The end of the year is the time when it's customary to sit down and make a list of notable happenings that occurred during the most recently completed lap around the sun. While many of the lists you come across in various sports media are certain to mention the World Cup, LeBron James, Brett Favre and Michael Vick, none of them have anything directlyto do with what goes on in our own backyards. So here are the Top Five Tampa Bay Sports Stories Of 2010.
1. A successful yet disappointing season for the Rays
Any time a team wins a division title in Major League Baseball, the season, by definition, has to be classified a success. Especially if the division is the American League East and you're not the Yankees or Red Sox. But this was the year that owner Stuart Sternberg declared "By any means necessary" when asked about going for the BIG prize, a world championship.
"We'll do whatever; money won't be an object. Players are always an object for us. And the money will be an impediment, but we'll figure it out if it makes all the sense in the world for this team...We're well beyond stretched (payroll-wise), but for me, personally, this is a very special year, it's a special team, can be a special team, and we're going to do whatever we can, whatever's necessary, to try to give us the best opportunity to win this year."
The emphasis on THIS YEAR made the implication very clear that while the offseason may not result in a "fire sale" ala the breaking up of the 1997 Florida Marlins,the roster would probably look drastically different in 2011 and the purse stringswould be cinched considerably tighter in the future. With the stakes raised to the level of all-or-nothing, there was little celebration of the team's second division championship in three years and bitter disappointment after losing to the Texas Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs.
2. The Bucs surprise everyone
A year ago at this time, many Bucs fans were ready to run head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik out of town after only their first full seasons on the job, saying they were vastly under-qualified and never should have been hired in the first place. Of course, a year ago at this time, the Bucs were 3-12 (they would finish 3-13) and had overcome an 0-7 start to be even thatgood. The closest thing to a compliment you were liable to hear was that rookie quarterback Josh Freeman might turn out halfway decent at some point. The Bucs made no major player transactions during the offseason and as a result, about the only people who believed they had a chance at winning as many as five games in '10 probably wear Buccaneers footed pajamas and earn a significant percentage of their income from The Tooth Fairy. Well, aside from Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris, of course. And the players who apparently would run through walls if Morris asked them to, led by Freeman who is already being heralded as one of the NFL's next great quarterbacks. So now that the Bucs at 9-6 still have a shot at the 10 wins Morris talked about during the summer, the only place out of town they want Dominik and Morris to go is to Philadelphia as an NFC wildcard.
3. The gloves come off in Trop talks
This might have been classified as story 1A as it was a contributing factor in the Rays season ultimately not feeling like it was quite as much fun as it should have been, but it's a big enough story to stand alone and will eventually find itself on top of lists like this in the future.
On June 21st, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg stopped being nice and started getting real, announcing that the team had to begin the process of looking at alternatives to replace Tropicana Field because they were losing money and continuing to do so was simply not an option. It was like receiving a bad report card that you knew was coming but hoped against hope that somehow your folks wouldn't find out about. Sternberg didn't lay out a plan to sell or move the team or anything specific at all really, just mentioned that it was time to start examining alternatives and that nothing viable would be dismissed outright, including moving the team to the other side of Tampa Bay. What was meant to spur discussion and research instead initiated finger pointing and insults as parties tried to assign blame for why a first-class contending ball club like the Rays wasn't spinning the turnstiles off their moorings and playing in front of SRO crowds every night, even against the Seattle Mariners. Pundits far and wide saw a good club with poor attendance and jumped to one simple and simple-minded conclusion: bad fans, choosing conveniently to ignore factors like a 12% unemployment rate and the 5th highest television ratings of any market in baseball. St. Pete fans blamed Tampa fans for not butching up and coming over for games. Tampa fans blamed St. Pete fans for building the stadium there without asking anybody in the first place. St. Pete mayor Bill Foster pointed to a signed lease that he expects to be honored until 2021. Tampa mayor Pam Iorio said they'd welcome the Rays but as far as public money goes, the city was already tapped out. The whole thing hit an especially ugly crescendo in September, at a time when all thoughts should have been on the heartaches and joys of a pulse-pounding pennant race, when stars Evan Longoria and David Price publicly expressed disappointment and embarrassment at the attendance.
And this is only the beginning, folks....
4. The Leavitt era comes to a sad end at USF
There's little doubt that coach Jim Leavitt, the man who practically overnight took a couple of double-wide trailers, an unused locker room at the Sun Dome and a handful of kids deemed not quite good enough to play at Florida or Florida State and turned them into perennial bowl participants featured frequently on national television, dragging an entire university into the Big East Conference in the process, saw himself having a career at the University of South Florida not unlike those of Bo Schembechler at Michigan, Joe Paterno at Penn State or Bobby Bowden at FSU (well, except for the ending in Bowden's case). Or at least being able to make a jump at some point to a higher profile job with a bigger paycheck. There's also little doubt that many USF alums and boosters wouldn't have minded if that scenario had played out either. There's no question that the evolutionary leaps USF athletics has made over the last decade, going from independent status in some sports(including football) to Conference USA to The Big East, simply would not have happened if not for the success of the football program. There's also no question that nobody worked harder at building that football program than Jim Leavitt, a local boy from St. Pete who took it from literally nothing to what it has become almost by sheer force of will. It was a great story.
Unfortunately, that all came to a sad, screeching halt when an investigation was launched after reports that Leavitt had grabbed and struck Joel Miller, one of his players, during a tirade that occurred at halftime of a game played against Louisville the previous November. The investigation concluded that the allegations were true, and worse, that Leavitt had attempted to obstruct the investigation by not only not being truthful but also attempting to coerce players and staff members who witnessed it into altering their stories about the incident. Ultimately, the university had no choice other than to fire him on January 8th.
5. Yet another ownership change for the Lightning
Ordinarily, something as major as a change in ownership would be a much bigger story, but this is the Tampa Bay Lightning we're talking about. Depending on how much you believe in shadowy money-laundering fronts run by the Yakuza, this is at least the fifth ownership group in charge of Tampa Bay's 18-year-old NHL franchise, so big deal, right? Well, actually, yeah, it is. Because the group fronted by Jeff Vinik that inherited the shambles of what can't even be called an organization left behind by the utterly inept "leadership" of Oren Koules, Len Barrie and general manager Brian Lawton has made virtually no missteps since taking control. Hiring CEO Tod Leiweke, general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher gave the franchise instant credibility and stability that had been simply non-existent since the team was sold to Koules in 2007. Veterans Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis have found renewed pride and motivation while all Steven Stamkos is doing is developing into the NHL's next superstar. These three are complemented by skilled role players who have "bought in" to Boucher's style of coaching and system of play and at 22-11-5, the Lightning are off to the best start in franchise history.