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Sam Fuld joins the sports cult heroes of Tampa Bay

Enrico Ciccone

This is the coolest name of anyone who has played for a Tampa Bay sports team. Next, he's got looks. Ciccone — with his chiseled body, dark skin, dark eyes and long, flowing dark hair — looked like one of those hunks on the cover of a romance novel. He was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. He also did something that many hockey fans — especially those in a nontraditional market — love: He would drop the gloves and start throwing punches if anyone even looked in his direction. Ciccone played 135 games for the Lightning from 1993-99 and amassed 604 penalty minutes, fourth on the franchise's all-time list. That's an average of 4.47 penalty minutes a game. He once even got into a stick-swinging altercation with a teammate, Brian Bradley, in practice! Yet, off the ice he was one of the most pleasant, humble and upbeat guys you would want to meet — and he had a cool French accent, to boot. No wonder everyone — men, women and children — loved him.

Mike Alstott

What is it about fullbacks? They seem to be the fan favorite in every city. Maybe it's because they have a blue-collar work ethic and do the dirty jobs with little attention or praise. While they are sticking their nose into the moving Mack trucks otherwise known as NFL linebackers, some other back is taking advantage of those blocking lanes and becoming a star. But Alstott — who had a nickname, A-Train, that fit perfectly for a fullback and a cult hero — was not a prototypical fullback. He could run, too. When he retired in 2008, he was the Bucs' second all-time rusher (5,088 yards) and their all-time leader in touchdowns (71). Then again, some of his most famous runs were 1 or 2 yards. When Alstott was playing, Sundays at the Bucs' stadium looked like there must have been an Alstott jersey giveaway because so many No. 40s were in the stands.

Quinton McCracken

Part of what makes a cult hero is the name. In this case, it's a letter: Q. He was the first batter in Rays history, and really the team's first star. He was the original Mr. Devil Ray. Okay, he was no Ernie Banks, but cult heroes aren't supposed to be. Back in that inaugural 1998 season, McCracken batted .292 with seven homers and 59 RBIs, and he was named the franchise's first most valuable player.

Phil Esposito

He is one of the greatest hockey players of all time. In Canada and Boston, the former Bruin is a legend. Canadians and New Englanders look at Espo the way many sports fans look at Mickey Mantle, Magic Johnson and Joe Montana. So including Espo in the cult-hero category doesn't seem totally appropriate. But his popularity around here is immense and surprising, considering he never played a game in Tampa Bay. Sure, he is the man most responsible for bringing the NHL to Tampa Bay, but he was fired as general manager in 1998 — 13 years ago. Yet, Espo remains as popular as ever, partly because of his radio analyst gig for Lightning home games and mostly because of his regular-guy personality. He was recently given a token front-office position with the Lightning because new owner Jeff Vinik realizes just how much Esposito means to the people of Tampa Bay.

Rays spark plug Sam Fuld is a legend already in Tampa Bay. There is his almost-but-better-than-a-cycle hitting in Boston, the impressive catch in Chicago, the cloud of dust whirling around the infield every time he gets on base. Heck, the guy has been with the Rays like 12 minutes and already a Sam Fuld superhero cape giveaway night is planned at Tropicana Field. The 29-year-old has officially reached cult hero status in Tampa Bay. Here's a look at some of the other cult heroes in Tampa Bay sports. They aren't necessarily Hall of Famers, but there is just something about them that made them fan favorites.

Other cult heroes in Tampa Bay sports

Micheal Spurlock (Bucs, 2007-present): He will never have to buy a drink in town after in 2007 becoming the first player in Bucs history to return a kickoff for a touchdown.

Bubba Trammell (Rays, 1998-2000): The name alone puts him on the list, as well as the rabid following he had in the outfield stands.

Tim Tebow (Gators, 2006-09): The Babe Ruth of cult heroes. Now with the Broncos, he's a big deal everywhere, but especially across Florida.

Donald Igwebuike (Bucs, 1985-89): The Nigerian kicker known as Iggy is fourth on the Bucs' all-time points list.

Bobby Taylor (Lightning): The only television analyst in the history of the Lightning, "The Chief'' has become a Tampa Bay sports institution.

Rudy Poeschek (Lightning, 1993-97): Tampa Bay loves its fighters, and few have thrown punches as hard as this enforcer. And his face looked like it had taken a few punches, too. That just made him more likable.

Chris Thomas (broadcaster): Thomas, who died from cancer at age 55 in 2004, is considered by many to be the best local sports talk-show host in bay area history. Once a TV sports anchor at Ch. 8, Thomas gained cult-hero status that remains strong among those who listened to his offbeat, comical and always interesting show on WDAE-AM 620, which renamed its studio, "The Chris Thomas Studio."

Rocco Baldelli

Isn't it interesting that Fuld is wearing the number Baldelli had with the Rays, 5? It feels funny to call him by his last name — Baldelli — because no one ever called Baldelli by his last name. We usually are on a first-name basis with our cult heroes. So, from here on out, we must refer to him as Rocco, the pride of Woonsocket, R.I. That No. 5 drew comparisons to Yankees great Joe DiMaggio. Well, that, as well as his long, lean frame, smooth batting stroke and outstanding defense. Comparing anyone to DiMaggio is silly, but Rocco started his career in Hall of Fame fashion. He had 40 hits in his first month, a rookie record. He finished his rookie year in 2003 with numbers that suggested he could be a superstar: .289 average, 11 homers, 78 RBIs, 89 runs, 27 steals and the most outfield assists in the American League. He figured to be Tampa Bay's starting centerfielder for a decade and a half. What followed, however, was a career of heartbreak and frustration. Injuries and illnesses forced him to retire after last season. But he handled the setbacks with grace and class, which only added to his title of "Most Popular Ray Ever.''

Sam Fuld joins the sports cult heroes of Tampa Bay 04/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 8:59pm]
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