Tampa Bay celebrating 11 years of Lightning Marty Mania

Marty St. Louis celebrates his first of three goals against the Panthers on Feb. 4. His hat trick Sunday against the Devils gave St. Louis, 36, two three-goal games this month.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis celebrates his first of three goals against the Panthers on Feb. 4. His hat trick Sunday against the Devils gave St. Louis, 36, two three-goal games this month.

By now you have retraced every footstep he took on the road to nowhere. You know about the detours, and you know about the obstacles in the road.

Eleven starts and already Knicks guard Jeremy Lin has his own mania. With every point, and with every pun, the legend swells. He is twice as big as he was last week and a hundred times what he was three weeks ago.

As quickly as a flashbulb flashes, Lin has become the hottest story in sports. He is talented, and we love that about him. He is humble, and we love that, too. The league never saw him coming, and we really love that.

Lin has become one of those unexpected delights that sports offers us from time to time. A little more than three weeks ago, Lin was just another guy on another bench, and if he had been cut for a third time, no one would have paid much attention.

These days he has crammed a lot of stardom into February, and his story is well-known. How two teams cut him. How the major colleges didn't want him. How his story has inspired others. When it comes to Lin, the last remaining question for fans across the country is how they can obtain such a player for their teams.

Except here, of course. Here, we have seen this story before.

In Tampa Bay, we call it "the tale of Marty St. Louis.''

You want to talk about underdogs and overachievers? You want to talk about traveling from nowhere to success? You want to talk about resiliency in the face of skeptics? If Sunday's hat trick against New Jersey meant nothing else, it meant that it is time to appreciate St. Louis all over again.

Put it this way: The only thing Lin has on St. Louis is a bigger skyline behind him.

Nothing against Lin. Heck, I appreciate a good story as much as anyone, especially the one where a player endures the doubts, gets his chance and exceeds all expectations.

Except, uh, Lin has been at it for 11 games. Marty has been a great player for 11 years in Tampa Bay.

Just asking, but where is Marty's mania?

St. Louis and Lin have similarities. Coming out of Harvard, Lin wasn't drafted by the NBA. Coming out of Vermont, St. Louis wasn't drafted by the NHL. Sacramento and Houston cut Lin. Ottawa and Calgary cut St. Louis. Lin ended up in the developmental league. St. Louis ended up in the IHL.

Here's your difference: St. Louis has become a star. He's won an MVP. He's won a Stanley Cup. He is working on his ninth straight season of 20 goals or more. You could make a strong Hall of Fame case for him.

And still, Ben & Jerry didn't trip over each other in their awkward haste to name a flavor for St. Louis, did they? Endorsers weren't lining up the way they are with Lin. No one talked about a movie of his life.

It isn't just St. Louis, either. Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner created some commotion when he went from grocery stocker to success with the Rams, but it was nothing like Lin's. You can say the same about unexpected stars such as Albert Pujols and Mike Piazza and Johnny Unitas. Most of them had to play a lot more than 11 games to get the party started.

So what creates mania? Aside from being Tim Tebow, that is?

For one thing, Lin plays in New York, where there are more hype machines than ATMs. It is safe to say Lin's fame grew a little faster than it would have in, say, Oklahoma City.

Then there is Lin's heritage. As the American-born son of immigrants from Taiwan, Lin has opened up the sport for a lot of new fans.

Also, he plays basketball, where the goals come easier. In a recent game, for instance, Lin hit only 8 of 18 shots against the Nets, but he still scored 21 points, which sounds like a better night than it was.

St. Louis, on the other hand, plays hockey. Score a point a night in that sport and you are filling it up.

Locally St. Louis is beloved, one of the top handful of stars Tampa Bay has ever enjoyed. Nationally, however, there has never been quite enough appreciation of the journey he has taken. Lin's story reminds you that St. Louis' road has been terrific, too.

Tampa Bay has seen a few of these trips from nowhere, hasn't it? There was Jim Morris, the Rays pitcher who made it to the bigs at age 35. They made a movie — The Rookie — about him. The Rays also had pitcher Lance Carter, who made it to the All-Star Game after two Tommy John ligament surgeries. They had Dan Johnson, who spent most of his time in the minors but came up in time to hit two of the biggest home runs in the history of the franchise. Sam Fuld was quite the deal early last season with the Rays.

Most of the Bucs who have made the Pro Bowl have been drafted fairly high by the team. But back in 1990, cornerback Wayne Haddix made it. He had been picked off waivers from the Giants, where he had never started a game. Clifton Smith and Donald Penn, both undrafted, also made a Pro Bowl each.

The Lightning? Besides St. Louis, there was Dan Boyle. There was John Cullen, who came back from cancer.

Around here, however, no one has done more with fewer expectations than St. Louis.

Lin-sanity?

In Tampa Bay, Marty tells the story better. You don't have to be a maniac to appreciate it.

Tampa Bay celebrating 11 years of Lightning Marty Mania 02/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 27, 2012 7:44pm]

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