When I first moved back to Florida in 1993, the Tampa Bay Lightning had just completed their first season in the National Hockey League — at the Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds in unincorporated Hillsborough County.
And, one of the reasons I moved to Florida from Westchester County, NY, was because Tampa Bay was rumored to be getting not just an expansion baseball franchise, but my beloved San Francisco Giants were supposed to be leaving Candlestick Park to come to our area and I wanted to publish a Giants magazine.
Well, as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and Giants often go astray, and the Giants never moved here, but the Nagers still did. Five years later, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were finally born as a Major League Baseball expansion franchise.
And, when I moved here in 1993, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were simply awful.
After going 0-14 in their first year (1976), the Bucs made the playoffs for the first time in 1979, and two more times in 1981 and ‘82, but then went 15 years before their next postseason game, under second-year coach Tony Dungy. Their record during that span was a dismal 100-223, which means they won less than a third of their all-time games from their inception through my third year of owning the Neighborhood News. Even so, you’d never know it if you talked to any fan who was from any part of the Bay area.
The Bucs’ fans were almost cult-like, despite their creamsicle-colored uniforms, long before Dungy became the coach. I remember being threatened by a bar owner in New Port Richey for suggesting that he turn his largest-screen TV off a Bucs preseason game. He told me, “We’re all Bucs fans here, son. If you don’t like it, I invite you and your family to leave.”
But oh, how the Tampa Bay area’s sports franchises have risen. In perhaps the hardest year for sports ever, as virtually everyone in the country now knows, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup (the team’s second), the Tampa Bay Rays made it to the World Series for the second time and the Tampa Bay Bucs capped their 2020 season with a dominating 31-9 win over the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs the day before we went to press with this issue — the team’s second time hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy (photo).
It historically hasn’t been an easy time rooting for the local major sports franchises, especially, this Covid-crazy year, but how rewarding has it been?
Who would have thought that the Bolts would come back from the previous season’s devastating sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019 playoffs? Who would have thought that the Rays, with one of MLB’s lowest payrolls, would beat out the Red Sox, Yankees and defending American League champion Astros to advance to the World Series? And, who would have thought that the Bucs would go from being a 7-5 playoff pretender with a questionable defense and a finally-old-looking 43-year-old QB to reel off eight consecutive wins, including decisive victories over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers and the seemingly unbeatable Pat Mahomes and the Chiefs? Out of nowhere, we won eight consecutive games with a top-level defense and Tom Brady looking like, well, the Brady who had won six Super Bowls with the Patriots.
Wow. If not for The Weekend’s worst-ever halftime performance and Covid forcing most local fans to stay away from the first-ever Super Bowl played and won by a team in its own stadium, Brady, head coach Bruce Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles finished off an almost perfect game to give the GOAT his seventh win and fifth Super Bowl MVP award.
Congrats to the health care heroes who got to attend the game for free. I salute you and your efforts to keep as many of us as possible alive during this plague even more than I salute the Bucs, the Bolts, the Rays and even MLS’s Tampa Bay Rowdies for providing the best-possible distractions during this most difficult year. Way to go, Champa Bay!