Monday, August 30, 2010

Belmont Heights Plays for Title, 8/30/80

In the 1973 Little League World Series, a team of 11 and 12-year-olds representing Belmont Heights in East Tampa ran up against a baseball-destroying machine from Taiwan. The final score of their semi-final contest – 27-0 in favor of the team from the Far East – put a damper on what had been a spectacular summertime run.

The Belmont Heights bunch took third place overall in the series, but this would not be the last appearance in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for this organization. In 1975, Belmont Heights sent a team all the way to the finals, losing 4-3 to a team from Lakewood, New Jersey. The summer of 1980 produced yet another memorable Belmont Heights squad, one that would again prove to be among the elite in the nation.

“This team is way stronger than the ’75 team,” said manager Vernard Felder. “We’ve got better pitchers and more hitters. We don’t have to rely on one man. All these guys hit the ball.”

If future potential alone were his criteria, Felder would be proven quite prophetic. Future major leaguers Gary Sheffield and Derek Bell – along with Team USA standout Ty Griffin – patrolled the diamond for Belmont Heights that summer.

At the Southern Regional Tournament in Gulfport, Belmont Heights opened the action by topping the team from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 7-1. Behind three home runs and eight RBI from Sheffield, Belmont Heights spanked the team from Logan, West Virginia, 17-2 to advance to the finals.

Against Clarksville, Tennessee, it was pitcher Kirk Walker who did the dominating. The ace of his team’s staff, Walker allowed just two hits and recorded 15 strikeouts in a 2-0 blanking of Tennessee to capture the South Region title.

The manager of the West Virginia team, Roger Gertz, predicted great things in the World Series for Belmont Heights.

“I went to the World Series last year,” he said, “and this team is on the same level as Taiwan. I tell you what, I look for them to beat Taiwan in the finals.”

Belmont Heights certainly had a team built to beat the perennial favorites from Taiwan. First, however, they had to knock out the East Region winner from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This turned out to be no problem.

On August 26, Belmont Heights emphatically lived up to their reputation as “Taiwan South” by demolishing Pawtucket 20-3 in a five-inning massacre. In this game, Belmont Heights just missed trying the record for most hits in a game, 21, which had been established against them in the 27-0 loss to Taiwan in 1973.

In the U.S. title game against the West Region representative from Kirkland, Washington, Belmont Heights continued their assault on America with a 16-0 lashing. Sheffield and Griffin combined for two homers and nine RBI between them, and Andra Mack pitched six shutout innings for the victory.

“I just don’t know how much better we can get,” Sheffield said after the game.

Despite scoring 36 runs and recording 40 hits in two games, Belmont Heights would face the ultimate test against the team from Taiwan. They were in the midst of their own dominating run, having spanked the Canadian champions 23-0 in the semifinals. These were clearly the only two Little League teams on the planet capable of slowing down the other.

The long-awaited showdown took place on August 30 in front of a crowd of better than 30,000 – which included Republican Vice Presidential nominee George H.W. Bush -- at Howard J. Lamade Stadium.

A one-hour pre-game rain delay and the magnitude of the moment might have triggered some nerves in the team from Tampa. A shaky first inning, which featured three fielding errors, put Belmont Heights behind early 2-0.

“I didn’t expect those errors in the first inning,” Vernard Felder said after the game. “That’s not like us.”

Ty Griffin responded, however, with a solo shot in the bottom of the first to cut the lead in half.

Down 2-1 in the third inning, Belmont Heights’ starting pitcher Kirk Walker gave up back-to-back home runs to Shuh-Shin Li and Sheng-Dean Chen, putting his team in a 4-1 hole. Belmont Heights rallied for a run in the fourth, and Walker kept Taiwan at bay for the next three innings to give his team a chance heading into the bottom of the sixth.

Trailing 4-2, Sheffield scored from third on a controversial call to cut the margin to one run. To many, it appeared as though Taiwan’s first baseman took his foot off the bag before throwing the ball home to try and gun down Sheffield. The umpire called Derek Bell out at first base for the second out of the inning. The following batter, George Hornsby, then struck out to end the dramatic game.

During their amazing run, the team from Belmont Heights picked up some fans in high places, including Tampa resident and New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner.

“What a job they did,” Steinbrenner said. “We’ll treat them right. The Belmont kids are champs in my book.”

Thanks to his generosity, the players and staff of the United States champions were treated to a whirlwind trip to New York from September 20-21. The weekend began with pre-game festivities on the field at Yankee Stadium prior to a game between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The players lined up with their professional counterparts during the national anthem and posed for a group shot with slugger Reggie Jackson.

The team also toured Yankee Stadium, and capped the day by dining in elegance at the top of the World Trade Center in the Windows on the World restaurant.

Ben Rouse, president of the Belmont Heights Little League, could not have been any prouder of his team.

“Our kids distinguished themselves,” he said. “They played well and they were gentlemen. We would liked to have been champions of the world, but we can’t complain about being champions of this country.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rowdies Capture Soccer Bowl, 8/24/75

In August 1975, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were still one year away from playing their first down of professional football. In the interim during their first year on the scene, the Tampa Bay Rowdies did not just hold the attention of local sports fans with the new and exciting sport of soccer. In fact, they were able to win their hearts and minds as well.

Shrewd marketing and player interaction with the fans certainly helped promote the game, but having an extremely competitive team in the North American Soccer League kept fans coming back for more.

Defender Mike Connell, at the time just 18-years-old and in his rookie season, says today that the Rowdies had to be winners that first year if they hoped to be successful long-term in Tampa.

“It was a one-shot deal,” he says, “and it comes down to one year: 1975. If we were not successful in 1975, the magic in the subsequent years doesn’t happen.”

And successful the Rowdies were. Tampa Bay easily captured the Eastern Division title on July 29, the earliest any team had wrapped up a division in NASL history.

In the playoffs, the Rowdies posted two shutouts on the strength of excellent defense and superb goaltending by Paul Hammond. After sharing keeper duties throughout the season with Mike Hewitt, Hammond took over in the final regular season game against Toronto and then helped lead the Rowdies to a pair of playoff victories at home against Toronto and Miami to earn Tampa Bay a berth in the league championship game: the Soccer Bowl.

The Rowdies would have to travel all the way across the country to play at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, California, against the Portland Timbers. The Timbers, champions of the Pacific Division, sported an identical 16-6 regular season record as the Rowdies. The Timbers, like the Rowdies, were also an expansion team in 1975 and enjoyed the support of a rabid fan base.

The similarities, however, seemed to end there. In the days leading up to the game, several Rowdies commented on the cockiness of Portland’s players.

Statements like “Tampa Bay doesn’t have a chance,” spoken by Portland’s Graham Day after his team’s 1-0 semifinal win over St. Louis, certainly indicated a level of cockiness.

“They (Portland) all seem to be very confident, and think they’re going to walk into the game and take it away,” Connell said.

“All they feel like they have to do is go out there and put in their 90 minutes,” one Rowdies player said. “Well, it’s going to be a long 90 minutes for them.”

On August 24, 1975, singer Lou Rawls kicked off Soccer Bowl in style with his performance of the Star-Spangled Banner in front of the standing-room only crowd of 17,000 at Spartan Stadium. In order to win the game, the Rowdies knew they had to shut down Portland’s top offensive weapon. Tampa Bay defender Stewart Jump knew from the get-go then that his assignment would be to mark high-scoring striker Peter Withe. The 6-foot-2 Withe scored 17 goals in 22 regular season games for Portland, and his combination of size and skill presented a challenge for the Rowdies.

Jump and fellow defender Alex Pringle helped keep Withe thoroughly in check most of the afternoon, holding him to only three shots on goal for the game.

A scoreless first half gave way to some early excitement in the second half. Portland carried the play and much of the momentum while the Rowdies struggled to find their offensive punch.

Enter Arsene Auguste. The Haitian sensation entered the game at the 63 minute mark for defender Malcolm Linton, and it did not take long for Auguste to make his presence known.
A recent-arrival to the team -- having been acquired from the New Jersey Brewers in late July -- Auguste was playing in only his fourth game as a member of the Rowdies. Head coach Eddie Firmani’s decision to substitute “Augie” for Linton looked like a stroke of genius just three minutes later.

After taking a pass from Derek Smethurst, Auguste surprised Portland goaltender Graham Brown from nearly 35 yards out with a rifle shot aimed high to the top post that went just off the goaltender’s finger tips and into the net. The goal broke a scoreless tie and gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead. Through his interpreter after the game, Auguste responded to the question of why he attempted a shot from such a distance by saying that he “really didn’t have anything else to do with the ball.” Smethurst later called the goal one of the hardest kicked balls he had ever seen.

Tampa Bay held a one-goal lead and withstood a furious push by Portland for another twenty minutes before finally icing the game.

This time, Smethurst set up a charging Clyde Best who easily slipped his shot past Brown to put the game away once and for all at the 87:40 mark. In their first season, the Rowdies had come away with a 2-0 victory over Portland in the Soccer Bowl.

For his outstanding defensive effort in shutting down Withe, Stewart Jump earned the game’s Most Valuable Player honors.

“What more can you say about Stewart Jump?” asked Firmani after the game. “Peter With was supposed to be so good. What did he do today? Nothing, that’s what.”

The Rowdies returned home to a jubilant atmosphere. During the game, Boneshakers in Hyde Park was the scene of a Soccer Bowl viewing party for loyal “Fannies.” The favorite gathering-spot among players and fans would serve as a primary rallying point upon their return from California as well. The party, of course, would last well into the early-morning hours.

On August 27, the city of Tampa threw a parade from Tampa Stadium to downtown to celebrate the city’s first professional sports championship.

In a special ceremony on the Franklin Street Mall, the Rowdies were declared “honorary citizens of Tampa” by Mayor Bill Poe.

“Never in such a short time have so few swept into a community to do so much in sports,” Poe said in his remarks. Quite succinctly, but accurately, he added, “Tampa, Florida, is proud of the Rowdies,” and then promptly exempted Tampa’s newest “citizens” from paying the city’s garbage tax.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Spurrier Headlines at Tampa Stadium, 8/15/70

In mid-August 1970, the Tampa Bay area prepared to host the first of two National Football League exhibition games held at Tampa Stadium that summer.

Beginning in August 1968, the stadium had played host to three NFL exhibition games – two in 1969 – and a regular-season American Football League game between the Miami Dolphins and Boston Patriots in November 1969. All were well-attended affairs – averaging 35,214 fans per game -- with only the AFL contest drawing fewer than 30,000.

The goal for the showdown Aug. 15, 1970 between the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers was to exceed the attendance high of 40,915 set in 1968. In the days leading up to the game, it appeared by all calculations that it would be a reality.

The games, organized by local promoter and Tampa Jaycees president Bill Marcum, were showcases intended to highlight the viability of the Tampa Bay area as a pro market. Healthy attendance figures were obviously a source of pride, and Marcum hoped San Francisco and Cleveland would help fill Tampa Stadium’s benches.

Although this would certainly not be the case today, at the time the 49ers and Browns were actually a compelling matchup. The two franchises were originally members of the All-American Pro Football Conference from 1946-49 before being absorbed by the NFL in 1950.

Under third-year coach Dick Nolan, the 49ers were thought of as somewhat of an up-and-coming team. The Browns, meanwhile, were one of the most-successful franchises in football, winning NFL titles in 1950, 1954, 1955, and 1964. Since joining the NFL, the Browns sported a record of 180-71-7, a .717 winning percentage. In fact, the team had only one losing season in its entire history, going 5-7 in 1956. In other words, the Browns of 1970 were still considered a marquee draw.

The contest featured some local rooting interest as well. The 49ers had two starters with Tampa roots – center Forest Blue of Chamberlain High School and defensive tackle Earl Edwards of Blake High School – while the Browns featured another Chamberlain product and Florida State University standout, tight end Chip Glass.

The game’s biggest draw, however, was University of Florida product and 1966 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier. The 49ers drafted the quarterback in the first round of the 1967 entry draft, but Spurrier spent the majority of his time as the punter and second-string quarterback behind John Brodie. Spurrier started at quarterback in only six games during his first three seasons as a professional.

The game in Tampa would mark Spurrier’s first time playing in Florida as a pro. Despite the obvious preference of local football fans, Spurrier would once again serve as Brodie’s backup, but split equal time throughout the contest.

Despite voluminous pregame rain and horrendous traffic jams on Dale Mabry Highway and Himes Avenue, a near-record crowd of 41,851 fans made it into the stadium.

An unforeseen accident at 6 p.m. on the Interstate 4 (now I-275 South) exit ramp at Dale Mabry involved police officers on their way to help control traffic. This inadvertently contributed to the massive gridlock, and many motorists simply decided to park by the interstate and walk to the Stadium.

Despite the problems outside the stadium with traffic and backed-up parking lot entrances, fans were treated to a pretty good overall product on the field.

Anyone who came to see Spurrier play could not have left disappointed. After sitting out the first half, Spurrier played throughout the entire second half of the game. He completed 12 of 19 passes for 175 yards, and played well enough to help the 49ers win the game. His offense, however, left too many points on the field. The 49ers committed critical turnovers – a fumble by Bill Tucker, and interceptions by Spurrier and running back Larry Schrieber – that snuffed out three potential scoring drives.

The Tucker fumble came at the worst time, as the 49ers were driving down the field with time running out and trailing 17-10. On fourth-and-seven at the Cleveland 17, Spurrier found Tucker for a nine-yard gain – good enough for the first down – but Cleveland forced a fumble and recovered the ball at the seven yard line, effectively ending the game.

Despite a solid statistical performance, Spurrier expressed his frustration after the game at not being able to convert drives into points.

“I don’t feel good at all,” Spurrier said. “Any time you get inside the 10 yard line three or four times and can’t get points, something is wrong.”

San Francisco owner Lou Spadia came away extremely impressed with Tampa, calling it “football country” and the “best non-league football city in our experience.”

Cleveland owner Art Modell praised Tampa for the excellent turnout despite the inclement weather, noting that the city remained well on the NFL’s expansion radar.

“What a tribute to the community,” Modell said. “What a stadium. You’re high on the highest plateau as an expansion city for a franchise when it happens.”

Marcum, meanwhile, lamented the loss in revenue due to the inclement pregame weather and parking problems outside the stadium.

“We’d have sold out, “Marcum said afterward, “if only it hadn’t rained.”

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Last Tangle in Tampa, 8/3/80

“I’ve wined and dined with king and queens, and I’ve slept in alleys eating pork and beans.” – Dusty Rhodes

Billed throughout his career as a common man and a working-class hero, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes is one of the most dynamic personalities in the history of professional wrestling. From his charisma inside the ring to his ability to cut memorable promos outside of it, Rhodes was one of the top performers of his generation.

Rhodes thrived in arenas throughout the country, but he established a particularly strong foot-hold locally while working for Florida Championship Wrestling, a territory belonging to the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). He held the NWA Florida Heavyweight Championship belt a record 10 times from 1974-1980, and won his first NWA World Heavyweight Championship on August 21, 1979, here in Tampa. He held the belt for less than a week, however, dropping the title to Harley Race just five days later in Orlando.

This set in motion a series of matches between Rhodes and Race that would come to a conclusion nearly a year later in an event billed as “The Last Tangle in Tampa.” With close to a dozen matches scheduled for the card at Tampa Stadium on August 3, 1980, the showdown between Rhodes and Race would serve as the main event. In a best two-of-three falls match, as the challenger Rhodes would need to pin Race twice within an hour to capture the championship belt.

As a booker for the promotion, Rhodes had a tremendous amount of influence on the storylines and direction of the company. “The Last Tangle” represented the beginning of a new era for both Rhodes and the NWA.

Howard T. Brody, Rhodes’ biographer and the author of the wrestling tome “Swimming with Piranhas,” remembers the card at Tampa Stadium as the start of a very creative period in the career of Dusty Rhodes. He envisioned the event as an experience, not just a series of matches.

“This was the first time he ever booked a show like that,” Brody says. “He not only wanted a wrestling match, but he wanted to create a spectacle: an outdoor show with all the bells and whistles.”

On a steamy August night, the then-largest crowd to ever see a wrestling match in Florida made “The Last Tangle in Tampa” an unqualified success. A little over 17,000 fans, in fact, came from all corners of the state to see the 4 ½ hour show.

Fans were delighted early on by a $10,000 ladies’ battle royal match won by Wendy Richter, as well as preliminary matches featuring Jim Garvin, Jerry Brisco, Jack Brisco, Lord Alfred Hayes, Dick Slater, and Barry Windham. Dick Murdoch teamed with Bugsy McGraw to defeat the dreaded “Russian” tag-team of Nikolai Volkoff and Ivan Koloff, and Andre The Giant defeated The Super Destroyer, who had wrestled earlier in the card against Mr. Florida in a mask vs. mask match.

In the first title match of the evening, former Robinson High School football star Mike Graham was disqualified in his match against Les Thornton for the NWA Junior Heavyweight title, and Don Muraco also earned a disqualification in his bout against World Wide Wrestling Federation champion Bob Backlund.

By 10:45, the fans were finally ready for Rhodes and Race. “The air hangs hot and heavy,” ring announcer Gordon Solie reported as the stadium, with barely a breeze to cool things down, rocked with anticipation as the two stars made their way to the ring.

The no-disqualification match featured special guest referee Fritz Von Erich, the former NWA President who was selected due to his no-nonsense demeanor and ability to be fair to both wrestlers.

The match started out fast and with a lot of energy, as the wrestlers traded some drops, suplexes, and some of their signature moves. Rhodes got the best of Race, however, nearly nine minutes into the match with a bionic elbow drop and pinned the champ to take the early lead.

The weather really did seem to impact all of the participants, as Von Erich needed a short rest ringside after the first fall, and for the bulk of the match going forward, both wrestlers conserved energy by settling into a pattern of “rest spots” featuring chin-locks, sleeper holds, and reverse sleepers.

The bulk of the action resumed as the match neared its conclusion with near-pins by each wrestler. With a staggered Race literally on the ropes, the bell sounded at the 60-minute mark and the match came to an end. A mixture of cheers and boos greeted the announcement that Rhodes won, but because he only captured one fall, would not become the new heavyweight champion.

In an emotional post-match locker room promo, Rhodes called the event “a milestone for the city of Tampa … and for the sport that gets pushed around, shoved around, and put on the back pages!”

He then added, “Baby, there were 20,000 people who gave a damn about what was going on! As long as I’m able to walk, as long as I’m able to strut my stuff, I’ll do it right.”

While Rhodes slightly overestimated the crowd, the event proved hugely successful, taking in a gross gate of $160,000 (roughly $411,196 in today’s dollars). According to author Howard T. Brody, Rhodes later described the success of “Last Tangle” one of the proudest moments of his long and illustrious career.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tampa Stadium, August 7, 1971

This photograph, taken on August 7, 1971, shows a then-record crowd of 51,214 at Tampa Stadium for a National Football League exhibition game between the New York Jets and Detroit Lions.

Detroit ended up defeating New York 28-24, but the game is best remembered for an injury to New York’s Joe Namath. Following a fumble by New York’s Lee White, Namath attempted to tackle the Detroit linebacker – Mike Lucci -- who made the recovery. While Lucci would go on to score a 29-yard touchdown, Namath tore ligaments in his left knee on the second quarter play, and the injury would keep him sidelined for all but four games in the 1971 season. The suddenly injury-prone former MVP of the American Football League had played in only five games the previous season due to a broken wrist.

For Tampa football fans, the game was the sixth in a series of exhibition games from 1968-1975 designed to highlight the area’s viability as a market for professional football. Unlike most years when the stadium played host to two games, this would be the only game scheduled at Tampa Stadium during the 1971 exhibition season.