Monday, March 30, 2009

Catching Up With Joey Jay

Joseph Richard Jay, born in 1935 in Middletown, Connecticut, should be a familiar name to anyone who followed National League baseball in the 1950s and 1960s. Better known as Joey Jay, he broke into the big leagues as a 17-year-old and pitched as a member of the Milwaukee Braves from 1953-1960. A trade sent him to the Cincinnati Reds, where he enjoyed success from 1961-1966. A 21-game winner in 1961 and 1962, Jay made his lone All-Star appearance in 1961, and started and won Game 2 of the World Series against the New York Yankees.

Just one win shy of 100 for his career, Jay retired in 1966 due to arm injuries after a brief stint with the Atlanta Braves. In 2008, he earned an induction into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. A resident of the Tampa Bay area, Jay recently took some time to talk about his memorable playing career. The following is the first of a two-part interview with Joey Jay.

Q. You were signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1953 for a $20,000 bonus (roughly $153,400 in today’s dollars). Was there a lot of pressure on you as a 17-year-old kid to come in and live up to that money?

A. It was an unfortunate situation and setup, really. The bonus rule made you stay with the team for two years. It probably took two productive years off my career, because the manager at that time (Charlie Grimm) didn’t think much of the rule or didn’t think much of having me on the team. I really didn’t get much of an opportunity. The first year I signed, I signed in June right after high school. I did get a chance to pitch after the pennant race had been decided. I can’t remember where we finished, but we didn’t win it. There was about a week left in the season, and the only game I started I won.

Those were a difficult two years. I wish the rule wasn’t in place, but I didn’t make it. I had to stay with the team for two years. They sent me to the minors in 1956 and most of 1957 for some seasoning. Really, I lost a couple of productive years because of that rule.

Q. You were playing with a group of All-Stars and some future Hall of Famers in Milwaukee, too.

A. That was another reason I didn’t get to play. I played with a group that included Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, Bob Buhl. These were great pitchers and perennial 18-to-20-game winners. It was a great pitching staff and one of the reasons I didn’t get to pitch right away.

Q. Was there an opportunity to learn from these pitchers as you developed your own game, sort of an apprenticeship?

A. There were no apprenticeships in those days (laughs). The players kind of guarded their careers. The pitchers and most all players, really, played when they were hurt because they were afraid if someone took their place it might mean their job. So they weren’t too open as far as being teachers or anything. I learned from watching, and we had a great pitching coach in Bucky Walters. So an apprenticeship maybe in that sense, but I didn’t get a lot of teaching or help from the players.

Q. In 1957 and 1958, the Braves made two consecutive World Series appearances. What was your role on those teams?

A. Well, in 1957 I was only with the team briefly. We were world champions that year. I spent most of the time in the minor leagues, but they brought me up towards the end of the year and I saved a game in Chicago. I wasn’t on the World Series roster that year.
In 1958, I had been scheduled to start the third game of the World Series. The last series we played in St. Louis, I got hit with a line-drive. It broke my finger and knocked me out of the Series.

Q. By 1961, you were traded to Cincinnati where your career was really able to get off the ground.

A. Correct, in December 1960 the Braves traded me to the Reds. Milwaukee felt they could continue their winning ways by bolstering the shortstop position. Johnny Logan was a great player for the Braves but he was getting old. They felt that Roy McMillan, who played for the Reds, would fill the gap for them. So they made the deal with me and Juan Pizzaro for McMillan.

That’s when I really got an opportunity. With Milwaukee in the later years – 1958, 1959 and so on – I was a spot starter. Mainly I took the place of Warren Spahn against teams he had trouble with like the Dodgers, and I took Bob Buhl’s place against Cincinnati because he had trouble with them. So I was a spot starter and a long reliever.

The Reds installed me immediately in the starting rotation and went on to have the best years of my career. I won 21 games in 1961, and of course my biggest accomplishment that year was beating Milwaukee six times. They actually finished 10 games back in fourth, so that was the difference between them being right there in the race.

Q. You also started and won Game 2 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. What was it like being on that stage?

A. I grew up in Connecticut, about 100 miles from Yankee Stadium. So I got to see a number of games there as a kid, followed them on the radio, and we were big Yankee fans up in Connecticut. It was a big thrill to pitch against the Yankees in that arena. I had a good game (complete-game four-hitter with six strikeouts) and we won it, 6-2. It actually turned out to be the only game we’d win in that World Series.

Q. Any nerves having to face the likes of Mantle and Maris, particularly given their home run barrage that season?

A. They were highly publicized and great ballplayers. I had to pitch them carefully and had nothing but respect for them. I had faced Maris in the minors, and pitched against Mantle in Spring Training. Not quite the same thing, but I got a feel for them. It was exciting to pitch against them, though. Not just against Mantle and Maris and Berra, but you’re pitching against all the ghosts of the Yankees like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, they’re all there (laughs).

Q. To top it off, you made the cover of Sports Illustrated that month. That had to be a huge thrill.

A. It was kind of unexpected, really. I can’t remember if they told me it was coming or not. Yeah, it was definitely a thrill. I think I still have a copy of it around here somewhere.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Bob Graham Sham, 3/26/79

On March 26, 1979, the front lawn of the White House provided the setting as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a historic peace treaty brokered by President Jimmy Carter. Who could have imagined, however, that the presence of Florida’s governor, Bob Graham, would spark such controversy here in the Tampa Bay area?

Still, that is what happened when Graham decided to skip the 33rd Governor's Baseball Dinner in St. Petersburg in favor of attending the ceremony in Washington, D.C. The dinner, originally created in the 1940s as a way of thanking those associated with Spring Training for coming to Florida, had outlived its original purpose by 1979. Fewer and fewer "big-wigs" were attending the dinner, and as an event, it had lost most of its cache.

Due to negotiations in the on-going umpire's strike, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, as well as American League and National League presidents Lee McPhail and Chub Feeney, were in Philadelphia and would have to miss the dinner as well. The news of Graham's no-show, in what would have been his debut as the dinner's host, sparked the most heated response from event organizers.

Earle Halstead, one of dinner's long-time sponsors, expressed disbelief that Graham would choose to be in Washington, D.C., rather than attend the dinner.

"He's neither the President of the United States, nor the governor of Israel or Egypt," Halstead said. "He's the governor of Florida. I still say it was a poor decision and a slap at baseball and his constituents."

In a statement explaining his decision telegrammed to team owners, Graham explained that a last-minute request by President Carter to attend the ceremony and state dinner, however, would force the alteration of his plans. Graham said that his decision to skip the dinner did not diminish his belief in the importance of baseball to Florida. As a sign of contrition, he invited all of the owners to attend a dinner at the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee on April 11.

Up to that point, the only governor to miss the dinner had been Claude Kirk, who underwent surgery on the same day as the 1970 dinner, yet still arranged for a telephone hook-up to deliver his remarks. Halstead was unmoved by the idea of Graham being summoned to the White House as a sufficient reason to miss the dinner.

"Bob Salem (the governor's aide) told me the governor would not attend because he had been invited by the great President of the United States to the peace signing treaty. I told him I guess he might want to stay on and wait tables at the barbecue afterwards. I told him a few other things, too."

With no governor, no commissioner, and no league presidents, dinner chairman Mike Barger decided to refund roughly 900 paying customers and cancel the event. It would be the second time in four years that the dinner would not go on as scheduled, as a labor dispute between owners and players over salaries forced the dinner's cancellation in 1976.

Perhaps in the end, canceling the dinner was for the best. It allowed those who would have otherwise attended the dinner to catch the most-watched college basketball game ever, the national championship between Michigan State and Indiana State featuring two guys named Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hillsborough Terriers Reach Hoops Finals, 3/15/69

On March 7, 1969, a local version of "March Madness" captured the attention of local sports fans. Hillsborough High School, in search of its first state title since 1959, prepared for the state Class AA Region 3 basketball tournament after completing a 21-1 regular-season mark. The Terriers, no strangers to high-stakes basketball, had swept through districts and were poised to begin an exciting run to glory.

Up first for the Terriers would be the crosstown rival Plant Panthers. Hillsborough, the state's top-ranked team, topped Plant twice during the regular season and fully expected to complete the hat trick. The game served as little more than a tune-up for Hillsborough, as the Terriers spanked the Panthers, 79-44, in front of over 3,000 fans at the Tampa Catholic High School gym. Earlier in the day, guard Charlie Green learned he had earned a unanimous selection to the all-state high school basketball team. Green, a senior, finished the game with 27 points and put a once-close game out of reach with his hot shooting.

Green saved some bullets for the following night's tournament finals against the Clearwater Tornadoes. In front of another packed house, Green again delivered. Behind a stellar effort that featured a tenacious full-court press, the Terriers were able to control the state's fourth-ranked team despite several scares.

Green led the way with 15 of his team's 23 first-quarter points en route to a 34-point night. The Tornadoes stayed within four points of the Terriers until Hillsborough pulled away with under a minute left in the game. Trailing, 60-57, with time running down, the Tornadoes needed to foul to get the ball. The Terriers made them pay by converting six straight free throws to put the game out of reach, ultimately wining by a comfortable ten-point margin, 69-59. The win earned Hillsborough a fourth trip to the state finals in seven years.

After the game, Clearwater head coach Jack Wilson praised Green's effort.

"Green was the best I've ever seen," the coach said. "He's not fancy, he does everything he's supposed to do except that he does it better than anyone else."

Plaudits aside, Green and the Terriers still had unfinished business. Since defeating Miami High for the title in 1959, recent trips to the finals had left the Terriers and their fans unfulfilled. In 1964, Hillsborough fell to eventual state-champion Pensacola in the semifinals. The following two seasons in 1965 and 1966 resulted in devastating finals defeats to Jacksonville Paxon and Pensacola. The Terriers did not want to go so far and come up empty yet again.

On March 14, as the astronauts of Apollo 9 were welcomed back to Houston after their four-million mile space voyage, the Terriers were welcomed to the Jacksonville Coliseum for an evening showdown against Coral Gables High School. Hillsborough played like a team determined not to let history repeat. Still, it took a pep talk at the half by head coach Bob Shiver to get his team in gear.

Trailing, 40-34, at the half -- the first time it had trailed at the intermission all season long -- Shiver challenged his team by reminding them of this fact and urging his team to be more aggressive on defense.With their playoff lives on the line, the Terriers responded with a 25-point third quarter to erase the lead while holding Coral Gables to only four points in the quarter. Charlie Green -- who else? -- added 12 points in the quarter en route to his 31 for the game. The rout was on and the Terriers pulled away, disposing of Coral Gables 84-62 to reach the state finals.

Standing in the way of Hillsborough were the Gainesville Hurricanes, led by multi-sport star Eddie McAshan. Named the state’s outstanding football player in 1968, McAshan earned a scholarship to attend Georgia Tech and a chance to compete for the starting quarterback position. The Terriers would have their hands full trying to stop McAshan, who registered 30 points and 22 rebounds in Gainesville’s semifinal win over Jacksonville Raines.

On March 15, in front of a crowd of 5,026 at the Jacksonville Coliseum, Hillsborough once again found itself down at the half. Green rallied the Terriers late and sank two free throws with 1:25 left to tie the score at 50. The Terriers took their first lead of the game when Ron Mitchell added two more free throws to give Hillsborough a 52-50 advantage.

McAshan proved clutch for Gainesville by hitting a short jump shot with just seconds left to tie the game at 52. In what turned out to be a costly mistake, Charlie Green committed an offensive foul – his fifth of the game – while driving to the basket with two seconds left. The game went into overtime, and Hillsborough played a version of “four corners” to control the ball and run down the clock. The Terriers held the ball for 2:45 of the three-minute overtime until the Hurricanes pressured Charley Henderson, in for the fouled-out Green, at mid-court to force a jump ball. McAshan controlled the tip and sank the game-winning shot from eight feet out with 13 seconds left in overtime. His 15th and 16th points of the game sealed the deal for Gainesville, sending the Terriers to yet another heartbreaking defeat in the finals, 54-52.

Despite a magnificent 28-2 season and the unforgettable play of their leader, Charlie Green, the Terriers fell just short in their bid for another state title. In a strange twist, the championship was the first for Gainesville since 1922, when it defeated none other than the Hillsborough Terriers by an identical two-point margin.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Bandits v. Bulls on ESPN, 3/10/84

In their second season of existence in 1984, the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League got off to a running start. After barely missing the playoffs in 1983, the Bandits opened the next campaign with a pair of victories against the Houston Gamblers and Arizona Wranglers.

The Jacksonville Bulls -- owners of a 1-1 mark -- came to Tampa Stadium on March 10, 1984, for a Saturday night contest broadcast nationwide on ESPN. With a Country & Western Night theme featuring a Dolly Parton lookalike contest, the game billed as "The Battle for Florida" featured the two best offensive attacks in the league. The Bulls, behind the arm of former University of Georgia quarterback Matt Robinson, led the USFL's Eastern Conference in passing. The Bandits, led by former Robinson High School and University of Florida standout John Reaves, were second only to the Bulls in that department.

As an expansion team in 1984, the Bulls quickly became the talk of the league. Jacksonville shocked everyone in Week 1 against the Washington Federals, scoring a USFL-record 53 points in a rout. The following week against the New Jersey Generals, the Bulls broke a USFL attendance record at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville with a crowd of more than 73,000. If not for a controversial finish in which a Jacksonville field goal was ruled no good despite video evidence to the contrary, the Bulls could have easily carried a 2-0 mark into the showdown with Tampa Bay.

"I think there was a false sense that expansion teams were going to be a year behind us," said then-Tampa Bay head coach Steve Spurrier. "There's a competitive group of owners in this league and they realize that if their teams don't play well, people aren't going to come out to the games."

The Bulls were certainly playing well, and the Bandits had their work cut out for them against the first-year upstarts. In front of a team-record crowd of 51,274, Jacksonville put Tampa Bay in a hole early, capitalizing on two interceptions by Reaves in the game's first six minutes. Linebacker Fernando Jackson picked off an underthrown pass by Reaves at Tampa Bay's own 31 yard line. This play set up the the Bulls first score, a four-yard touchdown reception by Michael Whitting. Kicker Dan Miller missed the extra point wide right, resulting in a 6-0 lead for Jacksonville.

Andy Hendel's interception on Tampa Bay's ensuing possession set up the Bulls at the Bandits' 8-yard line. Running back Larry Mason ran the ball in from the five for the score, and following a failed two-point conversion, Jacksonville held a lead 12-0 lead over Tampa Bay.

The Bandits answered by making the most of their best offensive weapon, running back Gary Anderson. The former University of Arkansas star led the Bandits on the ground and through the air on a 16-play, 85-yard drive to answer the Bulls. Anderson capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run -- his fifth of the young season -- to cut the defecit to 12-7.

Jacksonville's lead slipped to three points when Alonzo Johnson blocked Rich Hendley's punt out of the end zone for the first registered safety in Bandits history. Following the free kick, the Bandits were on the move when Reaves threw his third interception of the half to thwart a promising drive.

The Bulls capitalized on the mistake with a 13-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Quarterback Matt Robinson provided the points -- but was lost for the rest of the game to injury -- on his one-yard touchdown plunge that gave his team an 18-9 lead.

With just 54 seconds left in the first half, the Bandits drove the length of the field to set up a field goal attempt for kicker Zenon Andrusyshyn. His kick from 28 yards out was good and the Bandits, despite three turnovers, went into the locker room trailing by only six points, 18-12.

The Bandits tied the game with 6:15 left in the third quarter when Reaves tossed his first touchdown pass of the season, a 33-yard strike to wide receiver Eric Truvillion. Andrusyshyn shanked the extra point attempt, leaving the game tied at 18.

On Jacksonville's next possession, the Tampa Bay defense forced Robinson's replacement at quarterback, Robbie Mahfouz, into a costly interception deep in their own territory. Fullback Greg Boone capped the short Tampa Bay drive with a 9-yard TD run to give Tampa Bay their first lead of the game.

Leading 25-18 with a chance to pull away from the Bulls, Reaves threw his fourth interception of the game. Jacksonville's Willie McClendon then carried the ball five times on a six-play, 61-yard drive that concluded with his six-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to notch the score at 25.

Once a hero, McClendon became the goat for Jacksonville when he fumbled at the Tampa Bay 40 with 5:21 left. After exchanging punts in a field position battle, Tampa Bay capitalized with time winding down in the game. Reaves, whose four picks nearly cost Tampa Bay the game, led the Bandits down to the Jacksonville 13-yard-line with just six seconds remaining. Despite a poor snap from center, Willie Gillespie made a great hold and Andrusyshyn's 30-yard field goal was true, giving the Bandits a hard-fought and harrowing 28-25 triumph.

The win propelled the Bandits to a 3-0 mark, the same record it held after three weeks in 1983. The previous edition of the Bandits ended up finishing 11-7 and out of the playoffs. Still, players on the team believed there was plenty of improvement ahead for Tampa Bay.

"We can be a whole lot better," Reaves said.

Added Greg Boone, "I don't think anybody is better than us on offense, and I don't see anybody physically better than us."

Undefeated and atop the Southern Division, the Bandits certainly had reason to feel 1984 would make the disappointments of 1983 a distant memory.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Roy Emerson Defies Australia, 3/1/64

When tennis star Roy Emerson arrived in Tampa 45 years ago this week to compete in the Dixie International Tennis Tournament, officials in his native country of Australia were not pleased. The world’s top-ranked man, Emerson came to Tampa in defiance of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia.

The LTAA, upset about Australia’s loss to the United States in Davis Cup competition, ordered players such as Emerson, Fred Stolle, Ken Fletcher, and Bob Hewitt cease their international travels and return home. Officially, the LTAA claimed these players must return to Australia and compete in local tournaments only until March 31, 1964.

The players had to cease playing in any overseas tournaments by Feb. 28. Furthermore, the players were forbidden to accept expense money for playing international tournaments until that after that date. By appearing at the Dixie International in Tampa, Emerson risked a one-year ban from representing Australia in international competitions like the Davis Cup.

While Stolle and Hewitt ultimately decided to skip the tournament, Emerson and Fletcher defied the order by the LTAA. Emerson appealed to the organization by claiming he was traveling at his own expense and thus not violating any rules. Tournament officials rewarded him with a top seed, ahead of two-time defending Dixie International champion Manuel Santana, who beat Stolle in the finals of the 1963 Dixie tournament.

While Fletcher made an early exit in the second round of the Dixie, falling to unseeded Ecuadorian Eduardo Zuleta in three sets, Emerson rolled over the competition on his way to the semifinals. Prior to his match against Jose Arilla of Spain, Emerson found out the LTAA had denied his request to continue playing in America. Fortunately for Emerson, an amateur, he received a $50,000 offer a few days earlier from the International Professional Tennis Players Association to turn pro.

“If (Fletcher and I) are suspended, this makes the offer more tempting,” Emerson said. “I would certainly hate to sit out a year.”

Emerson took down Arilla in four hard-fought sets to earn a berth in the finals against the defending champion Santana. Officials in Australia were not impressed.

The LTAA announced Emerson and Fletcher would be banned from Davis Cup competitions for a year. The announcement mentioned nothing, however, of suspensions from other tournaments. Fletcher, predictably, reacted to the news with disbelief.

“Most players play tennis so you can represent your country in the Davis Cup,” he said. “When you don’t have that, well, it just becomes a way of living, doesn’t it? You sort of lose interest.”

Fletcher’s ban became official when he paired with Emerson in a Dixie doubles semifinal match, a victory over Yugoslavians Nicola Pilic and Boro Jovanovic. Emerson earned his ban by playing against Arilla in the Dixie singles semifinal.

As if to prove the LTAA made a mistake in barring him from representing Australia, Emerson made the most of his showdown in the Dixie finals against Santana on March 1. In front of a capacity crowd of 1,000 at the Davis Islands Tennis Center, Emerson put on an impressive display of power and precision.

Using a punishing serve-and-volley attack, Emerson kept the defending champion off-balance. The two played a thrilling first set, as each took turns matching each other volley for volley, return for return and winner for winner. Emerson ultimately prevailed, 9-7, to capture the 50-minute set and the momentum for the rest of the match.

Emerson raced to a 5-1 lead in the second set by dictating play from the net. Santana went out meekly without a point in the final game of the set, which ended 6-2 in favor of Emerson. The Aussie then cruised to a 5-0 advantage in the third, but had to withstand a furious comeback by the proud Spaniard, who won four straight games to make things interesting. On serve with a chance to even up the set, Santana could produce just one more hold and thus relinquished his title to Emerson.

It would by no means be Emerson’s final title of the year. He went on to have one of the finest years of his career, winning three Grand Slams – including his first Wimbledon title – and at one point won 55 consecutive matches while losing only six times in 115 tries.

And in spite of all the hubbub, the LTAA relented and Emerson competed for Australia in the Davis Cup. It paid off for the Aussies, as Emerson won the deciding match of the Cup finals over Chuck McKinley of the United States.