Monday, June 29, 2009

Rowdies Lose Grudge Match, 6/23/79

Near the midway point of the 1979 season, the Tampa Bay Rowdies had every reason to become complacent. The Rowdies, winners of four straight and nine in a row at home, sat atop the NASL's American Conference with 109 points and a league-best 13-4 record.
Yet despite the presence of a British film crew in town to document a portion of their season, the Rowdies made a move unprecedented in their five-year history: an entirely closed practice. No parties were spared: media, family members, fans, kids from the "Camp Kickinthegrass." All were considered persona non grata as the team geared up for a June 23, 1979, showdown against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.

Coach Gordon Jago described the move as "a little quiet time for ourselves. It ought to give us a calming effect."

Perhaps the Rowdies needed some calming after a blowout 4-0 win at Tampa Stadium over the 12-3 Houston Hurricane in their previous game.
Sweeper Mike Connell hoped to see his team play even better against Ft. Lauderdale before crowning Tampa Bay as the team to beat in the NASL.

"If we can play like that Saturday against Ft. Lauderdale,” he said, “that's when I'll say we have a great side."

The upcoming contest against the Strikers began taking the shape of an inter-state grudge match. Ft. Lauderdale, on an impressive streak of their own, came in to Tampa winners in seven of their previous eight games.
English comedian Jasper Carrott, host of the documentary being made about the Rowdies, glowed about the prospects of the rivalry between Tampa Bay and Ft. Lauderdale.

"In England, many of the teams are located just a few miles apart," Carrott said. "Tampa and Ft. Lauderdale are a couple hundred miles apart, but the rivalry is there.
We want to see the crowd's reaction. We know it will be large and several thousand people will attend from Ft. Lauderdale. We'd like to see how an intense rivalry like this is handled here."

Tampa Bay's best, and most visible player, had a special role in stoking the budding rivalry. In 1978, Marsh called Ft. Lauderdale fans uneducated about soccer and suggested they would learn more about the game by watching the Rowdies instead of their own team. His remarks drew jeers from the fans in South Florida, and some aggressive play directed his way on the field may have cost Ft. Lauderdale an important game. He predicted nothing short of a repeat performance.

"Let them be mad at me," Marsh said. "That'll take their minds off playing the game. I would say the pressure is all on the Strikers."

In front of a season-high crowd of 41,102 fans at Tampa Stadium, the Strikers handled the pressure well in the early going. Former Rowdies goalie Arnold Mausser played brilliantly for the Strikers, stopping 10 shots on goal by Tampa Bay in the first half, including a point-blank save on Steve Wegerle just seconds before the end of the half.

"We should have gone up 3-0," Marsh would say after the game. "They held on and we just didn't put them away."

Ft. Lauderdale would get on the board first, scoring at the 48:41 mark of the second half on a goal by Peruvian Teofilo Cubillas to make the score 1-0.
Tampa Bay responded just over seven minutes later as Marsh and Wes McLeod assisted on a goal by Peter Baralic to even up the contest, 1-1.

Prior to the game, Marsh predicted that if the Strikers scored the first goal, the game would be low scoring because Ft. Lauderdale, he said, would sit back and try to defend their one goal. This is exactly what happened, and the teams played it even to the end.

Tampa Bay had a late scare, however, as a Ft. Lauderdale goal was disallowed due to an offsides call. With the score tied, the game then headed into overtime.

In the extra period, Gerd Mueller would make Tampa Bay pay. The West German star took a Ray Hudson corner kick off his chest and put the ball past Rowdies goalie Zeljko Bilecki at the 103:11 mark to give Ft. Lauderdale a 2-1 upset victory. The goal stunned the Tampa Stadium crowd who had not seen their Rowdies fall to Ft. Lauderdale since 1975, when they were known as the Miami Toros.

Despite the loss, however, neither Marsh nor Jago were sold on the Strikers.

"There is no doubt in my mind," Marsh said, "that we were the better team."

"I'll back us against Ft. Lauderdale any day," Jago said. "I don't fancy their program any."

Jasper Carrott, noting the lack of good-will between the teams, surely must have been smiling all the way back to England.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Soccer Comes to Tampa Bay, 6/19/74

In April 1974, the Tampa Bay area rejoiced over the news that its first professional sports franchise -- a National Football League team -- would start play in time for the 1976 season.

Just two months later, however, the news broke that another professional sport would actually arrive before football. On June 19, 1974, the National American Soccer League (NASL) announced that it would expand to the Tampa Bay area in January 1975.

In a press conference at the Hawaiian Village on Dale Mabry Highway, NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam introduced Tampa to the world's most popular game, describing soccer as "football, black and white spot style."

The league's 16th franchise would be owned by someone from outside the Bay area, Philadelphia businessman George Strawbridge. The vice president of Summit Airlines and a part-owner of hockey's Buffalo Sabres, Strawbridge believed that the Tampa Bay area, as one of the nation's fastest growing communities and the 20th largest television market, was the ideal home for a soccer franchise.

"The climate is great," Strawbridge said. "And Tampa Stadium is positively the most magnificent stadium I have ever seen."

Accompanying Strawbridge to Tampa would be his life-long friend Beau Rogers, who would serve as a minority owner as well as the team's general manager. Rogers, who served in the same capacity with the Philadelphia Atoms in 1973, came with credentials. In the Atom's first season of existence, he brought Philadelphia a NASL championship.

The two personally sought out Woosnam with the idea to bring an expansion franchise to the Tampa Bay area. Once the rental of Tampa Stadium was secured, for the tidy sum of $100,000 ($4.3 million in today's dollars) the two friends had bought themselves a professional soccer franchise.

Woosnam believed that the team would be in excellent hands between Strawbridge and Rogers.

"With owners who are this knowledgeable and experienced in the professional sports field," he said, "we believe that the Tampa Bay area and all of central Florida will be developed into a major soccer market."

Prior to taking the field at Tampa Stadium, however, the franchise still had several orders of business. First off, the team needed a head coach. The search would begin days later at the NASL owner's meeting in St. Louis. With no particular candidates in mind, however, Rogers said finding the best man for the job would be a priority, and that they needed to identify that person "as soon as it's humanly possible."

The next step would be to stock the team with players. Unlike in the NFL, NASL expansion teams were not limited to signing castoffs from other teams. In addition to participating in a college draft, Tampa Bay's soccer club would be able to sign top-flight talent from around the world with few restrictions.

Finally, the franchise needed a name. Strawbridge and Rogers planned on holding a contest later in the year to name the team.

"This is Tampa's team," Rogers said, "and we want the people to name it."

Tampa's first professional sports franchise to take the field came to be known as the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Lead by Head Coach Eddie Firmani and high-scoring forward Derek Smethurst, the Rowdies made their debut in January 1975. The team played their home games, however, at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg during the 10-game indoor portion of the schedule.

By May, the Rowdies had begun the outdoor portion of the season at Tampa Stadium, fielding a competitive and exciting team poised to compete for the league championship.

"We want to bring the first championship team to Tampa," Strawbridge boasted, "and I think it will be easier to do in soccer than in football."

He could not have been more correct. While it would take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 seasons to win a football world title, the Rowdies were able to accomplish that goal in their inaugural season, ultimately defeating the Portland Timbers in Soccer Bowl ’75 to capture the league championship.

Monday, June 15, 2009

USF Basketball is Born, 6/12/69

On June 12, 1969, the University of South Florida took an important step towards becoming a major athletic power. University President John S. Allen announced that the school would play intercollegiate men's basketball in time for the 1970-71 season, pending approval by the State Board of Regents.

The USF athletic committee had submitted their request for Allen's approval on March 11. After determining that the program could be financed through a student service and athletic fee, Allen said that the school could begin building a basketball team.

"As our enrollment grows," Allen said, "our income from the activity and service fee grows, and we can now finance the addition of basketball to the list of intercollegiate sports."

USF had just completed its first season competing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The school fielded entries in baseball, men's and women's tennis, swimming, cross country, golf and soccer. It would take the addition of basketball, however, to begin legitimizing USF's athletic program. With an enrollment of nearly 14,000 heading into the 1969 fall semester, the school could no longer justify not being big enough to support a basketball team.

Still, USF could not and would not jump right into the deep end of college basketball at the beginning. Instead, the school would begin by fielding a freshman team. Games against junior colleges would follow, before eventually squaring off against other similar sized universities.

The journey to basketball began innocently enough in the early 1960s. A group of former high school basketball players created a non-sanctioned traveling team that played against other small schools and community colleges around the state. The day after a game against Manatee Community College, the final score made the newspaper and their identities were revealed. USF's administration found out and forced the group to cancel its remaining games.

Then in 1967, a student named Frank Winkles made bringing basketball to the school a priority while serving on the USF Senate.

Together with fellow student and future Student Body President Steve Anderson, they worked together to conduct a poll of USF students and faculty. Their poll determined that a majority were in favor of basketball and football programs.

"Our strategy was to make a presentation to the Board of Regents in a scholarly way," Winkles recalls. "We did a sophisticated polling and statistical analysis, and all the statistics and polling supported the desire for intercollegiate basketball at USF."

Winkles further led the charge by engaging Allen, as well as other regents, on this issue. Realizing that football was financially infeasible at the time -- and knowing Allen's long-standing opposition to football -- basketball became the primary focus of Winkles and other student leaders.

"Allen wanted to have what he called a 'scholastic' university," Winkles says. "There weren't going to be intercollegiate sports, especially football and basketball. He was very much opposed to them. We decided at the time that the most economically feasible sport to pursue would be basketball."

Opposition to an intercollegiate basketball program was not limited just to President Allen. Winkles remembers a humorous story of a university employee whose objection to basketball had nothing to do with financial concerns.

"There was a librarian on the athletic committee," he says. "His argument against voting for basketball was that the noise on campus would bother students who were trying to study."

It took some time, but eventually the group had their day in front of the university's athletic council. Despite Allen's protestations, the council approved the plan by an 8-4 margin on March 11.

The Board of Regents finally gave its approval for the basketball program in July, clearing the way for the hiring of the team's first coach and recruitment of its first players. Opening tip-off at Curtis Hixon Hall, after all, was just 510 short days away.

Today, Winkles believes that despite Allen's opposition to intercollegiate athletics, USF's first president would approve of the school's emerging role as both a research center and major player in college sports.

"Let's not forget, President Allen did some really admirable things in the beginning," he says. "He helped establish a very solid university that is well regarded today for its scholastics. I think he'd be very proud of USF today."

"But," Winkles adds," he still probably wish they didn't have intercollegiate athletics."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Steve Young Becomes a Buc, 6/5/84

As the calendar turned from May to June in 1984, the song "Let's Hear It for the Boy" from the Footloose soundtrack reigned at the top of the charts for the second week in a row.

Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans, disheartened by a 2-14 season in 1983, were finally given reason to say "let's hear it for the Bucs" on June 5. That afternoon in the National Football League's supplemental draft, Tampa Bay selected a franchise-quality player from the rival United States Football League: quarterback Steve Young of the Los Angeles Express.

Tampa Bay earned the first selection overall in the draft by having the league’s worst record in 1983. The timing could not have been better either, as the Buccaneers had gone two consecutive seasons without any first round picks. It is worth a brief detour to explain how that happened, one of the more amusing stories in team history.

In the 1982 draft, the Buccaneers held the 17th overall selection and intended on drafting defensive end Booker Reese out of Bethune-Cookman College. At the team's draft table in New York, equipment manager Frank Marcuccillo manned the speaker phone to receive instructions from personnel director Ken Herock. Murcuccillo heard the name of Penn State guard Sean Farrell with instructions to write his name on a card.

With the Buccaneers on the clock, Murcuccillo was told to turn in the card. What he failed to hear due to a poor connection were instructions to write the name Booker Reese on a card as well, and to turn that card in as the selection.

Consequently, Tampa Bay selected Reese by mistake. To make up for it -- or to make things worse, as history would show -- the Buccaneers traded up in the second round with the Chicago Bears in order to select Reese. Tampa Bay also threw in their number one draft pick in 1983 for the honor.

Reese started just seven games in two seasons with the Buccaneers before being traded to the Los Angeles Rams for a 12th round pick. This would be the least of the team's problems, however, as the departure of quarterback Doug Williams resulted in the trading of yet another first round pick.

To replace Williams, the Buccaneers sent their first round pick in 1984 to the Cincinnati Bengals for Jack Thompson, a third-string quarterback. Thompson, like Reese, would play just two seasons in Buccaneer orange before walking the plank.

This brings us back to the supplemental draft in June 1984, and the team still desperate to find a replacement for Williams. If anyone could do that, it would have been Steve Young.

While starring at Brigham Young University, Young set or tied 13 NCAA records and captured both the Davey O' Brien and Sammy Baugh Awards as the nation's top quarterback. In short, Young had a track record for winning and could beat defenses through the air or on the ground.

His status as an elite collegian earned him a contract with the Express believed at the time to be the highest in the history of sports, a 10-year, $40 million deal to be paid in an annuity over 40 years. Under contract with the Express, the Buccaneers could merely draft his NFL rights and hope to negotiate with him down the road. Despite the length of his deal, Young's contract with the Express officially expired in November 1987.

As expected, the Buccaneers used their number one selection on Young. It would take another season, however, before Young could negotiate his way out of Los Angeles and the sinking USFL. He would finally sign with the Buccaneers just after the start of the 1985 campaign.

As Buccaneer fans know, this would not turn out to be a marriage made in heaven. Young shared quarterback duties with Steve DeBerg for two forgettable seasons in 1985 and 1986. Under head coach Leman Bennett, the Buccaneers posted matching 2-14 records during those seasons.

Yet for all of his talents, Young could barely make an impact on those terrible Buccaneer teams. Sharing time with DeBerg in 1985, Young threw three touchdowns and eight interceptions in five games. As the team's primary starter in 1986, he threw for 2,282 yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for 425 yards on the ground. Still, the local media named Young as the team's Most Valuable Player that season for his efforts.

When Ray Perkins took over as head coach in 1987, the writing was on the wall for Young in Tampa Bay. With rookie Vinny Testaverde set to become the new quarterback of the future in Tampa Bay, the team sent Young to the San Francisco 49ers for two draft picks and $500,000 in cash.

As a 49er, Young would go on to have a Hall of Fame career, becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and winning a Super Bowl as a starter in January 1995. It's hard to imagine his career playing out the same way had he remained in Tampa, but in the summer of 1984 Buccaneer fans could still dream of a bright future with Young behind center for years to come.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Catching Up With Steve Henderson

Steve Henderson, a veteran of 12 major league seasons with the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, Oakland A's and Houston Astros, is one of the longest-tenured members of the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Currently in his fourth consecutive season as the Rays hitting coach (a position he also held in 1998), Henderson served as the team's minor league hitting coordinator from 1999-2005. Henderson, in his 34th season of professional baseball, recently sat down to talk about his playing days, coaching career and his long-standing ties to the Tampa Bay area.

Q. You played one season of Class-A ball for the Tampa Tarpons in 1975. What do you remember about your time playing for the Tarpons?

A. It was hot! There were nice people, and I enjoyed playing over in Tampa. That's where I met my wife too, so it was great. You know, Tampa was a small baseball town, really more of a football town back then. I enjoyed it, though. That was one of the reasons I moved here.

Q. You started your career in the Cincinnati Reds system before being traded to the New York Mets.

A. I played in the Reds organization for 3 1/2 years before being traded for a fella by the name of Mr. Tom Seaver in 1977.

Q. At the time, the Mets were still training in St. Petersburg, so you got to spend a fair share of time here even then.

A. I've spent a lot of time here in St. Petersburg. Then, I ended up playing for the St. Pete Pelicans of the Senior Professional Baseball League in 1989. We ended up winning the whole thing. Then I got the opportunity to come here and work, so that was a great feeling to come home again.

Q. Your manager with the Mets was Joe Torre. Can you talk about what it was like playing for him just as his managerial career got underway?

A. He took care of me real good. Coming over there for a guy like Seaver, who was a legend in his own right, was hard. The people in New York treated me real well, and like I said, Joe took good care of me.

Joe knew how to handle people, he knew how to handle the players, the press. I thought he did a good job, he just didn't have the team at the time to make it work.

Q. Who would you say had the biggest impact on your playing career and helped shape your perspective on the game?

A. There's a man by the name of Ron Plaza. He was a baseball guru. That's what I'd call him. He's with the Oakland A's in the minor league system right now, and is one of the guys that really got me going and believing in myself. He made me believe that I could do certain things even if I didn't have certain skills, but that I could work on them and get better.

Q. Is there a memorable moment from your playing career that still stands out today?

A. It would have to be one game. June 14, 1980, at Shea Stadium against the San Francisco Giants. My girlfriend had just flown up to New York because we were about to get engaged. I hit a home run with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth off Allen Ripley to win the game. We had come back from six runs behind to win, 7-6. That home run kind of put me on the map up there. Fans remembered me more for that home run than they did for me hitting .290 that season.

Q. You were traded to the Cubs for Dave Kingman, and played in Chicago from 1981-82. Do you believe in the theory that one reason the Cubs can never win a World Series is because of all the day games they used to play compared to other teams?

A. It wasn't that much fun for me, but I had to get used to it. You know, 81 day games is a lot. This was before they got the lights at Wrigley Field. It's almost like playing a Spring Training game every day. You've got to get up early, your routine has to change and everything. It can take a toll on any man.

Q. After your career, did you segue right into coaching?

A. I knew that's what I wanted to do. When I got out of the game, it just so happened that Chuck LaMar and Cam Bonifay, who were both with the Pittsburgh Pirates, came down to see me at winter ball. They asked me to be a coach. I said I'd be happy to do that, no problem. I went to Triple-A with a manager named Terry Collins from 1990-93. When Terry took the Houston Astros job, he hired me to be his outfield and baserunning coach. I wound up coaching there for three seasons (1994-96), and with Houston being my hometown, I thought that was just great. I finished my career there in 1988 and got to go back and coach.

Q. You had some great hitters on those Houston teams -- Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell. Who was the best pure hitter of the bunch?

A. All of those guys were pretty good, but Bagwell had the most power and speed. Biggio, well, he was the total package and could do it all.

Q. After Houston, you became the first hitting coach for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998.

A. Yeah, I coached on Larry Rothschild's staff for one season. Stuff didn't go well (laughs), so I wound up going down to work in the minor leagues. When Joe (Maddon) came over, they asked me to interview for the job and I got it.

Q. You've seen just about every hitter to come through the organization.

A. Every last one of them.

Q. So who is the best pure hitting prospect to come through this organization?

A. We've had several great hitters come through, and right now Longo (Evan Longoria) could be one of them. Crawford could be one of them. As far as the best, there's so many guys. We had a kid named Josh Hamilton, too, so we've had some good hitters here.

Q. Speaking of Josh Hamilton, what do you think about the way he's turned his career around these last few years?

A. I'm very happy for him. He just got sidetracked. He's a good kid.

Q. As far as this team goes, when you talk about pure hitters like Longoria and Crawford, can you explain just what makes them such great hitters?

A. That's a good question. I think it's just their patience and their ability to make adjustments up at the plate.

Q. As somebody he's been a part of the Rays organization for 12 seasons, can you talk about what last season meant for you?

A. That was something very special for me, Tom Foley, Steve Livesey and the people in the front office who went through all the hard times. I can't even express how much because I never got to the World Series when I played -- never even got to the playoffs -- so it was great feeling to experience all those things here where it all started.