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Missing the Rowdies opener is no anniversary gift

in Apolitical/Sports/Top Headlines by

I am not going to the Tampa Bay Rowdies opener tonight.

I could just kick myself.

There is a buzz in the air about the Rowdies opener. Maybe it says terrible things about me, or about the team, but I don’t remember a buzz for last year’s game. Or the year before’s. Or the year before that one.

If nothing else, however, the Rowdies have earned themselves another look with all of the improvements. Have you seen Al Lang? The signage? The new scoreboard? The new seats. Everything seems like something new.

But it’s my 23rd wedding anniversary, which is an upset by, oh, 22 years or so.

So I’ll be passing the rolls.

And smiling sweetly.

And wondering what the score is.

I’ve been taken with this Rowdies team. Part of the reason was that I did a piece on my old friend, Farrukh Quraishi, this week. Great guy, Farrukh. He once got me in to interview the late, great Paul Newman at the St. Pete Grand Prix. As the new general manager, you might expect Quraishi to be smitten by this team, too.

He is. He thinks it’s going to be good. He escorts you around the grounds, into the weight room, in front of the improvements, and he is like a kid at Christmas. He tells you this player’s story, and that one.

Then there is Thomas Rongen, the coach. I did a piece with him this week, too. He is a man reinvigorated by this team and by his trek to American Samoa. Oh, you ask him how it’s going to do, and he starts talking about the  troubles of the season. But I think he expects success, too.

I’d like to be there. I want to hear the crowd. I want to see the team take the field. I fell in love with soccer during a summer in England once, and I’m convinced it’s a great game. After watching the World Cup last year, I think this might be its time. It doesn’t have to be the NFL. It doesn’t have to be baseball. It just has to be fun.

I think fans will like the new digs. There is green and gold everywhere. Al Lang has always looked like Rogers Hornsby’s crypt. But no more. This looks like soccer. Honestly, it does.

My kid is walking around our house with his Tampa Bay Rowdies scarf. He’s going to the game. Heck, it isn’t his anniversary. Kevin went to Al Lang when he was a little boy, and he ran up and down the steps of the stadium during minor league baseball games. We would sit and watch the sailboats go by, and it was a cool way to spend a day.

This is going to be cooler.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t covered nearly as much soccer as I could have over the years. There always seemed to be something that drew more readers. But I’ve watched it in the Olympics, where Hope Solo led the U.S. I’ve watched it in South Florida. I’ve watched it in Tampa. I’ve watched four kids go through various age groups in youth soccer. My daughter kicked the winning goal in a shootout in a regional playoff game a couple of years ago.

And over the years, I have learned this: Soccer crowds don’t just watch the games. They get involved with the games. They sing and chant and turn the event into a party.

And, to be honest, that crowd is part of the reason you want to see the team do well. It’s a sellout, and it’s a good chance for the Rowdies to argue that a fan ought to come back. If there is a good time to be had, why wouldn’t they?

It’s funny. When I talked to Rongen the other day, I reminded him of how I had chased him around for years. I was at the Miami Herald when he coached the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and one day, our competition took a photo on deadline and quickly slapped it in the paper.  It was a typical photo of two guys each trying to win the ball. “Joe Smith tries to win the ball…’’ the cutline said.

But if you looked closely — how do I put this? — he wasn’t wearing any underwear. He might as well have been in a doctor’s office. Embarrassing.

So, being the other newspaper, we naturally blew up the photo and put on our bulletin board for all to see. Well, sooner or later, one of our writers — a huge soccer fan — comes in and wonders why the photo is there. Look at it, he was told. So he squints, then looks up and says “That isn’t Joe Smith!’’


Soccer has those kind of moments, moments when it will make you grin in surprise. And times when the game catches you with your pants down.

There are those who will say that Tampa Bay has all of the sports it can handle between the Bucs and the Lightning and the Rays and the Rowdies and USF and the Grand Prix and golf tournaments and the women’s Final Four. Maybe.

But on an evening when a new team cuts the ribbon on a new season, when it tries to earn itself a new start, it merits your attention.

We should all be there. Any other day, I would be.

In the meantime, does anyone have the score?

Oh, and Happy 23rd, sweetie.

What was that you were saying?

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit

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