Tampa: A Bipolar Sports Town

In Memory

It’s summertime, and I’m back in the city of cigars, Cuban sandwiches and Florida Championship Wrestling. Let’s talk Tampa sports.

October 19, 2008.

Most any Tampa sports fan will forever remember that day as one of the most triumphant dates in the history of the Tampa Bay area. It can also be called a night of closure.  Two games were played in the Gulf Coast’s Bay Area that night. One of them a Sunday Night Football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks. The other was an ALCS Game 7 between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox.

On that night, both games were sold out, both Tampa teams were full of promise and fan enthusiasm for both was at a high. The Rays were one win away from a World Series appearance that would complete a historic franchise turnaround. The Bucs were 4-2, celebrating the career of “The Ultimate Buccaneer” Mike Alstott and Al freaking Michaels was calling the game.

I can remember it vividly. Sitting in my overpriced seat that becomes a second home during the Fall. Section 134, Row U, Seat 12 at Raymond James Stadium watching the Buccaneers ease through another rather routine victory. Remember those? I had decided that if the ALCS went to a Game 7, there was no question of whether or not I would attend the Bucs game. If the series went to Game 7, it was over and Boston had won.

After all, this was a Rays team that took a 7-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning in what should have been a series-clinching Game 5 at Fenway Park. They lost 8-7. This would surely make any team tense and cost them the series. But these were the lighthearted, too-young-and-dumb-to-know-better Rays, and the night before Game 6, a large portion of the team was spotted drinking and dancing the night away at Jackson’s Bistro, a swanky nightclub on Harbour Island. The team was loose, but also unsuccessful. They lost Game 6 4-2 while I watched in mourning from right field. The dream season was over.

So you can imagine the surprised buzz that grew through Raymond James Stadium on that Sunday night as the Rays winning Game 7 became more and more of a reality. It would start with someone watching on television in a suite or listening to the radio in the stands. Their section would celebrate after word came in that the Rays had scored a run. Quickly that celebration would spread through the stands, and by the time the PA announcer began to utter “Ladies and gentlemen, in the fourth inning of the ALCS,” the crowd had already broke into raucous chants of “Let’s go Rays!” Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia was forced to burn a timeout at one point when a Rays run coincided with a crucial third down play.

From the club section at Ray Jay.

But I called this night a closure earlier, and that is where my nostalgic ramblings end (I’m sorry), and the point of this post begins.

That was a night when people legitimately felt good about the two teams that play the two sports that Tampa cares about the most. In case you’re wondering, sport No. 3 is a three-way tie between NASCAR, hockey and pro wrestling. Since that night, things have been very different for the Bucs and the Rays.

No, the Rays did not win the 2008 World Series. That honor went to the Philadelphia Phillies and a Harry Kalas sound clip that will live on for generations. But what the Rays did that year, and more specifically that night, changed the entire way that people looked at their franchise.

The Bucs carried a 9-3 record into December only to drop their last four games and miss the playoffs. Jon Gruden would soon be fired, and the Manchester United-spun financial problems of the Glazer family would quickly be exposed when they gave secondary coach Raheem Morris a double promotion from secondary coach to defensive coordinator to head coach over a one month time-span.

Today, there are few cities with two teams more clashing in vibes than Tampa with the Bucs and the Rays.

The Rays currently carry the best record in baseball at 16-5. Much like the Glazers, Stuart Sternberg, owner of the Rays, is somewhat cash-deficient. Attendance figures that dip down to 10,000 on week nights with ticket prices as low as $8 will do that to you. However, unlike the Glazers, there are no excuses made public. Though light on cash, Sternberg is able to put up more than a fight in the richest division in baseball.

The Rays are able to do this through both intellect and an occasional desire to spend way more than they should be spending. The 2010 season is an example of the latter. Sternberg admits that the Rays are currently about $20 million over budget with their payroll of $72,323,71 and that is likely an understatement. This season they are paying $10 million to Carl Crawford and $10.125 million to Carlos Pena. It is being assumed that neither will be back with the Rays in 2011. Early trendy AL MVP favorite Evan Longoria will make $950,000 this season.

Unlike Ted DiBiase, not the Million Dollar Man.

So the Rays are “going for it” this year and no one can really blame them. Most small market teams would consider it suicide to let guys like Crawford or Pena walk out with no major prospects to show for them, but most small market teams aren’t legitimate candidates for a championship run. Most owners would cringe at the thought of losing the kind of money that Sternberg will lose this season, but he is determined to put an entertaining and elite product out on the field.It is logical to assume that a team with the Rays’ means cannot be fully competitive on a yearly basis, so opportunities like this must be embraced.

The same cannot be said for one Malcolm Glazer.

The man who once smirked as ticket prices skyrocketed and posted billboards all over town of how expansive the Bucs’ season ticket waiting list was in a Boratesque “you will never get this” fashion, is now desperate. Low on funds and enthusiasm, the Bucs marched out one of the least intriguing teams in football in 2009 and will be doing the exact same in 2010. Fans have grown apathetic, and this season the Bucs will offer “child prices” on tickets. Yes, kind of like Busch Gardens.

Add this in to the fact that the Glazers have long ignored the interests of the fans from a personnel standpoint, and you have a recipe for disaster. As Bucs fans, we’ve seen local heroes with names like Lynch, Sapp and Brooks, be dismissed without any form of respect or honor. The loudest I’ve ever heard Raymond James Stadium was the day that John Lynch was introduced as a member of the Denver Broncos. “And at strong safety…” were the only words that one could possibly hear. Both a “thank you” to one of the greatest Bucs ever and a giant “f*** you” to an inept front office.

On Monday, they released Chris Hovan, the only man to provide any kind of spark to Buccaneer games over the past few years.

The one area where the Rays and Bucs will stand alongside each other is attendance. This season there is very little chance that any Buccaneer home game will be a sellout, meaning that games will be blacked out on local television. Don’t even ponder the thought of national attention or primetime telecasts. Since that 2008 Sunday night game against the Seahawks, the Bucs have played two games on national television, one of them being a primetime broadcast. That means much more Ron Pitts and Tim Ryan than Al Michaels and an endless array of blistering hot 1 P.M. kickoffs.

The Rays attendance woes are very well documented. By well documented, I mean that you can read articles that have been written about it this week here, here and here. I could rant on and on about attendance at Rays games, but you probably don’t want to read it, and I don’t really care to write it. I believe that location plays a major part in the ordeal, but I don’t agree with all of the excuses either. Let’s hope things pick up because like I’ve said before, Charlotte would really like a baseball team.

Here’s to you and your polar opposite sports teams, Tampa. I look forward to spending the summer with you.



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