by Kent E. Smith
A month of Sundays came and went. Every night is a lunar eclipse.
Hell has frozen over.
To appreciate the significance of Tampa Bay's athletic accomplishments, one must go back 46 years to when we didn't even have any major teams.
In 1976 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became our first major-league franchise. They were winless that year at 0-14 and piled up a record 0-26 mark before finishing 1977 with two upset victories.
In the process, the “Yucks” became a frequent target of Johnny Carson's jokes and sportswriters everywhere. Their only attraction was the quotes from Coach John Mackay who quipped, “We didn't block anyone, but we made up for it by not tackling.” When asked about the execution of his offense, he snapped, “I'm for it.”
Burdened by one of the worst owners ever, Hugh Culverhouse, the team chalked up 14 consecutive losing seasons from 1983 through 1996. Until the GOAT headed south for greener pastures last season, the Bucs were actually the worst major-league franchise of ANY still operating in any of the four major sports.
In 2002 they won their first Super Bowl after dropping those atrocious “Creamsickle” orange costumes for the classic Pewter Power uniforms. Then they switched uniforms again and went 18 years without winning a playoff game until they went back to the pretty pewter and promptly won another title. Of course, Tom Terrific also played a part.
The Tampa Bay Rays also went from rags to riches after switching to new duds.
Starting in 1998, they also stunk at the start. They finished last in their division nine out of their first 10 seasons and next-to-last the other year.
When they weren't defending their failures they were fielding criticisms of Tropicana Field while officials haggled over building a park worthy of MLB standards. Controversy even surrounded their original name, the Devil Rays, after fundamentalist religious groups claimed it referred to Satan instead of the area's native manta rays. In 2008 owner Stuart Sternberg changed the green-yellow-blue-purple “tropical splash” colors to the reserved powder blue and navy. He also switched the demonic monster manta logo with a yellow sunburst representing a politically correct, child-friendly “ray” of sunlight.
That same year the team rode its first winning record to a World Series (coincidence?) against the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies, who won in five games. Since then the rejuvenated Rays have made the playoffs five times but reached the series only once, last year's loss in six to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It's ironic that Tampa's biggest bullies, the Lightning, survived the worst start of all three in 1992 to hit the highest mark.
For the first decade the only right move seemed to be the choice of team colors because they were beaten black and blue. A series of bad trades, last-place finishes and moving from one arena to another marked the team's early years. In 1998 they lost a team-record 55 games, and they were the first in league history to post at least 50 losses in four straight seasons (1997-2001).
Even worse was a financial crisis that saw the team saddled with bills that equaled 236 percent of its value, the worst debt facing any major sports franchise in North America. The best players were sold off to make ends meet, but they still fell behind on federal payroll taxes and state sales taxes. Forbes magazine called the organization a “financial nightmare” flirting with bankruptcy.
Critics claimed Tampa wanted football, nothing more. Nay-sayers crowed the tropical town would never support ice hockey, especially the owner: Japanese tycoon Takashi Okubo admitted he had never watched his team play in seven years as the owner!
Front-office changes were followed by acquisitions that brought all-stars Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin into the fold. Tough-minded Coach John Tortorella guided the team through injuries and several playoff defeats before the Lightning won their first Stanley Cup in 2004 by outlasting the Calgary Flames in seven games. Tortorella was Coach of the Year and Richards claimed the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP
In 2010 the team named Steve Yzerman general manager, leading to years of front-office stability and smart moves. In 2013, the team made Jon Cooper the head coach, the eighth in team history; in 2015 they beat the New York Rangers to qualify for their second Cup finals, but they lost in six games to Chicago.
Now they're clearly the best. Gone are the ghosts of John Mackay and Bucco Bruce. Today, Tampa has had more success in a year than any city with only three professional teams competing in the Big Four (football, baseball, basketball and hockey).
In 1969-70, New York won championships with the Jets, the Knicks and the Mets, but 50 years ago they had six teams in the Big Four, two football, two baseball and one each in basketball and hockey. In 2002, Los Angeles' Lakers, Sparx (WNBA) and Galaxy (MLS) won league titles, but neither soccer nor women's basketball draws the same crowds as the Big Four.
And we may not be done. The Rays are only a game out of first place, and the Bucs have almost everybody back.
A sociologist once wrote that the Florida coastline is the most transient, diverse and disconnected part of our nation, where every ingredient in the American Melting Pot gathers to celebrate its own religion, dialects, foods-and sports teams.
We worship many things, money, guns, beauty, and the simple sweat of an athlete sacrificing all in a desperate quest for excellence and adulation. Somehow they pull us together in that insane moment of victory more than any politician, preacher or poet, all of our colors wearing one color. For that we are grateful.
Somewhere, an old cracker laughs, for his town has become “Title Town.”
And, this July, there's blue ice in Tampa Bay.