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He wasn’t the voice of Tampa Bay, just its joyful heartbeat

Tom Gilbert’s life will be measured not by the size of his audience, but by the potency of his heart.
In Tom Gilbert’s world, every player was a star and every Lightning, Rays or Bucs game was a glorious affair.
In Tom Gilbert’s world, every player was a star and every Lightning, Rays or Bucs game was a glorious affair. [ Tampa Bay Lightning ]
Published Dec. 8, 2021

In the earliest days of the Devil Rays, victories were rare and postgame laughs rarer still.

On one of those nights late in the 2001 season with the Devil Rays on their way to 100 losses, radio broadcaster Tom Gilbert breathlessly asked manager Hal McRae about the franchise record set that day by shortstop Chris Gomez. Record? What record are you talking about, McRae asked?

Most home runs in a season by a Tampa Bay shortstop, Gilbert replied. With a quizzical look, McRae asked how many home runs Gomez had. Eight, he was told.

“Eight?” McRae repeated incredulously. “EIGHT?” he said as his voice rose several octaves.

For a moment, everyone cramped in the manager’s anteroom braced for an explosion.

“Eight home runs is a good week for A-Rod,” McRae managed to spit out before dissolving into laughter.

In another day, in another place, that question might have led to a testy exchange. It could have been viewed as a backhanded slap, and the questioner dismissed as a typical smart aleck.

Not Tom Gilbert. Everyone knew Tommy, and everyone knew his heart was pure. In Tommy’s world, every player was a star and every Lightning, Rays or Bucs game was a glorious affair.

“Big game,” he would say by way of starting nearly every conversation. “Big game, tonight.”

Tom Gilbert never aspired to great things on the airwaves, but he spread good vibes everywhere he went. He was Mr. Rogers with a press credential. Forrest Gump with a microphone. The sweetest, most lovable man in Tampa Bay sports, and a fixture in the Lightning offices and press box.

He passed away last week at age 67 after several years of failing health and is survived by several generations of local athletes and sports reporters.

“He was such a positive person, almost a naive angel,” said Matt Sammon, who was the Lightning’s director of broadcasting and programming for much of the 2000s. “Everything was just sunshine and blue skies in his world and, you know, you need that interjected into your daily life every now and then.

“The bay area has lost a good one.”

Everyone knew Tommy, but no one knew much about him. He was from Cleveland via Philadelphia, and it was rumored that his family had money. Maybe in chemicals, maybe in ice cream stores. He had great interest in the stock market, which seemed oddly incompatible to his working-man persona. He lived in Pasco County, was married briefly, and took care of his ailing mother when his father passed away.

Most of his work was done out-of-market, shipping sound bites to other parts of the country, but he was such a joyful presence that the Lightning hired him to work on their radio shows and handle fan mail.

He didn’t have a classic broadcast voice, speaking barely above a whisper with the words tumbling out of his mouth at breakneck speed. A younger player might get the impression that he was an inconsequential part of the media scrum, but they would be quickly dissuaded of that notion.

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Tommy knew all of the stars, and a lot of them loved him. Visiting players and coaches would call him by name. Original Rays owner Vince Naimoli attended his wedding.

Famously irascible Lightning coach John Tortorella would occasionally blow up at Tommy, which wasn’t out of character, but he would always apologize later, which was definitely unusual for most of us.

He grew close to Lightning legend and NHL Hall of Famer Marty St. Louis, visiting his locker daily and never failing to inquire about the player’s family. St. Louis, in turn, would ask about Tommy’s mother.

“Marty made Tommy feel special,” said former Lightning executive vice president Bill Wickett.

St. Louis grew so fond of Gilbert that, in the midst of a team slump, he chased the rest of the media out of the dressing room and had Tommy deliver a pregame motivational speech to players. When the Lightning won that night, Tommy was asked to come back again the next game for another speech.

“It meant a lot to him, but it meant a lot to us, too,” St. Louis said Monday. “He had this way of making you feel better about yourself. Whenever I was struggling, he would come up with some reason why I was going to score that night. It could be that he found a rare coin that day and said it was a good sign.

“He might have made that stuff up, but he was always such a positive guy and gave me so much reassurance that I would go out on the ice that night expecting to have a big game.”

While he was only nominally a Lightning employee, the team made sure that Tommy was given Stanley Cup rings the past two years to match the one he was given in 2004.

The Lightning were planning a celebration of life for Tommy’s friends prior to Tuesday night’s game at Amalie Arena, as a way to remember “the Lightning’s biggest fan and cheerleader” as the invite said.

It’s true that most sports fans in Tampa Bay probably have no idea who he was. To me, that is sadder for Tampa Bay than for Tommy.

You see, his life will be measured not by the size of his audience, but by the potency of his heart. For a guy who walked among big-name athletes and millionaires, his kindness, decency and inevitable cheer always stood out.

To those of us who knew him, Tom Gilbert will always be a star.

Staff writer Mari Faiello contributed to this report.

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