Monday, April 27, 2009

Tampa Joins the NFL, 4/24/74

April 24, 1974, is remembered by some as the day William “Bud” Abbott – he of the Abbott and Costello comedy duo – died at the age of 78. Here in Tampa, however, it is known as one of the red-letter dates in local history. On that date 35 years ago, this officially became a big-time sports market when the National Football League awarded its 27th franchise to the Tampa Bay area.

The Drake Hotel in New York City provided the backdrop for the momentous announcement that would forever change the face of this community. For the then-record expansion fee of $16 million ($66.5 million in today’s dollars), the Tampa Bay area would have its own franchise to begin play just two years later in 1976. By comparison, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers each paid $140 million in expansion fees to join the league in 1995, while the Houston Texans paid $700 million to enter as the league’s 32nd franchise in 2002.

The Tampa Bay area beat out other cities such as Memphis, Phoenix, and Honolulu for the right to join the NFL. Seattle, although not awarded a franchise on that day, was a lock to become the 28th franchise pending the approval of their stadium lease situation. So Tampa’s selection essentially ended the drama of where the NFL would expand to in 1976.

Commissioner Pete Rozelle cited several reasons that set the Tampa Bay area apart from the 25 other cities that originally applied for a franchise. Among those reasons was the region’s population, potential for growth, stable economy, nearby airport, weather, the support for the 12 exhibition games played in Tampa since 1968, and the “strong desire for the community to obtain a franchise.”

Still undecided were two fairly important details: determining who would take ownership of the franchise and what the team would be called. The NFL awarded the franchise to the area, not a person or group, so the application process would again have to run its course. The franchises eventual nickname, the Buccaneers, would not be announced until 1975.

Tampa Stadium would also need to conform to NFL standards. The awarding of the franchise hinged on expanding the stadium’s seating capacity to at least 72,000. To increase capacity in the 46,000-seat stadium, both the north and south ends of Tampa Stadium would need to be enclosed to meet the requirement. Additional upgrades to the press box, locker rooms, and grandstands would be necessary to get the stadium NFL-ready by 1976.

On October 30, 1974, the NFL awarded ownership rights to Tom McCloskey, a contractor from Philadelphia. Due to personal and financial problems, McCloskey later backed out and withdrew his application. Then in December, the NFL awarded the franchise to a tax attorney from Jacksonville named Hugh Culverhouse. The rest, as they say, is history.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rowdies Avoid Strike, 4/14/79

Just a few weeks into the 1979 season, the Tampa Bay Rowdies faced a major challenge that had nothing to do with an on-field opponent. The North American Soccer League Players Association (NASLPA), only formed the previous summer, proposed a strike to commence on Friday April 13. The NASPL contended that a strike would be an appropriate response to the North American Soccer League's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the union led by Executive Director Ed Garvey, who served in the same capacity for the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).

League owners resented the presence of Garvey, who led the NFLPA through a strike in 1974, and worried that he would be a detriment to the relationship between players and owners. Also at issue was the status of the hundreds of players in the United States on work visas. Going on strike would threaten their status and possibly result in deportation. The owners, whose most bankable stars were from either South America or Europe, cringed at the thought of the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) deporting their best players.

Players certainly could not have known what to think or who to believe. If the INS recognized the strike, foreign players who crossed the picket line could face deportation. The Justice Department, however, contended that any player who went on strike would violate his H-2 work visa and also face deportation. A U.S. District Court judge, in the meantime, ruled that he would not allow any player to be deported without a full and thorough accounting of the situation.

Throughout the week, however, all indications were that the Tampa Bay Rowdies would go forward with their scheduled game on April 14 at Tampa Stadium against the Toronto Blizzard, despite a vote of 252-113 by players around the league who favored a strike. Still, Rowdies owner George Strawbridge expressed his contempt for the secret ballot vote, calling it a "Russian election."

"It's a most unfortunate thing when a man from another sport can only produce an action that is so destructive to the sport," Strawbridge said. "It is quite discouraging for me personally."

Friday the 13th arrived and the team practiced as usual while waiting word from Garvey about the strike. Around 11:15 a.m., each team received a message from Garvey announcing the strike via telex.

"This is an unfair labor practice strike," the statement read. "We ask only one thing and that is recognition. Needless energy will be inflicted on the NASL by your refusal to recognize the NASLPA and come to the bargaining table."

Rowdies coach Gordon Jago ripped Garvey for disrupting the season and threatening a sport still trying to grow in popularity.

"I don't think Mr. Garvey has the best interests of the game at heart," Jago said. "This game is just trying to get on its feet. It is not in a position to take a strike. People who are just getting interested will lose interest."

The Rowdies, as a team, seemed to grasp this and expressed little interest in going on strike. The players reached a decision on whether to strike on Friday afternoon, but Farrukh Quraishi, the Rowdies' player representative, declined to announce their intentions until the following day so as not to influence other players around the country.

Hours before their game against Toronto, Quraishi explained that the Rowdies would not go on strike. He said that while the team agreed in the necessity of a player's association, they could not support "a strike-action which could threaten the very existence of the game which we are all trying to establish in the United States."

He added that the team would play out of respect for their fans and the burgeoning sport. Team captain Rodney Marsh never believed the Rowdies would go on strike, calling the prospect "sheer lunacy."

The Rowdies showed their appreciation and respect for their fans by putting on a memorable show against Toronto. Tampa Bay set a league record with four goals in a 5:01 span in the first half en route to a 7-1 shellacking of the Blizzard in front of 23,675 fans.

On April 17, the strike's outcome started to become clear. The INS issued a decision saying that foreign players participating in league games would not face deportation if they had valid work visas prior to the strike. Foreign-born players on the Rowdies were finally able to breathe easy.

No longer having any leverage over the players, Garvey called an end to the five-day strike the following day.

Farrukh Quraishi said that despite the failure of the strike, it at least drew some attention to the issues facing soccer players.

"People now may not take for granted that soccer players are highly paid and have the life of Riley that some might think we have," he said. "Now, people can understand some of the problems in the sport and maybe something can be done to get changes for the better."

Monday, April 13, 2009

How The Sun Dome was Named, 4/9/79

When the University of South Florida debuted its basketball program in 1970, it had yet to find a suitable place to call home. At the time, the only venue on campus to watch basketball was a 1,500-seat gym more suitable for pick-up games and intramural competitions than spectator sports.

In the beginning, the Golden Brahmans -- as the Bulls were known in those days -- played against community college and freshman teams. The team called Curtis Hixon Hall, located on Ashley Drive some 10 miles south of the school's campus, its temporary home. During the first decade of the program, USF would also host "home" games at the Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory, the Civic Center in Lakeland and the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg. This would change once and for all with the construction of a multipurpose arena located on the southeast corner of the school's campus.

In 1977, the Florida Board of Regents agreed to approve funding for the 10,000-seat facility that would serve as home for USF's basketball programs. Ground-breaking for the $7 million arena took place late in 1977, with a targeted opening date of Fall 1979.

First, however, the arena needed to be named. In April 1979, WLFA's Jack Harris -- who also served as the basketball team's play-by-play announcer -- came up with the idea to have a contest to determine the facility's name. The "Whatchamacallit" contest, as it came to be known, promised to deliver a unique name for the unique arena featuring an air-supported, fiberglass Teflon-coated roof.

As with any contest of this nature, the entries ranged from the unimaginative to the creative to the self-referential. Such entries included the "Cecil Mackey Snap Judgment Center," in reference to former university president Dr. Cecil M. Mackey; wordplay names based on the school mascot such as "Brahman Common," "Bull Pen," "Full O' Bull Hall" and the "Angus Arena"; bizarre submissions such as "Circus Maximus," "Gama Rama," "Campus Pollywog," "Omnipod" and "Xanadu" also dotted the nearly 600 entries received.

On April 9, 1979, the University of South Florida "Whatchamacallit" finally received its name. A committee headed by USF President John Lott Brown, determined the winner based on a Final Four selection of entries.

Brown announced the name on Harris's morning radio show, revealing the name that has stuck for the last 30 years: The Sun Dome. Other finalist names included the Brahman Coliseum, Sun Arena, Suncoast Coliseum and Suncoast Spectrum. Richard Bowers, the university's athletic director, called the Sun Dome an "ideal name."

"We're on the Suncoast, in the Sun Belt Conference," Bowers said. "We're going to start hosting the Big Sun Tournament, and the sun is a dominant feature of this area. Put it together with the fact the facility is covered by a Teflon dome, and what else could you call it?"

USF student Gini David, as the first person in the contest to submit The Sun Dome as a suggestion, earned two passes for every event at the arena for 10 years. Men's basketball coach Chip Connors called the selection of the name "perfect."

Not all was perfect with the Sun Dome itself, however, as construction problems and cost overruns delayed the project for two more years. By March 1980, the roof had been completely installed but the building remained a work in progress. In March 1981, USF director of facilities planning Mike Patterson predicted it would take another year to fully complete the project.

The Sun Dome opened Nov. 29, 1980, as the Bulls took on the Florida A&M Rattlers. The roof leaked and the Bulls lost by two points, 65-63. The official dedication game, however, would come later on Dec. 3, 1980, in a nationally televised ESPN contest against the Duke Blue Devils. The Bulls lost that one too, 83-72, but a new era in South Florida athletics had begun.

Jack Harris remembers that despite the glitches, just being in a permanent facility made all the difference.

“It was great to finally get a place to call home,” he says. “The Sun Dome was a tremendous step forward for the basketball program. Those were exciting times, to say the least, and we saw some pretty good basketball on that brand spanking new floor.”

As for the “Whatchamacallit” contest, Harris reveals now that it wasn’t really as wide-open as some might have believed.

“We pretty much knew from the beginning that the name was going to be The Sun Dome,” he recalls. “We put the contest out there, nevertheless, to allow someone to suggest it and win, and make sure we hadn’t overlooked an even more impressive name.”

Regardless of how the dome earned its moniker, the name hit the mark as evidenced by its continued use. In an era of soulless corporate sponsored arenas, it's good to know that The Sun Dome still shines on to this day.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Catching Up with Joey Jay, Part II

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 his 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 second of a two-part interview with Joey Jay.

Q. So was it your connection with the Reds that brought you here to Tampa?

A. No, actually we moved to Tampa while I was still with the Braves. They were training in Bradenton. I can’t remember all the circumstances, but we actually lived in Lutz because we found a piece of property we liked. We went into the chicken business at the time (laughs). We were raising chickens. It just happened to work out that we already had a home nearby when I got traded to the Reds, who had their training headquarters here.

Q. In Milwaukee, you got to play with a young Hank Aaron, and when you were traded to Cincinnati, Pete Rose had just come on the scene. What are your memories of a young Pete Rose?

A. I remember him very well when he came up. Charlie Hustle! I was always impressed with his hustle. I mean he had a lot of enthusiasm and that impressed everyone. I got to play with him early in his career. I also saw Johnny Bench when he first came up. I didn’t get to play with him, but he was in our Spring Training camp. He was very impressive as a young man, and saw that the Reds had the making of a great future.

Q. You finished your career with the Braves in 1966, their first season in Atlanta.

A. Yeah, I got traded back there. I was having arm trouble and that was just a stop on the way out. I think they got me back out of sentiment, probably. The years I was in Cincinnati, I had very good success against the Braves. When we’d go to Milwaukee to play them, the writers always tried to extract some kind of story out of me that would show some bitterness. I never gave them the satisfaction, because I really did have a lot of respect for the Braves. They treated me well and a trade was just part of the business, so I never said anything bad against them. So I think that was kind of their way of paying me back by giving me that last chance. My arm was giving me a lot of trouble, and they didn’t have the sports medicine back then that they do today. I just wasn’t able to recover. So I retired at 30 years old, which was kind of young.

Q. What did you do with your life after you left baseball?

A. A bit of everything. We lived in New York, all over the country really. I’ve done different things. We raised cattle for a while. At one point, I owned a taxi cab company in West Virginia. Back then, you had to have another career. Even during the off-season, players were working on other careers. It wasn’t the pay scale they have today where you can afford to train year-round. So after I got out of baseball, I just started another life.

Q. Do you still keep up with the game today?

A. In the sense that I still watch it on television. I don’t keep in touch with the players too much. We’ve been dispersed all over the country. But baseball has a fraternity, and I belong to it. I don’t follow it as closely as I used to, but I still keep up with it. I enjoy watching the local team, the Rays. They’re a great team and very exciting. I watched them a lot last year. Cincinnati honored me with the (team) Hall of Fame induction last year, so I keep in touch with them a little bit. They offer to bring me up there occasionally for appearances and things like that. Other than that, I’m basically retired.

Q. Do you have any thoughts on the so-called “Steroid Era” of baseball? As a one-time teammate of Hank Aaron, was it hard to see his record broken in what may have been a dirty manner?

A. It’s nothing I know anything about, really. I’m not an expert in the field. I don’t know what steroids do. I know they don’t hit the ball for you. They don’t perform for you. As I understand it, they enhance your physical ability to some degree. It seems they enhance a player's strength, so I suppose that equates into hitting more home runs. I don’t really know that for a fact, though if you look at the statistics home runs have gone down now.

There are other things that are involved too. When Henry Aaron played, I don’t know what he did in the off-season, but most of us players had jobs. Now, the players train all year 'round. They can do that because of their contracts. The training and medicine available is better too. In my day, I probably could have pitched another six years with what’s available today.

There have been other controversies in baseball, such as the live ball era. There were years when the ball was dead, then all of a sudden you had a lot of home runs, so they’d accuse them of livening the ball up.

You look at the Pittsburgh Pirates. They moved the fence at Forbes Field about 30 feet in for Hank Greenberg. They called it “Greenberg’s Gardens.” Ralph Kiner ended up taking advantage of it. So there were all those things going on, but steroids are not a good thing. I don’t mean to sound like I’m glossing over it. Still, I blame the players less than I blame leadership in baseball. They should have come out more strongly against it. They either didn’t know what they were doing, or didn’t know the so-called force of steroids.