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How a Decade and a Half of Heartbreak Became Title Town

2020 was perhaps the most wild year of any of our lifetimes. We are on month eleven of a global pandemic concerning the outbreak of COVID-19. The year started with Tiger King, in the middle was murder hornets and in the end, the Apprentice was finally told “you’re fired.”

The strangest thing, however, was sports. The world shutdown. Baseball put cardboard cutouts and in some cases, stuffed animals, in the stands. Due to protocols, they made the designated hitter universal, put runners on second base to start extra innings and made doubleheader games only seven innings. The NFL had no fans to limited capacity the entire season. The NHL shutdown altogether, eventually leading to an expanded playoff bubble. Yet, the biggest story in sports is that of the new “Title Town.” It is not Boston, which has dominated the sports scene over the last generation. It’s Boston that’s had to say goodbye to a generation in 2020, including icons who had been there for a decade and a half or longer: Tom Brady, Dustin Pedroia and Zdeno Chara. It wasn’t New York, as the Yankees continue to find innovative ways to absolutely suck when it matters, a story that goes back for the last decade. Nor was it in football, where the Jets and Giants combined for an 8-24 record. The Islanders made it the farthest, falling in the Eastern Conference Finals. Los Angeles came close, finally winning the World Series after being cheated out twice previously and winning the NBA Finals, with LeBron James winning a Finals MVP crown for a third different franchise. The new Title Town? Tampa…excuse me, Champa Bay.

The city of Tampa had only contended for two championships since 2004 heading into 2020: the 2008 World Series where the Rays lost to the Philadelphia Phillies and the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals where the Lightning lost to the Chicago Blackhawks. They had not won one since the Bolts in 2004.

Carlton Davis III, a cornerback for the Buccaneers, confirmed on Twitter that the Bucs will be hosting a parade in Tampa Bay tomorrow, with preliminary reports suggesting that it’ll be a boat parade, similar to how the Lightning celebrated following their September Cup victory.

Lightning Win The Cup!

Blake Coleman shot the puck past goaltender Anton Khudobin of the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead in the second period. It was a lead they would not relinquish as they rode to Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The Lightning, who went sixteen seasons without a Cup, had already been the most recent Tampa Bay franchise to bring home the championship. This dated back to the days of Martin St. Louis, Nikolai Khabibulin, Brad Richards and Dave Andreychuk.

For the Tampa area, it was the Lightning’s failures that had been the most disheartening over the last decade and a half. The Lightning had been one of the best teams in hockey for years. In 2005-2006, they did just enough to clinch the eighth seed, prior to being outscored in the playoffs by the Senators 23-12. In April of 2007, they lost in six to the Devils. It was Tim Taylor’s final series in the NHL. They would miss the playoffs altogether until 2010, in the meantime playing players such as Vladimir Mihalik, David Koci, and Andrej Meszaros. Current Minnesota Wild GM became interim Lightning GM after the team released Brian Lawton, until inking Hockey Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman before the 2010-2011 campaign. From there, Yzerman built a perennial contender.

The team wasn’t supposed to do anything and had extremely low expectations. The goaltending was iffy, with a 41 year old Dwayne Roloson getting a majority of the teams reps. The top line had a 20-year-old phenom named Steven Stamkos, 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Martin St. Louis and then team-captain Vincent LeCavelier. The defense had alternate captain Mattias Ohlund, a returning franchise icon Pavel Kubina who was part of the 2004 Cup team, a 20 year old Victor Hedman and a mid-season pickup of Eric Brewer.

Yet, it was the hidden third line, featuring Steve Downie, Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim that stole the hearts of Bolts fans when it mattered. Bergenheim went off, scoring nine goals in the playoffs, including the series winner against the Pittsburgh Penguins, sending the Cup favorites home for the summer. The Bolts would lose to the eventual champion Bruins, but defeated the Penguins and Capitals giving fans hope for the Yzerman administration. He did not disappoint. The Bolts would be in it almost every year of the decade.

The team is loaded with talent. The team was able to get rid of a goalie the caliber of Ben Bishop, gleefully, because they had the best goalie in hockey waiting in the wings. In September of 2012, they inked an entry level deal with Russian phenom Nikita Kucherov, who would became the greatest payer in franchise history, which culminated in a 2019 Hart Trophy award as the league’s most valuable player. Steven Stamkos has signed long-term, Brayden Point is one of the best young superstars in hockey. The team is uber talent, with more talent than any other team in the sport. Their playoff woes are well-documented, beginning with the 2016 ECF loss to the Penguins. They made the Stanley Cup Finals the previous year, but without the lofty expectation. In 2017, they missed the playoffs altogether as heavy Cup favorites heading into the season. In 2018, they were once again favorites for the Cup and lost in the Conference Finals. After the 2018 season, Yzerman gave the key to the castle to Julien BriseBois. In 2019, they tied the record for most wins in a single NHL season ever…only to lose four straight to the eighth seed Columbus Blue Jackets and get swept out of the chase for the Cup.

With Steven Stamkos sidelined, but new additions such as 2019 Cup Champion Pat Maroon, Blake Coleman and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Lightning went off in the bubble, showing the world why they’re the most exciting team in sports. Whether it was Coleman sliding into the net or Point’s goal in the fifth overtime, they fought their ways to the finals with the grit the team hadn’t seen before. For years, they had the most skill but let themselves get beat up and in a sport such as hockey, it’s a combination of the two. With Hedman and Kucherov as the team leaders as well as the additions of a player such as Maroon, the Bolts were more physical than ever.

In September, the Bolts beat the Dallas Stars in six games to win the first championship for the city since they last won in 2004. It was a story of perseverance and grit from a battle-tested squad. Years of savvy signings, hitting on high draft picks, shrewd trades and strategic and creative cap management put together the perfect club for the most imperfect of years.

The Rays Win The Pennant!

To say the Rays have been all heartbreak in the last fifteen years would be a bit exorbitant in a way. The Rays were one of the worst teams in baseball at a time where the Bucs and Lightning were winning their first championships. When the Bucs won in the 2002 season, the Hal McRae led team won only 55 games total with a roster consisting of talents of players such as Jared Sandberg, Bret Abernathy, Ryan Rupe and Ben Grieve. The team’s All-Star was Randy Winn. In 2004 when the Lightning won, the team was now managed by Lou Piniella and up to a respectable 70 wins. It was “The Perfect Storm” Carl Crawford’s breakout year, and featured players such as Tino Martinez, Rocco Baldelli, a very young BJ Upton and a pre-superstar (with the division rival Toronto Blue Jays) Jose Bautista.

By 2005, they were back to the usual, though. In 2007, they had the worst record in MLB, going 66-96 in the second year under manager Joe Maddon. Yet, their rotation had a lot of upside, highlighting James Shields and Scott Kazmir. It was the rookie season of Uwajima sensation Akinori Iwamura and first full season of future 3x All-Star Ben Zobrist. Carlos Pena launched 46 homeruns. Yet, the next season that nucleus alongside the aforementioned Crawford and Upton, newly acquired shortstop Jason Bartlett and rookie Evan Longoria took them to the World Series. Questionable weather aside, they did not defeat the Philadelphia Phillies. They were perennial contenders through the 2011 season, which ended with the legendary Game 162.

Since 2008, the Rays have seen the debacle that was Manny Ramirez. Their All-Stars consisted of players such as Brad Boxberger. Evan Longoria got extended only to be mediocre throughout the deal. The team drafted Tim Beckham over Buster Posey. The fanbase watched Ben Zobrist win a World Championship with two different clubs, as well as many other players. They fielded rosters that rewarded playing time to Riche Shaffer, Mikie Mahtook, Jaff Decker and Steve Geltz. They wept in frustration watching Brad Miller and Matt Duffy as the teams supposed most-potent hitters.

It wasn’t all bad. Blake Snell and David Price brought home Cy Young awards. But, the process had to be trusted. In 2019, the Rays were one win away from defeating the Houston Astros to go to the ALCS, losing all three games at Minute Maid. Then, it came out that they were stealing signs at home. The Rays weren’t fairly beaten. The process had come a long way and they were hungry.

What is the process? It’s an arduous one, but it worked. The Rays trades are impeccable. They built the team through the farm. Yours truly actually breaks down how the 2020 team was built here extensively. To put it into perspective: the biggest prospect bust of the last decade and a half for the Rays is Delmon Young. They traded him in the package for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, two key players for the Series run, before the 2008 season. When Matt Garza went to the Cubs, one of the players that they received in return was Chris Archer. They turned that into Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows. Glasnow is now the number one starter for the club with Meadows having been an All-Star in 2019 for the Rays.

The following template above is from late 2018 following the Archer trade, so it does not reflect the 2019 All-Star selection for Meadows nor the value offered thus far from him and Glasnow, but it sums up the trade tree otherwise to a tee. Shoutout to Reddit user u/Floridaman_69 for make the graphic. This is what the Rays do: they turn a bust into prophet over a long period of time. It led to a 2020 AL East Championship for the Rays, in a season where they absolutely destroyed the Yankees.

With the eventual AL Manager of the Year pushing the buttons, it was one of the most dramatic postseason runs in baseball history. This included the most poetic homerun of the season, a Game 7 victory against the Astros in the ALCS and Brett Phillips with the most unlikely hit since Francisco Cabrera in the 1992 NLCS.

The World Series did not go the Rays way, thanks in part to one of the most controversial calls in MLB history by a manager. While the Rays didn’t succeed as much as the Lightning or the Bucs, they still take home an AL Title, playing their part in “Title Town, USA.”

Bucs Makes Super Bowl History!

The Buccaneers had not won since the 2002 season. They watched Warren Sapp go to the Raiders, John Lynch the Broncos, Mike Alstott and Derrick Brooks wrap it up after the 2007 season. They had not been to the playoffs since 2008. They had a revolving door of both quarterbacks and head coaches. Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon and Jameis Winston all got drafted and all bombed. Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith all got hired and all got fired. They watched all of their division rivals take a trip to the big game.

Then they signed Bruce Arians, one of the better head coaches out there. He hired Todd Bowles, the best defensive coordinator in the league. Jason Licht shook the football world to start 2020 by signing Tom Brady to a two-year deal, as the then-six time World Champion looked to bring a winning culture.

In the meantime, the Bucs had previously won by their defense. They invested in their defense.

They retained Shaquil Barrett after a legendary 2019, the veteran presence of players such as Ndamukong Suh, Lavonte David and Jason Pierre Paul rounded out a stellar defense.

Despite popular players such as Kwon Alexander and Gerald McCoy being let go, they had every piece they wanted in the defense. Tom Brady took a 7-9 team, that only lost one or two games by more than one score in 2019, and provided the statistics Jameis Winston could not, such as not turning the ball over on dumb playcalling. He didn’t need to be the MVP he was even just two years before this, he needed to make the plays a veteran would make. The Bucs also traded for Rob Gronkowski, which softened the blow when tight end OJ Howard went down, and took flyers on Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown. The receiving combination of veteran Mike Evans and Chris Godwin was already one of the best one-two punches in the league. Evans even recorded 1,000 yards in 2020, becoming the first receiver in NFL history to reach the threshold in each of his first seven seasons.

It took the Bucs awhile to adjust. Following a 27-24 loss Week 12 that pushed them to 7-5, they went 8-0 the rest of the way. They finished 11-5. Heading into the playoffs, Fournette finally balled out. Sean Bunting recorded a pick in each of the first three games.

They beat an awful Washington Football Team by the skin of their teeth, but didn’t let up the rest of the way. They played Drew Brees in the playoffs in the Dome, which means Drew Brees constantly turned the ball over like he always does when it matters. They went to Lambeau and beat the eventual MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

This meant that the Bucs were set to become the only team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Tom Brady texted every teammate the night prior saying “we will NOT lose.” They did not lose. In fact, they went up against one of the greatest offenses of all-time and did not give up a single touchdown. They got to Pat Mahomes regularly and often, held down Tyreek Hill and took advantage of a lot of sloppy plays. The offense unloaded for 31 points. The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl on their home turf 31-9 against the defending champions. It was Tom Brady who won his seventh championship and now has five Super Bowl MVP awards.

The Bucs had a field day celebrating, to the point where linebacker Devin White is even taking his horse back to Raymond James Stadium to do a lap with the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Tomorrow, they celebrate in a boat parade due to COVID-19, similar to how the Lightning did late last year.

Tampa Bay went through 15 years of the Lightning choking, the Rays consistently being mediocre and the Bucs absolutely sucking. In 2020, Tampa Bay was the only city to have three sports teams compete in the final game of the year, with two of them victorious. There are three conference championships and two league championships now residing in the Tampa area.

Tampa Bay is now Champa Bay.

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Jameus Mooney

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