Joe Henderson: Regardless of stadium saga, baseball is woven into Tampa's DNA

Tampa natives Lou Piniella, left, and Tony La Russa chat before a 2005 inter-league game at Tropicana Field. Last week, Piniella came within one vote of joining La Russa in the Baseball Hall of Fame. [Times Files]
Tampa natives Lou Piniella, left, and Tony La Russa chat before a 2005 inter-league game at Tropicana Field. Last week, Piniella came within one vote of joining La Russa in the Baseball Hall of Fame. [Times Files]
Published Dec. 18, 2018

A leftover from my years as a sports writer is the eligibility to vote on who should be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It's a serious responsibility and I approach it that way. If you've been to Cooperstown for an induction ceremony, you understand why. Voters are deciding who will stand forever with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, and all the others.

When you look at it that way, a ballot is not something you just slap-dash throw together. It takes time, thought, and research.

I mention this because sometimes we forget what baseball means to this town. It's woven into the DNA of Tampa and Hillsborough County.

Baseball, as I came to understand here, is not perpetual laments about the Tampa Bay Rays' poor attendance or stadium debates. It goes deeper. It's about people like Lou Piniella, playing every day on West Tampa fields until the sun dipped below the horizon and mom called him home for supper.

It's about seven national championships for the University of Tampa. It's about the original Tampa Tarpons.

It's about coaches like Pop Cuesta at Jefferson High, who helped shape Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez, Lenny Faedo and a skinny kid named Luis Gonzalez into eventual major-leaguers.

The night Gonzalez singled in the bottom of the ninth off the great New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to drive home the winning run in the seventh game of the 2001 World Series, I called Pop from Phoenix to get his immediate reaction.

Best way to describe it: screams of pure joy.

That's baseball.

It's men like legendary King High coach Jim Macaluso. It's Frank Permuy, who started the baseball program at Gaither High in 1984 and won more than 500 games and a state championship before retiring in 2014.

Along the way, he developed a player named Kevin Cash, now manager of the Rays.

And you can't talk about Tampa baseball without paying homage to El Señor himself, Alfonso Ramon Lopez, better known as Al — a Hall of Famer as a manager and human being.

One of the first stories I covered in Tampa involved a visit to the Plant High baseball diamond. One player simply had the "look" out on the field. I remember thinking I was seeing a future big-leaguer.

Silly, huh? Not really.

It was Wade Boggs.

Or that time a Hillsborough High pitcher named Dwight Gooden came to the Tribune sports department in cut-off shorts and a T-shirt to see if he was going to be drafted.

There were no TV cameras, no ESPN analysts, just a clattering Associated Press teletype machine. I pulled the first-round list off the wire and informed Dwight he had been taken fifth in the first round by the New York Mets.

He shrugged and said thanks.

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I think about those players, coaches, and more — like Gary Sheffield, who hit more than 500 home runs in the big leagues, or the Belmont Heights teams that went to four Little League World Series.

I think about the parents who watched all those high school and youth games on hard metal bleachers, sometimes shivering in the chill of a February evening or dodging summer thunderstorms.

What does that have to do with my Hall of Fame ballot?

Well, a few years ago I watched as Wade Boggs took his place in Cooperstown. And on this year's ballot, I voted for McGriff and Sheffield. It's all connected.

If I had any sway, Lou Piniella would have gotten the extra vote he needed to join Tony LaRussa, yet another Jefferson alum, in Cooperstown. Wait 'til next year.

Football will always be huge here. We didn't know hockey could be so much fun. And kids are choosing sports like soccer and lacrosse that people of a certain age never played when growing up.

But baseball, they say, is timeless.

Baseball is Tampa.