score 14-3. This set the stage for furious fourth quarter rally by the Redskins.

A 43-yard field goal by Gogolak early in the fourth quarter pulled Washington to within 8 points of Atlanta, a two-score deficit in the days prior to two-point conversions. Running back Ray McDonald scored on a plunge from the 1 yard line with just 1:58 remaining to cut the lead to 14-13.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Redskins were flagged for offsides, a 5-yard penalty. Taking advantage of the opportunity to kick again, Washington recovered an on-side attempt at their own 49 yard line. With just 23 seconds remaining and the ball at the Atlanta 38, Gogolak came on to attempt the game-winner. The Hungarian-born Gogolak, who had missed the entire 1967 season with a leg injury, nailed the 44-yard attempt to give Washington a 16-14 comeback victory.

After the game, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco called the event “a great day for Tampa and [Florida's] West Coast,” saying “I don’t know when I’ve been so proud of our city.” Greco correctly predicted the game as the first “of many great ball games in this stadium.”

Even flush with success and pride, not Greco, the game’s organizers nor fans in attendance could have predicted that 40 years later the city would be preparing to host its fourth Super Bowl. The road to Super Bowl XLIII began with the Falcons, Redskins, Bill Marcum and the Jaycees in 1968. The former mayor couldn’t have put it any better when he said: “We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Muhammed Ali Visits Tampa, August 1973

Perhaps the greatest boxer ever and one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet, Muhammad Ali had never been in a ring in the city of Tampa before August 1973.

His first formal visit, it turns out, wasn't in a main event bout at a sold-out Tampa Stadium. Rather, it came as the guest referee for a six-round preliminary fight, a gig hardly worthy of his lofty status in the sports pantheon. But on a warm evening 35 years ago this week, Ali and Tampa finally had a formal introduction.

As July turned to August, the Jim Croce song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” enjoyed its final week atop of the Billboard charts. Much like the song's namesake character, Ali became the “baddest man in the whole damn town” upon his arrival in Tampa. One might wonder why Ali, with all of his fame, would agree to a guest-referee appearance on a card in Tampa. Ali came to Tampa from Miami Beach, where he had been preparing at his usual stomping grounds -- the legendary 5th Street Gym -- for an upcoming fight against Ken Norton. Chris Dundee, a fight promoter in Miami and the brother of Ali trainer Angelo Dundee, helped arranged Ali's visit to Tampa with local boxing promoter Keith Lancaster.

“We're trying to help boxing in Tampa,” said Chris Dundee. “Ali just happened to be (in Miami) and it's a good opportunity for Tampa to have him without too much expense. His fee is pretty steep."”

Many local reporters got their first glimpse of Ali at a news conference held at the downtown Holiday Inn. The self-proclaimed "greatest of all-time," Ali artfully deflected an issue that loomed like an elephant in the room: The time Tampa denied him an opportunity to box. When he was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. military, Ali found this sort of rejection commonplace across America. Tampa took its turn when promoter Ron Gorton settled on Tampa Stadium as the site of a bout between Ali and Joe Frazier. Even though both participants agreed to the venue, the Stadium Authority rejected the idea and helped prolong Ali's three-year exile from the sport. Instead of bringing up this humiliating slight, Ali politely said of his trip to Tampa that, “I like to meet people,” before adding, “The world is a field born to cultivate. If you cultivate it, it can produce anything.”

The business at hand during the media session concerned Ali’s upcoming rematch against Norton. In March 1973, Ali squared off against Norton -- then a relatively unknown boxer -- and suffered a 12-round split-decision loss, only the second defeat of his career. Making matters worse, Norton broke Ali’s jaw with a wicked shot in the second round. Ali, who struggled throughout the match, conceded the defeat at Norton’s hands was a blessing in disguise.

“That was the best thing that ever could have happened to me,” he said. “I was doing things all wrong, and now I can see that. I was fat and out of shape and wasn't saying my prayers, and I was eating everything, staying up, drinking five cups of coffee with three bags of sugar in each.”

Then, as if flipping a switch, he raised his voice to get into character and started hyping the upcoming rematch with Norton.

“You are all invited to the dance on September 10. Come see Muhammad Ali in concert! My partner’s gonna be Ken Norton, and I’m gonna dance the night away. And when I dance, everybody’s in trouble!”

He then sprung to his feet and began shadow-boxing -- against an imaginary Norton, perhaps -- talking about what he was going to do in the ring and how he would do it.

On hand were two trusted members of his entourage, trainer Angelo Dundee and his Tampa-born physician, the "Ring Doctor" Ferdie Pacheco. Subdued and disinterested, both reluctantly settled in for the familiar show on display for a roomful of reporters all too eager to eat up Ali’s antics.

Between bobs and weaves, Ali delivered a freestyle routine made up of one-liners and thinly veiled promises.

“And in this corner from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the former ‘champeen’ of the world, weighin’ 208 pounds ... Norton’s eyes gonna roll back when he hears that 208 pounds! I got a good five more years to stay on top, and I ain’t nowhere near through yet!”

Still moving around the room with the energy of a 20-year old, Ali just kept on going.
“I’m gonna beat the HELL outta that Norton. I’m gonna move, shuffle, dodge, dance, jab, stick, talk to him, humiliate him!”

To punctuate his performance, Ali added a jab at future nemesis George Foreman.
“Then when I get through with that Norton, I’m gonna take on that world tramp -- I mean champ – George Foreman.”

Suddenly out of breath, Ali sat down to take a few more questions from reporters. One asked if he had become depressed following his loss to Norton. Ali turned serious and answered by saying that it would be foolish to get upset about losing a fight when people are dying in the world every day.

Toward the end of the media session, a reporter asked about Ali's recent travels to Africa. Ali spoke thoughtfully on the subject and described the experience as life-transforming.

Few who witnessed the event that night at Curtis Hixon Hall are likely to describe it in the same terms. A crowd of about 2,200 fans turned out for the show, which disappointed promoter Keith Lancaster, who said more people would have attended if there had been more advance notice of Ali’s appearance. As it was, Lancaster had only one day to prepare for the guest of honor.

Still, those in attendance were treated to Ali's ring antics, the highlight of an otherwise dull match between light heavyweights Nathaniel Gates and Lonnie Robbins. During the match, Ali bantered with the crowd, shadow-boxed as Gates and Robbins exchanged blows, did his patented shuffle, and even removed his shirt as if to feign entry into the fight. In an outcome of little historical consequence, Gates won in a unanimous decision.

After the match, Ali expressed some hope of returning to town for an exhibition at Tampa Stadium. First, however, he had some unfinished business with Norton and Foreman. Ali defeated Norton about a month later in Los Angeles, and went on to have a legendary rivalry with Foreman, producing some of the most memorable boxing matches of all time. He never did come back to town for an exhibition at the stadium, but for one night, Tampa fight-goers had a brief glimpse of “the greatest” on his ascent back to the top of the boxing world.