Tom McEwen, 1923-2011

There won't be another sports columnist like Tom McEwen, not in Tampa Bay and probably not anywhere else, which is a little bit of a relief and also very unfortunate.

McEwen was at the tail end of the era where columnists and other newspapermen could have as much clout in the community as they wanted. When he was the editor of the Tampa Tribune's sports section and even after that, McEwen might have been the most powerful person in Tampa besides the mayor. He had a lot of friends in high places, and didn't mind name-dropping them in his columns. In fact, sometimes it seemed like updating everyone on his social calendar was the whole idea of the Breakfast Bonus column (along with putting whatever you were having for breakfast that morning to shame). That kind of chumminess would never fly with the trained skepticism and detachment from the subject of today's columnist.

McEwen's writing style probably wouldn't fly with them, either, or with anyone who demanded hard-hitting news and constant accountability in their paper. To be sure, among McEwen's prolific output were plenty of great columns from events that only he could have brought to life. And then some days it looked like he might have dictated his Morning After column into a tape recorder and run it verbatim in the next day's paper. Long, breezy passages. Quotes that couldn't possibly have been what the subject actually said. The occasional controversy swept under the rug or treated with kid gloves. Lots of asides and off-topic anecdotes rambling on to nowhere in particular. Among the many tributes written to him on Sunday, there was an anecdote about how McEwen was both the most liked and least liked columnist at the Tribune for many years. It's easy to understand how that could happen.

But anyone who didn't like his column or the way he wrote it should have considered those things a very small price to pay for what McEwen did, in public and behind the scenes, to give them so much to read about and cheer for in their home town.

All of our pro sports franchises. Super Bowls and everything that goes with them. PGA Tour events and NCAA Tournament regionals and USF football and the Rowdies and Lee Roy Selmon in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Steve Spurrier's head coaching career and almost any other big sporting event that's passed through the area. All of these things had Tom McEwen in common. (And also the almost overbearing presence the Yankees have in Tampa... but that's to be expected when George Steinbrenner is one of your best friends. Maybe Rays fans should consider that their own small price to pay for having their own MLB team.)

It's interesting to think about what the sports fandom of Tampa Bay might have been without McEwen championing big-time athletics in the area. Would this forever be a college sports area? Would people even care that much at all about team sports?

Where would fans have gone for sports fulfillment without the Bucs, Lightning, Rays, and Bulls? Would we all root for the Miami Dolphins? Would we be Atlanta Braves fans? Would anyone care about hockey? Without a football team, would USF be forever perceived as a school of convenience? The Tribune and the Times would have vastly different sports sections, and what about people like Slowinski? Without the Rays as a source of inspiration, would he blog about some other baseball team, or some other sport, or some other topic entirely?

McEwen's place in the history of Tampa should be along side the very few people who single-handedly changed the course of the city, like Henry B. Plant and Vicente Ybor and perhaps D.P. Davis and Hugh McFarlane. Professional sports gave Tampa its national and international platform, and even some of its identity. Those things never would have existed without Tom McEwen and his friends turning the dream of pro sports in the area into a reality. It's hard to imagine that combination of journalism and earnest advocacy existing today, and that's too bad for all of us.

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