Posts Tagged ‘Tampa Bay’

The Trade That Shocked the Hockey World

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

1975 was a year of shocks in popular culture.  M*A*S*H killed off Henry Blake, the lovable, goofy, and semi-competent lieutenant colonel in charge of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077; Jaws injected fear into filmgoers thinking about going to the beach for summer recreation, lest they be shark attack victims like the ones portrayed on screen; and the Boston Bruins traded Phil Esposito to the New York Rangers.

Esposito going to New York was not, to be certain, a global event.  Or even a national one.  For Bostonians whose devotion to sports knows no boundaries of faith, though, it was an upset of the natural order of things.  Sure, Esposito started his career with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he flourished in Boston—milestones include two Stanley Cup wins, a perennial NHL All-Star selection, and two-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy, which honors the player most valuable to his team.  Not since the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season had betrayal pervaded the city, from Beacon Street to Boston Harbor.

“I’m crushed.  I thought I had found a home in Boston,” lamented Esposito, quoted by Tom Fitzgerald in the Boston Globe.

Esposito emerged as a New York City icon, much like his fellow Boston transplant.

Boston sent defenseman Carol Vadnais to the Rangers with Esposito, who played center.  In return, New York let go defenseman Brad Park, center Jean Ratelle, and Joe Zanuss—a defenseman for the Providence Reds, the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate.

Boston Globe sports columnist Leigh Montville ascribed the term “garbageman” to Esposito because he scored goals that were neither flashy nor dramatic, thereby igniting a touch of scorn.  But when Esposito journeyed down I-95 toward his new home, scorn gave way to unease.  “One difference already has surfaced here,” wrote Montville.  “The people—the same people who were cold toward Esposito and his records—now seem worried.  They see a big hole in the scoring totals.  They see a lot of goals that aren’t going to be scored.  They see a lot of things that might not be done.

“That is the way it is with a garbageman.  You never miss him until he’s not around.”

Esposito led the Rangers to the 1979 Stanley Cup—the marauders of Madison Square Garden lost to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.

Still, decades later, the trade causes angst for Esposito.  Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons chronicled Esposito’s viewpoint in 2013:  “I didn’t choose to leave Chicago.  I didn’t choose to leave Boston.  I signed a contract in Boston for less money than I could have gotten from going to the WHA.  I could have made millions doing that.  And you know how they repaid me?  Three weeks later, they traded me (to the New York Rangers).”

Retiring after the 1980-81 season, Esposito transitioned to being an assistant coach for the Rangers—his post-retirement duties also included general manager, head coach, and analyst for televised games on MSG Network.

Esposito spearheaded the founding of the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with his brother, Tony, a fellow NHL standout; in 1992, the Lightning débuted in a 7-3 victory against the Blackhawks.  Phil Esposito and Tony Esposito are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, inducted in 1984 and 1988, respectively.  Notably, the former’s biography page on the Hall of Fame web site depicts him in a Boston Bruins uniform.  And so it is in the memories, imagination, and Bruins lore for fans of a certain age.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 18, 2017.

The Kingdome Welcomes the Mariners

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

Famed for its portrayal in Jim Bouton’s tell-all book Ball Four, the Seattle Pilots lasted one season—1969.  While the Mets inched toward an improbable World Series victory against the Baltimore Orioles, the Pilots went 64-98.  After the ’69 season, bankruptcy disrupted Seattle’s major league plans.  New ownership—future Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig—brought the team to Milwaukee under the Brewers label.

Seattle became an MLB city for the second tie when the Mariners took the field on April 6, 1977.  A 7-0 loss to the California Angels inaugurated the Mariners, joined by the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League’s expansion during the year of the New York City Blackout, the disco craze ignited by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and the death of Elvis Presley.  In the Los Angeles Times, Ross Newhan wrote, “The young, inexperienced Mariners were outmanned in the field and at the plate, made errors that led to runs, failed to take advantage of scoring opportunities and were forced to go with pitchers who would probably be in some other line of work had it not been for the dilution of talent generated by baseball’s repeated expansion.”

Angels pitcher Frank Tanana dominated the Mariners—he struck out nine, walked two, and left nine Mariners on base.  Diego Segui started for the Mariners, leaving the game after three and 2/3 innings; the Angels scored five hits and four earned rungs against the veteran pitcher, who went 0-7 in 1977, his last year in the major leagues.

It was not only the Mariners’ first game—it was the first MLB game in the Kingdome, a stadium following the pattern of indoor facilities for professional sports begun in 1965 with the Houston Astrodome.  Seattle’s new stadium, while architecturally imposing, had a few trouble spots for the players.  Newhan quoted Angels manager Norm Sherry, who opined, “Generally, it’s a very impressive place.  But a few things do concern me.  The dirt of the mound is so soft the pitcher almost disappears when he comes down on it.  That has to be fixed.  I think the fielders will have to be reminded constantly that they can’t take their eye off the ball or they’re going to lose it in all that gray of the dome.  And there are two big ridges that distinguish the football sidelines.  One runs through the outfield.  The other funs along the left-field foul line.  They could cause problems.”

Seattle sports fans induced the Kingdome in 1976, a year prior to the Mariners’ début, with a soccer game between the New York Cosmos and the Seattle Sounders.  Additionally, the NFL expanded in 1976, providing footholds in Seattle and Tampa Bay; the Kingdome created a new outlet for Washington State’s football passion.  According to King County’s web site, the eight-day Billy Graham Crusade at the Kingdom in 1976 achieved the largest attendance for a “specific event” with 434,100 recorded attendees.  During its tenure, the Kingdome hosted the NCAA Final Four, the NFL Pro Bowl, and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.  On March 26, 2000, an implosion captured by video both inside and outside the Kingdome marked the end of an era for professional sports in Seattle.

The Seattle Times reported, “Dust choked downtown for nearly 20 minutes, blocking out the sun and leaving a layer of film on cars, streets and storefronts.  The dust cloud reached nearly as high as the top of the Bank of America Tower and drifted northwest about 8 miles an hour.”  Nearly 4,500 pounds of explosives and more than 21 miles of detonating cord brought down the 25,000-ton Kingdom roof in 16.8 seconds.

Today, CenturyLink Field stands on the Kingdome site.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 21, 2016.

Matthau, Madison, and Buttermaker

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

In the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a former minor league ballplayer with the unenviable task of managing a team consisting of loudmouth Little Leaguers.  Matthau’s rumpled persona matches the Buttermaker character like lox matches cream cheese.  Perfectly.

Buttermaker’s Bears squad, though initially pitiful, nearly beat the Yankees in the North Valley League of southern California, thanks to star pitcher Amanda—a daughter of an ex-girlfriend of Buttermaker—and Kelly Leak, a star athlete who looks and acts like he’s auditioning to be the next James Dean.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie comes by most of its comedy fairly easily.  Matthau is, of course, an engaging performer, and the role’s a good one for him as he sits in the dugout, hung over and bleary-eyed, watching his Bears come out of the first inning 26 runs behind.  The kids are good, too; [director Michael] Ritchie sees them in a fairly tough and unsentimental way, and lets them use the sort of dialog we’d like to think 12-year-olds aren’t familiar with.”

Contrary to the myth of A-list stars isolating themselves while not filming, Matthau engaged with the kids’ families on set.  In a 2005 Tampa Bay Times article, Keith Niebuhr quoted Gary Lee Cavagnaro, who played the Bears catcher.  “As far as the adults, Walter Matthau (coach Morris Buttermaker) was in a class by himself.  As great as he was around the kids, he was even better around the moms.  Behind the field, the tree-lined area between the field and the concession stand, the mothers would camp out there.  And during off time, Walter would come out with Jack Lemmon occasionally and do an old vaudeville routine, which would keep the mothers in stitches.

In The Odd Couple, Matthau translates his portrayal of New York City sports writer Oscar Madison from the stage to the screen.  Matched with Art Carney in the play, written by Neil Simon, Matthau received plaudits in Walter Kerr’s New York Times review.  “He is a gamut-runner, from grim, to game to simple hysteria and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western seat he is magnificent,” wrote Kerr.  Additionally, the noted critic praises, “But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catcher’s mitt.”

Carney portrays television news writer Felix Ungar, Oscar’s friend, who suffers from a martial rift, which sends him into an emotional tailspin.  Finding refuge at Oscar’s apartment, Felix exemplifies domestication that Martha Stewart would envy.  When Felix’s dedication to cleanliness borders on obsessive, frustration overwhelms Oscar.  In a monologue bathed in a combination of pathos and hilarity, Oscar confesses, “I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up.  Everything you do irritates me.  And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me.  You leave me little notes on my pillow.  Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.  ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes.  F. U.  Took me three hours to figure out F. U. was Felix Ungar!”

In the movie, Matthau plays against Lemmon, his co-star in several films, including Grumpy Old MenThe Fortune Cookie, and The Odd Couple II.  All’s well that ends well—at the end of The Odd Couple, Felix exorcises his marital ghosts and spends time with the attractive Pigeon sisters while Oscar, in an example of Felix’s habits rubbing off, admonishes his poker buddies to keep the poker table clean.

Matthau passed away in 2008.  Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times revealed the reality behind the actor.  Citing Lemmon, Downey wrote, “Fact is, says the actor whose finicky Felix Unger played opposite Oscar, they were an odder couple than some realized, for the Matthau he knew was a fragile figure, susceptible to ailments of all kinds, with a pinch of hypochondria thrown in, who would cringe and bruise if a stranger made the mistake of slapping him on the back.

“Lemmon says: ‘He was Felix.'”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 28, 2015.

The Story of the Tampico Stogies

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

RemingtonBased on the eponymous novel by Paul Hemphill, the 1987 HBO tv-movie Long Gone starred William Petersen, Dermot Mulroney, and Virginia Madsen.  Long Gone revolves around the fictional Tampico Stogies, a minor league team in Florida during the late 1950s.

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