TAMPA — When it comes to rivalries, we are orphans at the stadium gate.
Not enough pedigree in our pockets, not enough history in our lineage. We are willing to be despised but we just haven’t found another community inclined to waste all its animus on us.
Oh, some might mock us. They’ll occasionally snipe at us.
But to truly hate us more than any other town? We don’t have that kind of clout.
Sure, you could make a case for the Rays and Red Sox. Think of the fights! The insults! The games that meant the difference between disappointment and glory.
All true, but not nearly enough.
Same with the Lightning. They once took the Bruins to a Game 7 with the Eastern Conference title at stake, but there just isn’t enough derision to cross that divide between competitor and rival.
Which brings us to this hour. This moment in sporting history.
Is it possible Tom Brady could make Tampa Bay a despised villain?
Snatching New England’s favorite son before Patriots Nation was through with him does have a certain rapaciousness to it. Sort of like the Yankees buying Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. Or the Canadiens stealing future Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden from the Bruins.
So, does this mean Tampa Bay is ready to be Boston’s biggest foil? Ah, don’t be a chowdahead.
Sure, the idea of Brady in a Bucs uniform is going to hurt in Boston. And, depending on where the Bucs and Patriots end up in the postseason, there’s a chance this could gradually intensify in both markets.
But in a big picture sense:
New England got 18 full seasons, 17 playoff appearances, more than 200 regular-season victories, nine Super Bowls and six championship rings out of Brady. Do you suppose an 11-5 record in Tampa Bay in 2020 will leave them crying in their cars on the Mass Pike?
True rivalries are a gift in sports. They aren’t created as much as they are nurtured. It happens across generations and throughout regimes. A decade of ups and downs with the Red Sox has made a Boston series worth anticipating around here, but that expectancy is a lot more one-sided than you might imagine.
Consider Boston and New York have been competitors in the American League for 117 years. In 1904, they were separated by a half-game in the standings before finishing the season with five consecutive games against each other. Boston ended up taking the pennant, with 37-year-old Cy Young winning his 26th game of the year on the final weekend. Exactly 100 years later, the Red Sox became the first MLB team in history to come back from an 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees in the ALCS in seven games. In between you had Bucky “Effing" Dent with the one-game playoff home run in 1978, and Ted Williams losing the MVP award to Joe DiMaggio despite hitting .406 in 1941.
You want a rivalry? That’s what a rivalry looks like.
It’s the Giants and Dodgers leaving New York and Brooklyn and carrying their animosity 3,000 miles to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It’s the Bears and Packers playing every season except for two since 1921 with just 53 points separating them after 198 games.
It’s the Bruins and Canadiens meeting in the Stanley Cup finals seven times between 1930-78 — and Montreal winning all seven titles.
For as much as Tampa Bay has grown in recent decades, it still cannot come close to matching that type of history or proximity. The Bucs spent their first 26 seasons in the geographically mismatched AFC West and NFC Central divisions. The Rays are nearly 1,000 miles away from their nearest division rival, and the Lightning has reached the conference finals five times and faced a different opponent each time.
So will the heat be turned up between Boston and Tampa Bay in 2020?
Absolutely. The Brady signing is a brand new chapter in a rivalry that has had its fair share of exciting moments in the last decade, but there’s still a long way to go before everyone else considers Boston-Tampa Bay a rivalry not to be missed.
Now, if the Rays sign Mookie Betts …