Monday, August 31, 2009

Catching Up With Farrukh Quraishi

Farrukh Quraishi, an original member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, is one of Tampa’s best ambassadors for the sport of soccer. Quraishi played for the Rowdies from 1974-1980, served as the first president and general manager of the Tampa Bay Mutiny from 1995-96, and was the Venue Executive Director for World Cup USA ’94 in Orlando. He made news earlier this month for his efforts in trying to land Tampa as a host site for World Cup games in 2018 or 2022. Quraishi recently sat down to discuss his playing career, the glory days of Rowdies soccer, and what it will take to bring World Cup competition to Tampa.

Q. In 1974, you were recognized as the best male college soccer player in the United States by winning the Hermann Trophy. Did you anticipate going straight into professional soccer here in the U.S.?

A. Well, I was taken first overall by the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who had the first pick in the 1975 North American Soccer League draft. The closest I had ever been to Tampa – and my first time in Florida -- was Winter Park, where we played the Senior Bowl at Rollins College in December 1974. Eddie Firmani, who had already been hired as the Rowdies coach, came over to watch the game and they drafted me one month later.

Q. What was that first season like here in Tampa?

A. I think soccer here was something of an unknown. There were no youth leagues, but because we were the first professional team in town, and because we had such a strong, unique brand, I think it really piqued people’s interest. Preceding the Buccaneers by one year was a major factor in the acceptance of the club, but also that we were very successful from day one on the field. The players were very accessible off the field as well, so the community just embraced the team.

Q. Hard not to embrace a team that wins the league championship in its first season. How did you, as a young player, deal with that rush of success?

A. As a first-year professional, obviously I had to adapt to the pro game, which is a lot different from college. You have to think and execute faster against better players. So it was a year of transition and adaptation. We as a team were a close knit group of players, and some of the guys I knew from playing with or against in college. That made it a little bit easier, but it was a wonderful experience.

Q. Did you have a mentor on that team, someone you looked to for guidance or who looked out for you?

A. Clyde Best, when he came to Tampa, we roomed together. He and I were very close and he had a lot of experience. He played in England for West Ham United, and was one of the first black players in the U.K. Just a fantastic guy, so Clyde was always willing to share his insight with me and he was a good mentor.

Q. How about your coach, Eddie Firmani. What was it like to play for him?

A. I think Eddie was still relatively young, around 42 or so at that time, and was still a very good player. A lot of our training sessions were designed so he could participate. In the first game ever at Tampa Stadium, he put himself in as a substitute at striker. So that gives you an idea of his thinking and his condition.

He always liked to tell us to focus on our game, and not worry about the opposition. There was one time when we went up to Yankee Stadium to play the New York Cosmos. Eddie was giving the pre-game talk to the team, telling us to focus on our game, and Mark Lindsay, who was a mid-fielder, said, “Well boss, what about Pele?” (laughs)

Eddie said, “****, man, don’t worry about Pele. Worry about our game and everything will be fine.” We came back in at halftime and Pele had scored three goals. We were all just laughing our heads off at that.

Q. The Rowdies returned to the Soccer Bowl in 1978 and 1979. Although those teams fell short both times, what were the factors that made the Rowdies an elite team in the NASL?

A. One of the keys was the fact that under Firmani and Gordon Jago, the club continued to identify and sign some outstanding players. We always had a strong nucleus of players, and any changes we made were always one or two players who’d improve the balance of the team. There was a good blend of experience and youth.

We established a high standard from day one by winning the title our first year. Even when we didn’t win it, we were always very competitive. There was a lot of leadership on the field. Everyone was very motivated and knew what was needed to win.

Q. Fast forwarding to today, you’re part of an effort to bring the World Cup to Tampa in either 2018 or 2022. What has to happen in order for Tampa to land this major event?

A. I think one of the advantages that we have is that we are a tourist destination already. You combine the wonderful beaches, our close proximity to Disney and Orlando’s attractions, a first-class airport, plenty of hotels, Raymond James Stadium has one of the best fields in the NFL, and the fact that this is a community that has hosted four Super Bowls. We’re a community that understands the importance of hospitality and hosting big events. I’ve had so many people contact me asking what they can do to help, wanting to support our bid. It’s nice when people are proactive and excited about something years away in the future. The community at large will really embrace the event if we’re named as a host.

Finally, I don’t think you can take anything for granted, but having worked on the 1994 World Cup games in Orlando, I would be surprised if we weren’t one of the cities to host World Cup games. I think we’ve got as good a chance, or better, than most.

Monday, August 24, 2009

West Tampa Makes Williamsport, 8/20/69

The summer of 1969 continues to loom large in the public imagination. The summer singer Bryan Adams proclaimed were “the best days” of his life featured events of global and regional importance. The Moon landing and Chappaquiddick stand out to some, but ask anyone from West Tampa what they remember about that summer and one thing comes to mind: baseball.

The West Tampa Little League All-Stars, led by pitcher John Tagliarino, took the area by storm as they marched toward the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. An intimidating figure on the mound nicknamed “The Train,” the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Tagliarino pitched West Tampa into the Southern Regional Tournament in St. Petersburg on August 13. His first-inning home run and 11 strikeouts were enough in a 2-0 victory over Nashville, Tennessee.

In the regional finals, West Tampa sent to the mound the second-half of its killer 1-2 punch, Larry Rodriguez. In front of 4,000 fans at Al Lang Memorial Stadium, the West Tampa boys survived a thrilling seven-inning affair with a 1-0 triumph against Charleston, West Virginia. Herbie Arroyo scored the winning run from third as a ground ball hit by Nelson Garcia went between West Virginia hurler Greg Hansen’s legs.

Rodriguez pitched a gem for West Tampa, striking out 16 and allowing just two base runners. The victory, West Tampa's ninth straight tournament shutout, propelled them team to the big dance in Williamsport. The appearance would mark the second in three years for 12-year-olds representing West Tampa. This edition hoped to fare better, however, than the 1967 team that fell in the tournament’s opening round.

Arnold White, the Southern Regional Little League director, predicted a big tournament for the West Tampa team, citing the combination of physical size and the approach taken to the game by manager Emilio Echevarria’s squad.

“If they continue to play the type of game they are capable of,” White said, “I see no reason why they can’t go all the way.

If the boys had any nerves going into the tournament’s first game, they were put on hold for a day by a rainout that canceled the opening day of competition. So instead, West Tampa took to the field a day later on August 20 against a team of Americans – primarily the sons of military personnel – from Wiesbaden, West Germany.

In front of 7,000 fans, “The Big Train” pitched as if unfazed by the extra day between starts, fanning 16 batters and no-hitting the team from West Germany. Tagliarino came within one strikeout of the tournament record for a single game, and chipped in at the plate by adding a home run.

West Germany scored its only run of the game following a walk to leadoff hitter Paul Weissenborn. A combination of passed balls and a wild pitch allowed the runner to reach the plate for their only run of the game.

Dennis Valdes broke the 1-1 tie with a game-winning home run for West Tampa in the fifth inning to give his team its decisive 2-1 lead. Cuban-born outfielder Raul Gonzalez made perhaps the catch of the tournament in the sixth inning for West Tampa, with a running grab of a line drive to preserve the victory.

“That catch,” Echevarria said, “saved the day.”

For his part, however, Echevarria expressed concern with the lack of hits by his squad, which produced just four on the afternoon.

“We need to hit like we have in the past if we expect to get by California,” he said.

Unfortunately for West Tampa, they actually produced fewer hits (3) in the ensuing showdown against the team from Santa Clara, California. Santa Clara, sparked by a leadoff hit by future major league All-Star Carney Lansford, touched starter Larry Rodriguez for two runs in the first, but West Tampa rebounded with three runs in the third inning to regain the lead by one.

The wheels fell off in the fourth inning, as an fielding error at short by Randy Ferlita allowed two runs to score, giving Santa Clara a 4-3 lead. Ferlita turned in two defensive gems in the third inning, but fell victim to a tough hop off the bat of Jerry Hinkle. Still, the damage had been done and West Tampa would not threaten the rest of the way.

If the boys were stung by their defeat, they didn’t show it in the consolation game against Elyria, Ohio. Tagliarino – denied the individual game strikeout record in his previous start – shattered it against Ohio by striking out 22 batters. He homered again in what turned out to be West Tampa’s only run in a game that ended in a 1-1 tie
after nine innings.

West Tampa finished the tournament tied for third, at the time the best finish by a local team at Williamsport. A parade through Ybor City and downtown, as well as a banquet at the Sweden House restaurant, awaited the team upon their return.

Mayor Dick Greco even proclaimed August 26 “Welcome Back, West Tampa Day.”

“West Tampa did a great job in the world tournament and has made Tampa very proud,” he said. “Tampa’s name has gone all over the world because of their achievements.”

This would not be the last time kids from the Tampa area would make it to Williamsport, but their run forty years ago has proven to be a lasting highlight from a very memorable summer.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Browns vs. Colts at Tampa Stadium, 8/17/74

On August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace, resigning from his office rather than facing certain impeachment by Congress. Vice President Gerald R. Ford took the oath of office at noon and declared shortly thereafter that “our long national nightmare is over.”

Some 900 miles to the south, Bill Marcum found himself in a nightmare from which neither Ford or anyone else could easily wake him. As the organizer/promoter for the NFL pre-season game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts at Tampa Stadium just eight days later, Marcum found himself trying to sell tickets to an exhibition game during a players strike.

The labor dispute had reached its 39th day and showed no obvious signs of coming to an end. Even though close to 400 players had begun crossing the picket lines, over 800 still remained on strike throughout the league.

At the heart of the dispute: freedom. In fact, the players even had a motto – “No freedom, no football” – to bluntly express their reason for striking. Their goal was to eliminate the so-called “Rozelle Rule,” which limited player movement following the expiration of their contracts.

In addition to eliminating the “Rozelle Rule,” the player also sought the elimination of option clauses, the abolishment of the entry draft and waiver system, guaranteed payment of salaries, as well as impartial arbitration for all disputes. These were rather bold demands for a players association still in its infancy following the merger between the AFL and NFL in 1970.

Much to Marcum’s relief, on August 11 the NFLPA declared a temporary, two-week end to the strike. This “cooling-off period” would supposedly allow for more substantive discussions to resolve the strike.

From his perspective, this at least meant the guaranteed participation in the game by a few veteran players. The “super-relieved” Marcum had faced the unappealing prospect of promoting a game between rookies and assorted journeymen players hoping to land a job. He optimistically predicted a crowd of 40,000 for the game, even though only 28,000 had been sold up to that point.

Maybe he had reason for optimism. After all, the Tampa Bay area had done so well turning out for the 12 previous exhibition games put on at Tampa Stadium since 1968. The local enthusiasm and interest in pro football had paid dividends earlier in the year when the NFL awarded Tampa with its 27th franchise.

As the week leading up to the game on August 17 progressed, however, it became more apparent that the game would have few established players as participants. Many of the Many of Baltimore’s veteran players were told by General Manager Joe Thomas not to bother showing up until the team returned to Baltimore on Sunday. For his part, Cleveland owner Art Modell at least promised to field a “representative team.”

The team that represented Cleveland that night, however, turned out to be pretty awful. On a hot and humid night in front of a less-than-expected crowd estimated at 23,000, the Colts whipped up on the Browns to the tune of 37-3.

One of Baltimore’s veterans who didn’t stay home, starting quarterback Marty Domres, scored two first quarter touchdowns to essentially put the game out of reach as Cleveland fielded a lineup almost exclusively comprised of rookies.

As exhibition games go, this one proved to be an utterly forgettable affair, and those who turned out yet again validated the NFL’s decision to award this area a franchise.
Little could anyone imagine, however, that this game might be considered an all-time classic compared to what they would see from their own team, the Buccaneers, starting two years later in 1976.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tony La Russa Goes to Chicago, 8/2/79

On August 2, 1979, the baseball world mourned the loss of New York Yankee catcher Thurman Munson, who died in a plane crash outside Canton, Ohio. Overshadowed by the baseball tragedy was the ascension of a son of West Tampa to the pinnacle of his profession in the same sport.

Tony La Russa, who got his start at Cuscaden Park and made a name for himself at Jefferson High School, became manager of the Chicago White Sox following the resignation of player-manager Don Kessinger. In joining the White Sox, La Russa followed in the footsteps of another Tampa legend, Al Lopez, who managed Chicago for parts of 11 seasons between 1957 and 1969.

La Russa, then just 34 years old, left his job as manager of Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate in Iowa and took over a White Sox club mired in a seven-game losing streak, and a distant 14 games out of first place in the American League West. While no novice to life in the major leagues, the adjustment would not initially be an easy one for La Russa.

An all-state shortstop for two seasons at Jefferson, La Russa signed a $70,000 bonus with the Kansas City Athletics in 1962, at the time the second-highest bonus in club history. He was just 17 years old and fresh out of high school when the Athletics sent him to play for Daytona Beach of the Florida State League. He played well, hitting .270 and flashing some leather in the field, which merited an invitation to Spring Training with the big club in 1963.

As a “bonus baby,” La Russa had to spend the entire season on the big league roster, so he mostly watched the 1963 season unfold from the bench.

“I took infield and watched,” La Russa once said. “You can learn a lot watching, at least for about two months.”

An injury to one of Kansas City’s every-day players allowed La Russa his shot, and in 34 games he hit .250 with 11 hits in 44 trips to the plate.

Still, he would not return to the majors again until 1968 as a 23-year-old. No longer a hot prospect, La Russa did little to distinguish himself as a player in the majors. He remained with Oakland until 1971, mixing in short stints with the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs. He toiled in the minor leagues until calling it a career in 1977 after being released by the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Despite a nearly finished law degree from Florida State University, by then La Russa knew that he wanted to become a manager.

With less than two seasons as a minor league skipper under his belt – and unlike a contemporary named Joe Torre – he could not rely on successful playing career to help earn acceptance as a big-league manager.

White Sox GM Rollie Hemond told La Russa he would have few people rooting for him to succeed.

“You have five things going against you,” he’d say. “You’re young. You’re handsome. You’re smart. You’re getting your law degree. You have a nice family. I don’t think you’re going to last very long.”

Even the team’s radio duo of Jimmy Piersall and Harry Caray were rough on La Russa at first, second-guessing his every move while subtly implying that the young manager was in over his head.

The White Sox organization, just three weeks removed from its disastrous Disco Demolition Night promotion, now had a relative-unknown manager in La Russa. Still, despite his occasional seeds of doubt and growing pains, the White Sox had nowhere to go but up under his leadership.

La Russa began his managerial career with a victory on August 3, as the Sox defeated the Blue Jays 8-5 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. In a unique show of hometown solidarity, Tampa Bay area-product Jim Morrison led off the game for Chicago with a home run.

La Russa guided Chicago to a 27-27 mark in 1979, and eventually turned things around in a big way. In 1983, La Russa rewarded the gamble taken on him by leading the White Sox to 99 wins and a division championship.

Now 30 years later, La Russa has more than proven his doubters wrong by winning five pennants and two World Series. Undoubtedly when his career ends, he will once again follow in Al Lopez’s footsteps. Instead to Chicago, however, next time it will be to Cooperstown, New York.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rodney Marsh Bids Farewell, 7/30/79

On July 30, 1979, the face of the Tampa Bay Rowdies decided it was time to walk away. Rodney Marsh – to this day one of the most memorable personalities this area has ever seen -- announced his retirement effective at the end of the season.

The 34-year-old had just come off a two-goal performance on July 28, a 5-2 victory over Detroit at Tampa Stadium. He chose the team’s weekly Monday afternoon Centre Circle luncheon to drop his retirement bombshell. While not entirely unexpected given his age and desire to transition into a coaching career, the timing of Marsh’s announcement left many surprised.

“I have been thinking about (retirement) for quite some time,” Marsh said. “This is a very, very sad day for me. I have had four tremendous years in Tampa.”

What a four years those were.

Signed by original Rowdies owner George Strawbridge in 1976, Marsh brought an immediate flair to the organization. A former captain of Manchester City's English Premier League team and member of the English national team, Marsh also became one of the biggest names in the entire North American Soccer League.

In short, Tampa had its first bona fide superstar.

Marsh’s time here started out shaky, being named captain of the team by GM Beau Rogers over the objection of then-head coach Eddie Firmani. He had his captaincy stripped by Firmani less than two weeks later, a move that permanently soured their relationship. Still, he scored 11 goals in 21 contests in 1976 while helping the Rowdies to a division championship.

Along the way, he began earning the adulation of Rowdies fans for his passion and personality, on and off the field. In a time when athletes and fans still freely mingled at local bars or clubs, after home games one could always find Marsh out on the town surrounded by “Fannies,” the team’s celebrated die-hards. They took to Marsh because he personified the character of the team: charismatic, brash and in-your-face.

George Strawbridge once said Marsh “showed soccer can be fun, and above all, entertaining, which is exactly what the Rowdies are about.”

The Rowdies and Marsh, however, suffered down seasons in 1977. Marsh recorded just eight goals in 24 games, and Eddie Firmani quit during the season to become the head coach of the New York Cosmos. The Rowdies finished 14-12 and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

The fortunes of both the Rowdies and Marsh turned around in 1978 with the arrival of head coach Gordon Jago from England. With stability restored under Jago, the once-again team captain had his best season, notching 18 goals in 26 games. He led the Rowdies to an American Conference title and a berth in the Soccer Bowl championship game.

At the time of his retirement, Marsh netted 11 goals through 20 games and had the Rowdies, in first place at 19-7, poised to make another deep playoff run. His recent two-goal performance showed he still had the ability to take over a game. That is one of the reasons, Marsh said, that he chose to hang up his cleats.

“I think it is better to quit when people say, ‘why now?’ instead of ‘why not now?’ My belief is that I should quit when I am at the top.”

Marsh shuddered to ever think of Rowdies fans seeing the team’s two-time MVP on a bench instead of on the pitch, or merely playing out the string as a shadow of his former self. So, he decided to exit on his own terms.

As a tribute, the Rowdies announced that they would host a testimonial game for Marsh following the conclusion of the season. The first of its kind in America, the event would give the fans a final chance to honor Marsh. The game – held at Tampa Stadium on September 14 -- would turn out to be an affair to remember.