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For Tampa Bay, Josh Hamilton is just one of the ones who got away

After the first home run, you probably didn't even notice. Josh Hamilton has hit one into the distance before and, by now, you are used to hearing about it.

After the second home run, you might have smiled. Even after Hamilton spent years trying to stuff a career up his nose, he remained likeable. Here, he was an undelivered promise, but who doesn't like the story of an athlete reclaiming his life?

After the third home run, you might have felt slightly wistful. He was supposed to be a star here, darn it. Nights such as this one were destined to be celebrated in Tampa Bay.

After the fourth home run, let's face it, you were demanding answers. Hello? Can anyone please remind me of how this guy escaped from Tampa Bay? Weren't the sentries on duty? It was as if he had taken his bat and clubbed all of your old expectations right in front of you.

Look, it is hard enough to lose a game to Kelly Shoppach, as the Rays did earlier this year, and it is a test of your blood pressure to have one snatched away by Jonny Gomes, as the Rays did over the weekend. But to watch from a distance as a failed part of your team's history makes baseball history? That's hard.

Most of us should be used to the feeling. After all, this has always been a place where great athletes used to work. Doug Williams. Steve Young. Brad Richards. John Lynch. Warrick Dunn.

These days, every city misses somebody. It is an era when athletes can franchise hop, and everywhere knows the wistfulness of an ex-favorite in the wrong colors. Here? It seems to happen more than most places.

As of now, Hamilton is at the top of that list. More than anyone, he's Tampa Bay's guy who got away.

I do not say that lightly, and I do not say that because of one good game. Of all of Tampa Bay's former athletes, Young was probably the most accomplished with his next team. Williams probably caused the most anguish, because he won one of the most memorable Super Bowls of all time. Bo Jackson, who declined to play after being drafted by the Bucs, went on to be a celebrity from his amazing skill set.

Hamilton? He has not only become a star. He has helped to eliminate his former team from the playoffs the past two years. That's particularly painful to watch.

This should be pointed out. At the time the Rays didn't protect Hamilton in the Rule 5 draft back in 2006, his career seemed lost. Even if the Rays had kept Hamilton then, it's unlikely he would be here now. Remember, the Rays planned to put him in Class A to start the climb back from his drug problems, which means they would have likely lost him to waivers the next year (he was out of options). Besides, Hamilton is making $13.8 million this year. How would the Rays have been able to afford to keep him?

Still, when Hamilton is collecting four dingers a day, you cannot help but wonder what might have been.

This is the way a lot of people in Tampa Bay felt when Doug Williams won the Super Bowl back in 1987. For the Bucs, the loss of Williams left an enormous void. Never mind that Williams won only five regular-season games (and three playoff games) in Washington. He won something huge for somewhere else, and Tampa Bay noticed.

Sometimes, it is the change of uniform that makes a difference. Consider Young, who had three wins in 19 starts in Tampa Bay. In San Francisco, however, he threw for 29,907 yards and had a 101.4 quarterback rating over 13 seasons. There were a lot of days when you remembered Young used to work here.

With Lynch, the feeling was that the Bucs had shortchanged themselves by letting him go too quickly. Sure enough, he played four more seasons for Denver … and made four more Pro Bowls.

Fans might not have missed Vinny Testaverde as much as they should have. In Tampa Bay, he never had a chance. Once he left, he made two Pro Bowls and passed for 31,413 yards. Oh, and he won 66 games elsewhere after winning 24 in six seasons here.

Lightning fans are still trying to figure out why the team traded Brad Richards (who has 95 goals and 189 assists in the four-plus years he has been gone) and Dan Boyle (who has 49 goals and 134 assists in four years). It was bad enough to lose Boyle for almost nothing. With Richards, however, the Lightning got back goalie Mike Smith, who won 38 times this year … for Phoenix.

Then there was the defection of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, which was the first piece of unraveling for the Lightning's Stanley Cup team. Frankly, he hasn't been the same: He has had a losing record in five of seven seasons since. On the other hand, the Lightning is still looking for a long-term solution in net.

There are others. Bobby Abreu, taken in the expansion draft by the Rays, hit 281 home runs afterward. None of them were for Tampa Bay, however, which shipped his rights for shortstop Kevin Stocker. Keyshawn Johnson groused his way out of town, but he did have three seasons of 70 or more catches with Dallas. Roman Hamrlik is still skating.

And on it goes. Dunn, whose years in Atlanta were better than his time in Tampa Bay. Carl Crawford has struggled with Boston, but he remains one of the Rays' most popular alums. Trent Dilfer. Joe Jurevicius. Matt Garza. John Carney. Edwin Jackson, at least on the day he threw his no-hitter.

Then there are the coaches. Tony Dungy reached seven straight playoffs for the Colts, including a Super Bowl win. John Tortorella is still breathing fire with the Rangers. Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs worked here as an assistant coach. Lou Piniella had three winning seasons in four years in Chicago; of course, those were the seasons the Rays started their improvement, so fans adjusted.

That's part of it, too. If the athlete is great in his new home, fans miss him. If the hole he left has not been filled, fans miss him. If the team left behind is struggling, fans miss him.

And if greatness breaks out, time after time after time after time, the fans miss him enough to leave the porch light on.

You know, just in case he comes home.

For Tampa Bay, Josh Hamilton is just one of the ones who got away 05/09/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 10:19pm]
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