Last night’s dueling Tampa Bay sporting events took me back to the Lightning’s last Stanley Cup playoff run. Not because I am a big hockey fan (although, after last night’s win, you can officially count me among the bandwagon jumpers…go Bolts!) but because I remember how interested the then-Devil Rays were in the Lightning’s exploits.
That season, the Lightning games were always on in the clubhouse after wins and, I remember standing with Toby Hall in the hallway outside the clubhouse after a loss so he could watch the end of a Lightning game on the security television (no TV or music in the clubhouse after a loss during the Piniella era). The clubs got so close that the Lightning clubhouse attendants brought the Stanley Cup to the Trop (prompting Lou to hungover-ly — yes, that is an adjective [edit: As the astute and intelligent Amanda Greif pointed out on Facebook, adding "ly" to "hungover" makes it an adverb, not an adjective. I humbly bow down to your grammatical prowess Madame] — say ‘that thing is cool, we should win something like that, but if we can’t, we should just steal that one.’).
The camaraderie between the Rays and Bolts is back. The Rays had a Lightning t-shirt hanging in their dugout during Game 7 last week and, apparently BJ Upton has a #2 Bolts jersey — err sweater, sorry, I grew up here, cut me a break — hanging in his locker. In fact, it seemed like the Lightning’s late surge last night prompted Upton to follow suit.
This feels like the point marking a new era in Tampa Bay sports. For the first time, all three of the area’s major professional teams are contenders. That is especially sweet for the newest generation of local sports fans who, like my daughters, will grow up knowing this community only as a major sports epicenter (as opposed to our generation that grew up knowing it as an NFL city with expansion franchises).
So, as we turn into the third era of TB sports history (the first two eras being The Buccaneer era, and The Expansion era) it occurred to me to ask: who is the biggest star in this town in Generation 3.0?
I think there are only three contenders, and I rank them in this order:
1. Evan Longoria;
Yes, BJ Upton and David Price are stars. Yes, Sam Fuld is a legend and Ben Zobrist is the guy I want my daughters to root for. Yes, Johnny Damon has local connections and a history of stardom. But they all fade next to Longo. Of all the Rays top players, Longo is the only one I am certain cannot go grab a sandwich without signing an autograph. He has that IT. He has so much IT, he got my sister-in-law’s wedding band a recording contract just because he thought they were cool. That is superstar-dom.
2. Vinny Lecavelier;
Vinny has some superlative teammates as well. Marty St. Louis is certainly my favorite player for his speed and his propensity to lose teeth. Steven Stamkos is an up-and-comer according to people that know stuff about hockey. Dwayne Rolofson has been remarkable during this playoff run. (Come on, you got to give me a little credit for my hockey chops after I admitted to being a bandwagon fan…right? Right?) But Vinny has been the face of this franchise since the day he arrived. He is a Tampa resident and a kingpin of local charity. He is a superstar in every sense of the word. His only problem is, he plays a sport very few local residents have attempted or understand. That’s not his fault, but it is a factor that has to be considered. In fact, I heard a story that tourists have stopped Vinny while he was walking his dog just to ask him where Derek Jeter’s house was located. (Also, it doesn’t help that I had to google the proper spelling of his name…just saying).
3. Josh Freeman;
The quiet leader of last year’s resurrected Buccaneers had a lot of help from a lot of potential stars. Football is, of course, the sport least capable of being dominated by a single player. But, for reasons passing understanding, it has that peculiar habit of giving too much credit and too much blame to the guy under center. And that makes Josh Freeman the face of the franchise. I am not sure he has risen to the same celebrity level as Vinny or Longo (he doesn’t even have a good nickname yet), and he isn’t that visible in the community, but he is a quarterback and a star-in-the-making. I only put Freeman at the bottom of this three horse race because Vinny has the longevity advantage.