Saturday, June 23, 2018

A small sample of the vast work of sports columnist Hubert Mizell, who has died at age 76

Hubert Mizell was a fixture on the pages of the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, for more than 27 years. He covered 42 bowl games, 33 Masters golf tournaments, 10 Olympics, and eight Wimbledons, and he wrote countless columns about the personalities, events and issues that shaped sports in four different decades. Here is a small sampling of some of his columns.

July 5, 1987

Martina found her Wimbledon crown still fit

WIMBLEDON, England —There was no coup d'etat. No changing of the guard in women's tennis. Martina Navratilova was, more than ever, Wimbledon's queen. She gave Steffi Graf a 7-5, 6-3 spanking in Saturday's finals and then, prior to leaving Centre Court, heard the 18-year-old heiress apparent wondering aloud when her day will come. "How many do you want?" Graf mused as the world's 1-2 players packed their tennis tools following Queen Martina's bagging of an eighth Wimbledon singles championship and a sixth in a row. "Well," said the 30-year-old Navratilova, with one of her big-toothed smiles, "nine is my lucky number."

It's Back to the Future.

Navratilova will not be handing over her scepter to Graf as long as the Czech-turned-Texan is as physically crisp and as mentally focused as she was Saturday and as long as Steffi cannot equalize Navratilova's twisting grass-court serve.

• • •

Feb. 1, 1988

At last, Doug Williams has his day

SAN DIEGO — John Elway, the 43rd white quarterback to start a Super Bowl game, came out like Mike Tyson. Boom! One play. Eight seconds. "Boss Bronco" slugged Washington in its capital jaw, a 56-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Nattiel. Orange you impressed?

But from the frantic dust of Sunday's first half would ride a quarterback of a different color. A tough black man; and let's put the emphasis on tough, and on man, rather than on black.

In the beginning, Doug Williams' dream took some nightmarish twists. His D.C. amigos, despite good throws by Williams, were finding it more blessed to drop than to receive.

Denver appeared on the verge of manslaughter. The Elway magic, mixed with creative play calling by the Broncos, amassed a quick 10-0 lead. Then, as the 'Skins were returning a kickoff, Ricky Sanders fumbled.

There, things turned.

For The Longest Minute, sweaty supermen fought, scratched and bled in search of that loose football. Finally, Denver players jumped up, signaling they had recovered. But there was a higher court; officials pointed Washington's way.

A turn not to be forgotten.

Instead of the orange shirts scoring again, amassing a 17-0 lead, that combative and critical moment at the Washington 16-yard line was a wake-up call for the Redskins.

Williams completed a 40-yard throw to Art Monk. But then, in front of a world TV audience of 300-million, the continuing soap opera - Life with Doug - had a wincing, painful act.

Twenty-four hours before Super Bowl kickoff, Williams had undergone root-canal surgery. But, with 1:37 to go in the first quarter, there was a different kind of hurt.

Trying to pass, his right foot slipped on the loose grass of Jack Murphy Stadium. The left knee was hyperflexed. Williams got up, then fell down again.

He limped off the field.

Right there, the Williams' dream seemed blunted. Would he be stripped of the chance to become the Super Bowl's first winning black QB with the emphasis on winning?

You know the answer.

Williams was gone for just two plays. Any longer, and Redskins coach Joe Gibbs would have had to chain Doug to the bench. The dream, instead of dying, came to Herculean life.

Never has any quarterback - white, black, brown or yellow - had a Super Bowl quarter like Williams' second period against Denver. Four touchdowns, and 243 yards, in 15 minutes.

• • •

Aug. 9, 1989

Rose merits Hall for hits, not errors

Three years from now, Pete Rose's face — even with its hobgoblin wrinkles — should be sculpted onto a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Even if thorny rumors become substantiated fact, and Rose is ejected from the game that has been his life, No. 14 from Cincinnati still deserves a fair trial for Cooperstown. Rose, on ballfield bravado alone, should ride a first-ballot landslide into the Hall of Fame. Far as I know, Cooperstown's electorate has not been commissioned to evaluate moral fiber. If Rose is convicted of illegal sports gambling, and Hall jurors immediately blackball him, I suggest circulating petitions to reopen the cases of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and others.

Cobb held the record for career hits until the puckish, persistent Pete came along. Prior to World War I, Tyrus R. Cobb was a skilled, swift and downright nasty outfielder with the Detroit Tigers. His middle name, instead of being Raymond, could well have been Redneck.

"A dreadful person," the late Bill Terry, a Hall of Fame first baseman, once told me. "Cobb made me ashamed," Terry said, "to be a fellow Southerner. He wouldn't get into taxis driven by black men. I never knew anybody who truly and deeply liked Ty."

But Cobb is immortalized in Cooperstown.

• • •

Oct. 18, 1989, Mizell was covering the World Series when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area

A frightening reminder of the power of nature

SAN FRANCISCO — This was the World Serious. An earthquake hit, and baseball was jarred from the mind. It scared me. Really scared me. Anyone who wasn't must be brain-dead.

Thirty minutes before Game 3 of the World Series was to start, Candlestick Park began to shake like a bad dream. Light towers wavered.

Stress fractures occurred in the superstructure.

Strangely, fans by the thousands began to cheer and laugh. Were they pretending some weird kind of bravado, as if this were just another quiver for Californians who consider themselves earthquake "old pros."

Minutes later, the levity subsided. Over battery-powered radios came word that the Bay Bridge was crumbling, and fires were scorching Berkeley, Oakland and downtown San Francisco.

Lights went out at Candlestick. Screams replaced the laughter, except among a few drunks who, I must presume, would've celebrated the sinking of the Titanic with a beer party.

Twice before, while covering sports events in California, I had experienced earthquakes. The first in 1979, while listening to Johnny Carson's monologue at a Tonight Show taping during Super Bowl week.

Then just last summer, during the National Basketball Association finals.

But nothing like this.

I was in a media work room, having popcorn while awaiting the first pitch. Wondering if the San Francisco Giants could somehow win Game 3, cutting into the Oakland A's two-upsmanship.

The room began to tremble. TV sets moved. It got dark. Being from Florida, I'm somewhat hurricane-ready. But nothing prepared me for this. I hit the floor, and nuzzled up to the nearest wall.

It lasted 15 seconds. It seemed like 45 minutes. A woman screamed.

She was alone in a dark, shaking bathroom. If you think that is funny, you weren't there.

This was 1989, not 1906, but that didn't slow my heartbeat or calm the nerves. Fifty minutes after the quake, as I sat on a folding chair trying to write this column before the daylight was gone, police came and said, "Get out now!" No negotiation. I packed up, but didn't go far.

Just outside the ballpark, ABC-TV trucks were parked. An area now lit by lights connected to the network's portable generators. I parked my computer atop an ABC trunk and began tapping away.

Then, another noise. I ducked before thinking. Felt a little silly when it was an airliner buzzing overhead, having just taken off from nearby San Francisco International Airport.

People began driving home, avoiding the Bay Bridge where problems were so apparent.

This story was written on a small, portable computer. It hooks into a telephone and transmits to the St. Petersburg Times' main computer.

When I was ready to transmit, there was no phone. ABC-TV helped me.

We found one in a trailer. But there was no electricity. I sent the story while a television executive held a penlight flashlight on my machine.

An experience.

Seventeen years ago, while on a seemingly harmless sports-journalism assignment, I suddenly found myself writing about people being gunned down by terrorists at the Munich Olympics.

That was the worst. But, an October Tuesday in San Francisco became a distant No. 2 fear in this strange thing I call a career.

I'm fine. Most of the 2-million are unharmed. But when we are occasionally reminded of what force nature can amass, mere athletic events are as insignificant as an ant scaling an elephant's back.

I was scared.

To not admit that would be ridiculous. ...

• • •

April 9, 1992

Ashe news is rotten and unfair

We were floored by Magic Johnson's announcement, even if his infection was self-inflicted. My stomach ached over the fall of the world's greatest basketball player, a young man with such an accommodating nature and wonderful smile, and a championship role model.

What Magic did to get the HIV virus was not heroic. My heart still went out. There is much to admire in the considerable courage with which Earvin Johnson has faced his destiny, and he deserves loud applause for his subsequent appeals on the prevention of AIDS and the stalking of a cure.

But the news of Arthur Ashe is more unfair. His case is due not to sexual activity or sharing drug paraphernalia _ the two leading ways the AIDS virus is transmitted. Ashe is a victim of a medical procedure.

Ashe was an extraordinary tennis player. Not as good at his game as Magic Johnson was at his, but nonetheless an athlete of indelible global impact. Ashe was the first black man to win a Grand Slam tournament, the unforgettable Wimbledon of 1975 when the skinny Virginian put away Jimmy Connors.

I got to know Arthur in 1982, my first summer of going to England to write about Wimbledon. Ashe was no longer playing, but still he impressed. Arthur was wearing a media badge, doing television commentary for HBO and writing a tennis column for the Washington Post.

No ordinary jock.

"For 10 years, I was the Post editor assigned to handle Ashe's copy," said Leonard Shapiro, who Wednesday was here in Augusta preparing to cover the Masters. "Arthur is so good as a writer that I seldom had to put a pencil to his words."

Most athletic figures who allegedly write books, or magazine or newspaper articles, never spend a minute at a keyboard. Frequently, a jock gabs into a tape recorder, and then a ghost writer transforms _ and often enriches _ the athlete's thoughts before turning them into print.

Ashe needs no such help.

He's always been a campaigner, in tennis and beyond. Twenty years ago, Ashe spoke out against apartheid, and in 1968 lobbied for the United States to pressure South Africa. His demeanor is characteristically quiet, and his oratory a voice of reason. Except for once, a generation ago, when Arthur suggested, "They should drop a bomb on Johannesburg."

Four years ago, in Wimbledon's press room, Ashe said he felt lousy. An uncharacteristic statement. When Arthur errs, it's usually in the direction of optimism. "This could be my last Wimbledon," he said. We assumed it was his long-troubled heart. Although Ashe has returned to London each summer since, we now know that 1988 was the year HIV first appeared.

I feel rotten.

• • •

Nov. 29, 1992

Spurrier saves ace for 'Bama

TALLAHASSEE — At halftime, Steve Spurrier saw his Florida Gators as football-dead. It was already a 38-17 killing. FSU was guilty, and giddy. Doak Campbell Stadium was chanting, and tomahawk-chopping. Spurrier decided to pull the plug, by pulling his quarterback.

Marvin Jones immediately saw he wouldn't have Shane Matthews to kick around any longer. "Right there, I thought to myself," said Florida State's lethal linebacker, ""They've given up.'"

Surrender was not unanimous.

Matthews, all-time SEC passing king and twice MVP of his conference, would admit to disagreement with his benching. But being a Mississippi coach's son, and a good Gator soldier, the senior quarterback didn't complain.

"Coach Spurrier knows best," he said.

Florida's wheeler-dealer, in playing his Saturday cards, looked ahead to the next hand. Ahead to next week, and a more coveted Spurrier-Matthews opportunity, against Alabama (11-0) in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

Spurrier's decision was practical, and I semi-understand. Florida wasn't going to catch the Seminoles even if Dan Marino quarterbacked the Gators in the second half.

But what Spurrier did goes against the never-say-die, sis-boom-bah, old-school-try grain. He'll take some heat. But I'll not chastise the Gator coach for doing what could well wind up being in the best interest of his 1992 season.

"FSU was clearly too good for us," Spurrier said, Saturday's 45-24 final aglow on the Doak Campbell Stadium scoreboard. "Shane was banged up a bit, and I decided it was a good time to let Terry Dean get some QB experience. We did get a (7-7) standoff in the second half."

Hot air was rising.

• • •

Oct. 25, 1993

Bucs' sad story gets even worse

If you thought the Bucs, who always seem to be succeeding themselves as the NFL's most inept franchise, couldn't possibly get worse ...well, your mind was too sporting to conjure up Sunday's pitiful Tampa Bay script against the Green Bay Packers.

A 37-14 loss was misleading.

It was far more lopsided. Far more Tampa Bay hopeless. What really counted, and truly pained Tampa Stadium patrons deep into another season of shortfall, was mental/physical Bucs bungling that made it easy for Green Bay to breeze ahead 30-0.

By then, two-thirds of the crowd was booing, the rest celebrating. Depended on point of view. Ten thousand Packers fans _ mostly Wisconsin-to-Florida transplants _ viewed the Bucs as enjoyable comedy. But for 38,000 locals, it was just one more NFL tragedy on Dale Mabry. By halftime, Green Bay led 24-0 and 40 percent of the house was rushing for exits.

They'd seen enough.

Craig Erickson had thrown two Bucs interceptions, Tampa Bay rookie receiver Lamar Thomas had muffed two simple first-down passes, Bucs backup quarterback Steve DeBerg also had been too fruitless and Green Bay receiving whiz Sterling Sharpe was too often suckering the home team's defensive backs for touchdowns.

DeBerg, the Bucs' 39-year-old pitcher, came in from coach Sam Wyche's bullpen to relieve Erickson. That was futile. DeBerg had about as much success with the Packers as Mitch Williams, the flammable Philadelphia fireman, had against Toronto in the World Series. Steve was a 4-for-11 thrower for 30 yards.

So what's the good news?

Tampa Bay's two biggest first-half offensive plays were crafty old pro DeBerg using a tricky snap count to draw defenders offside. For a mini-moment, it seemed the Bucs were about to make a big second-quarter play. Tight end Ron Hall got open over the middle. DeBerg threw, was preparing to grin, but then he frowned as Green Bay linebacker Johnny Holland flashed into the picture and intercepted.

You get the idea.

• • •

July 28, 1995

Selmon fits in perfectly with greats

CANTON, Ohio — Just beyond the Professional Football Hall of Fame's ticket window, where Thursday's worshipers were paying $7 a head to browse among the game's history and legends, I did a pudgy middle-aged juke to the right of the 7-foot bronze statue that honors Jim Thorpe.

There he was. Our guy. First sight of Tampa Bay's hero in the Hall. Biggest winner from the NFL's losingest franchise. Lee Roy Selmon's smiling but humble photograph Thursday graced a lobby wall where he was being honored along with Kellen Winslow, Steve Largent, Jim Finks and Henry Jordan as the Hall of Fame's Class of 1995.

"Lee Roy, the one and only Buc," a tourist in baggy shorts and unlaced sneakers whispered with reverence to his college-age daughter. "Tampa Bay's always been a lousy team, but, my dear, that Selmon was some player."

Silently, I agreed, having seen Selmon's athletic grandeur and personal grace through nine Bucs seasons. Their regular- and post-season record in the Lee Roy Years was 45-91-1. But, as predominantly and collectively unsuccessful as those Bucs were, Lee Roy tends to trumpet the rare sweet times _ such as 1979, when Tampa Bay made the NFC Championship Game, and 1981, when Selmon's guys won the NFC Central Division a second time.

In any company, he was extraordinary.

Saturday here in Canton, where the National Football League was chartered 75 years ago, Selmon and classmates Finks, Largent, Jordan and Winslow are to be moved upstairs from that Hall of Fame lobby to be bronzed and granted new status and new immortality. Heading for a more permanent Canton wall where their busts are to rest forever among those of Halas, Nagurski, Graham, Rozelle, Brown, Lombardi, Grange and 168 others.

• • •

April 1, 1998, after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays first regular season game at Tropicana Field

At long last, baseball makes its entrance


They lost, badly. But they played. Good. Twenty years. How many times, during an oft-turbulent Tampa Bay journey, did we think our eyes might never see March 31, 1998? Baseball full house. A creation christened as the Devil Rays. A team to call our own.

Tuesday was immediately soaked with greatness. Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Monte Irvin and Al Lopez. Old men now, but fabulous historic practitioners of the game. Hall of Famers, here to flick a soft barrage of ceremonial first pitches.

Fred McGriff, Wade Boggs, Dave Martinez and Bubba Trammell brought leather to catch the throws of giants. Wealthy moderns who would ask autographs from Ted, Stan, Monte and Al. From those icons, any of the Devil Rays could get so much more.

If this team, Tampa Bay's own, ever plays with talent approaching that of The Thumper, if it can evolve into competitors with The Man's zeal, there are joyous times ahead at The Trop.

Just to see 3/31/98 The Devil Rays are 0-1. Detroit boomed ahead 11-0, but the Tigers would be mildly staggered by the rallying Rays before putting away an 11-6 opener. May I make a guarantee? Tampa Bay's baseball team will not go 0-26. Your Rays will not be the reincarnation of your baby NFL Bucs of 1976-77.

Win tonight ... they're .500.

Baseball works that way.

I'm still applauding St. Petersburg's uncharacteristically gutsy civic act of building the dome. Still glad my town decided to bet on the come. Still happy we didn't listen to Peter Ueberroth, the naysayer, then commissioner of baseball.

It was a zesty 86 degrees as patrons jammed through gates for a 5:05 first pitch. Not yet April. Wait until it's July, August and September. Say thanks we're smarter than Miami. More understanding of Florida's spring and summer weather quirks than the Marlins. Let them sweat in Pro Players Sauna. Let them soak. Let them suffer.

Dome is the Florida deal.

Not traditional, but sensible.

Tropicana Field cost more than it should have. Surely, it took longer to furnish with a franchise than it might have. But, finally to see legitimate, in-our-house American League baseball on 3/31/98, being among a sellout gathering of 45,369, there was invigorating closure. Even if the Detroit Tigers batters were abusing Tampa Bay pitchers.

The Trop was smacked with some deserved licks from critics in the weeks leading to 3/31/98. There were ugly miscues during college basketball's NCAA South Regional. But that, like Tampa Bay's terribly long chase of Major League Baseball, is finished now. Most of what I saw Tuesday night was beyond good.

Good array of P.A. music, not as disgustingly loud as in NBA arenas. Nice message boards. Solid scoreboards, including results on all other major league games. Huge and handsome Mitsubishi video screen. Also, within dome reason, the look of a baseball park.

More important than anything, at last we were playing. Not searching. Not scrapping. Has anybody forgotten the highs, when Tampa Bay thought the White Sox were about to become our ballclub, to be followed by piercing lows as the possibility evaporated?

Emotions agonizingly similar when the Mariners almost relocated to St. Petersburg, then the Giants. Also the Rangers. Did I mention the Twins? Surely there were others.

But, at last, we have the Rays.

• • •

His last regular column that was printed May 18, 2001.

A wide-ranging wish list for the Tampa Bay area

This is my final column.

Although for at least three years, beginning June 3, I am to write Sunday commentaries in Times sports. An opportunity highly appreciated, a transition that will ease possibilities of the bends as an old sports writer decompresses after 40 full-bore years in a most honorable, challenging, rewarding profession.

Packing to go, headed for a Virginia valley just across Wintergreen mountain from the Shenandoah, excited about a new life and new weather and new geography, may I leave a little list with you ... things I'd love to see when coming back to visit Florida.

• Rays out of turmoil, in contention, playing to packed and happy houses at Tropicana Field.

• Bucs in the Super Bowl, with a renowned Tony Dungy, an accomplished Brad Johnson, a fulfilled Keyshawn Johnson, the same old tough John Lynch, plus a Warren Sapp who has opted to deliver in the community with the zeal and personality always evident in his play.

• Ybor City a more fun, fuller, safer attraction than ever.

• Professional, authoritative, low-trash, high-character, non-juvenile Tampa Bay sports talk. I might have a better chance of putting up a buck and hitting the Lotto.

• Wilson Alvarez: 21-6 (2.37).

• A wealth of open, bright, wide-ranging community minds that allows optimum growth for an area that has wasted far too much time being divided, provincial and negative about consolidated possibilities.

• A sold-out, roaring Ice Palace where the Lightning has become absolute challenger to the Blues, Devils, Pens, Avs and all other Stanley Cup stalkers.

• Scalpers at the Trop.

• USF football and basketball well into admirable, challenging steps in search of major NCAA conquests, having become so locally magnetic that even the students are massively interested in overpopulating arenas.

• A return of wondrous NBA fury in Orlando, surpassing even the Shaq 'n Penny period, blending the skills of McGrady, Hill, Miller and associates into an Orlando pride not connected to theme parks.

• BayWalk booming.

• National championship college football playoffs a reality, with semifinals played at Raymond James and the Citrus Bowl, one matching the 'Noles and 'Canes, with the Gators and Bulls in the other. Hey, as long as I'm asking, why stretch for anything but the optimum?

• Vince Naimoli having some real fun, expending his athletic energies on Notre Dame football.

• A busy, engaging downtown St. Petersburg business strip so extensive and successful, it lavishly marries the dome on 16th Street with The Pier and BayWalk.

• A completed six-lane, comparatively enjoyable Interstate 4 connection of Tampa and Orlando.

• A local TV station, or two or three, doing something revolutionarily retro -- identifying and presenting solid news and timely features, offering commentators with strong credibility, with a No. 1 goal of keeping viewers abreast of subjects that interest the most people, rather than worrying so much about competing for Cutie of the Year.

• Fourth Street in St. Petersburg with an Outback, Sam's Club, Barnes & Noble and one less bank.

• Bucs practice facility, for which Ray-J bonds provided $12-million, finally getting built. I keep wondering, as Glazers keep refining plans, if there might be a fourth son on the way, necessitating another boss office.

• Hal McRae winning.

• Women's basketball at USF without the travails, pains, ugliness, racial overtones and institutional embarrassments; amply replaced by athletes trying their hardest and overwhelmingly enjoying the ride.

• Bustling, wall-to-wall, big-time success for the always promising downtown Tampa complex that encompasses the bay area's most imposing business area plus Harbour Island, the Ice Palace, cruise port, aquarium and glistening new hotels.

• John McKay healthy again.

• Seeing my old friends happy, my old newspaper colleagues flourishing, my only kid happy and well off, my old town feeling better about itself than ever, with my old area having become fully and legitimately big league.

• Considerable numbers of terrific old neighbors who haven't totally forgotten the Mizell fellow, who for roughly 10,000 days tried to do his best at relaying sports news, analyzing and having a bit of fun along the way.

• • •

June 6, 2011, from a column about the death of Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen

Fond farewell, my friendly foe

For 27 years, we were competitors. Tom McEwen was the sports voice, indeed the town crier, for the Tampa Tribune. I wrote a sports column for the St. Petersburg Times. My newspaper was always larger, but my friend Tom tended to "diminish" when glancing west across Tampa Bay. To his eyes, nothing was bigger or brighter than what he called "My Tampa."

We butted heads on a multitude of issues, like "Who should be USF's first football coach?" and "Where should a stadium be built for a Tampa Bay major-league baseball team?" Beginning in 1976, we traveled the NFL shoulder to shoulder, delivering ink that was stained with pain and love and occasional sarcasm. Chronicling setbacks and searching for cures as the Buccaneers of coach John McKaywobbled through an 0-26 beginning.

When word came of McEwen's death early Sunday, I winced as though it was a beloved family member that I'd be seeing no more. Joking with no more. Trading chides with no more.

Competing with no more. As ravenous as Tom and I were to get major stories for our newspapers, and get them first, we were also each other's best counsel.

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