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Tampa Bay keeps getting in Philadelphia's path to glory

It is hard to say exactly what cracked the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia's cherished symbol.

Just asking, but are we certain Lee Roy Selmon had nothing to do with it?

After all, hasn't Tampa Bay pretty much broken everything else in Philly? In particular, dreams?

And here we go again.

Tampa Bay is going to play Philadelphia in the World Series. Of course it is. Perhaps you were not sure if the Rays were ever going to play in a Series, or if your great-grandchildren were going to live to see it, but somehow, you knew if it happened, it would be against the Phillies.

When it comes to the pursuit of sports championships, after all, it seems that a team from Philadelphia always is in the way.

Well, for a while, anyway.

It was that way in the 2002 season, when the Bucs went through the Eagles on their way to a Super Bowl title.

It was that way in 2004, when the Lightning went through the Flyers on their way to a Stanley Cup.

For that matter, it was even that way in 2006, when Rocky Balboa (in the cleverly named movie Rocky Balboa) lost his last fight to a fictional fighter named Mason Dixon. The character of Dixon was portrayed by boxer Antonio Tarver, who lives in Tampa. Where else?

As long as Tampa Bay has been making playoffs, it seems that Philadelphia has been around. The Bucs' first playoff victory, with Doug Williams and Selmon back in '79, was against the Eagles. The Lightning's first victory (and first series loss), with Brian Bradley and Daren Puppa, was against the Flyers. The Rays vs. Phillies? Yeah, that figures.

If the sight of Philadelphia teams is a little familiar to Tampa Bay, however, just imagine what these games must look to Philly fans. Even now, the feeling persists in Philadelphia that if the Eagles had beaten the Bucs in January '03, they would have taken the Raiders for the title the next week. Even now, the feeling persists that if the Flyers had gotten past the Lightning, Calgary could have been had.

In other words, Tampa Bay's trophies easily could have been Philadelphia's.

For Philly fans, who haven't seen a major title in 25 years (the 76ers), it's not as much consolation as you might think.

"The first thing I thought of was, 'I don't want to lose another title to Tampa Bay,' " said Rob Babik, 43, a graphic artist who has done work for both the Eagles and the Bucs. "Not again."

For Philadelphia, these were heart and soul losses. The Bucs ripped out a city's heart, and the Lightning stomped on its soul. In some ways, Philly has never recovered.

Go back to the NFC Championship Game, the darkest Sunday Philly has endured in years. Never has there been a game that Philly fans were so sure they were going to win. Frankly, there haven't been a lot of playoff games when Bucs fans were so sure they were going to lose.

After all, the previous two Bucs seasons had ended in heartache in Philadelphia. There was the 21-3 loss in the 2000 season (offensive coordinator Les Steckel was fired). There was the 31-9 loss in the 2001 season (head coach Tony Dungy was fired). In both games, the weather seemed too cold, the Eagles seemed too tough and Veterans Stadium felt like a graveyard.

The next season's game was different. That was the game with Joe Jurevicius and his 71-yard reception, the game with Ronde Barber and his 92-yard interception return, the game that some fans still talk about as much as the Super Bowl victory over the Raiders.

Guess what? The Eagle fans talk about it, too.

"I never heard quiet like that," said Babik, who was packed and ready to go to San Diego for the Super Bowl. "I was in the upper deck, and you could hear the Bucs players celebrating on the field."

Pete Ciarrocchi, the co-owner of eight sports bars called Chickie's & Pete's in Philadelphia, remembers, too.

"You know what?" Ciarrocchi said. "Who cares? These Tampa Bay people … they're a zero. People say to me, 'Don't you dislike us?' I say, 'We don't even know you exist.'

"That game … it's the last game, and it looks like we're gonna kick (butt). Then there is that Jurevicius weirdo. And Brad Johnson. Who the hell told him he was good? They didn't beat us. We lost. We didn't want to score. If we did, we would have kept running the ball."

Ciarrocchi makes a growling sound from somewhere deep inside. Yeah, he remembers.

"I don't have any animosity (toward Tampa Bay)," he said. "Now, we dislike Boston, because Boston cheats. But I like the Tampa Bay area. I like the Gasparilla parade. Jeff Garcia is one of my personal dearest friends. You know why the Eagles got rid of Jeff? Because everyone loved him. He could walk on the Delaware River up here and not sink. But the Eagles knew that every time Donovan McNabb threw an incomplete pass, people would call for Jeff.

"I wouldn't say we think of Tampa Bay as a nemesis. I think fans would be welcome in our bars. Boston fans wouldn't be. But no one would bother Tampa Bay fans if they were cheering for their team. Well, unless we were losing."

If the Bucs-Eagles game had story lines, so, too, did the Lightning-Flyers.

That was the "Shut Your Yap" series, remember? After Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said something to a Lightning player in Game 2, coach John Tortorella told Hitchcock to shut up, and by doing so invited all the scorn and pressure onto him. Which meant none was left for his players.

That was also the series when Keith Primeau, who had won Game 6, had a breakaway against Nikolai Khabibulin in Game 7 and was stopped cold. That was the series that Ruslan Fedotenko, the former Flyer, scored five goals.

"In a way, that was worse," Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Smallwood said. "We lost to a warm-weather city like Tampa? I remember writing that it would have been one thing if a city like New York or Chicago had done it, but it was different for Tampa Bay to make us their (manservant)."

Smallwood wrote something else in that column, too.

"At least we never have to worry about the Rays against the Phillies in the World Series."

Now, they do. And how about this for a starting lineup: Jurevicius at first base, Barber at short, Khabibulin in left, Selmon on the mound and so forth?

Now playing in Tampa Bay: The Philadelphia Story 3: This Time, It's Baseball.

If nothing else, the replay boards ought to be interesting.

Tampa Bay keeps getting in Philadelphia's path to glory 10/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 10:34pm]
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