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High above Raymond James Stadium, the First Fan of Tampa pro sports could provide his own off-air commentary Sunday, the volume rising inside his suite with every Tom Brady pass in the Super Bowl.
The PTPer is doing his thing, baby! It’s an M&Mer and the Chiefs need to get a T.O.! We’ve got the All-Rolls Royce Team and they’ve got the Dow Jonesers. This is no knee-knocker. We’re going to bring the W!
It won’t be anything Dick Vitale hasn’t said before about the local teams he’s adopted as his own. The veteran ESPN college basketball analyst, who lives in nearby Lakewood Ranch, has become an ambassador for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lightning and Rays, savoring a recent run of success unlike any other in the city’s history.
“It’s Titletown U.S.A. right now,” Vitale, 81, said earlier this week in a telephone interview.
Another Bucs win in their home stadium could solidify Dickie V’s claim, giving Tampa two major pro sports champions after the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, though 4 million Angelenos would point to the reigning champion Lakers and Dodgers (who topped the Rays after six games and one dubious pitching change).
It’s a four-game sweep in favor of L.A. when it comes to the respective celebrity fan bases. The Lakers have Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Flea, among many other A-listers. The Dodgers count Rob Lowe, Alyssa Milano, Will Ferrell and the late Larry King among their most renowned supporters.
Some of the Tampa teams’ most widely known fans might require Googling. Wrestler Titus O’Neil is a devotee of the Bucs and Lightning. Comedian Carrot Top and wrestler John Cena have been known to cheer for the Rays. The Bucs can claim Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys.
Vitale might be sufficient by himself, his volubility making a one-man cheering section seem exponentially larger. He yammers about his love for Tampa sports to his 874,300 followers on Twitter, recently posting a photo of a Bucs jersey with his name on it that the team had given him in 2014.
— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) January 29, 2021
His presence has long been coveted by the local teams. The Rays asked him to be a minority owner before their inaugural season in 1998 but had to settle for him buying four season tickets in the first row next to the visitors’ dugout.
“I’m like a groupie,” Vitale said. “A lot of the players want my picture and autograph and I’m like, ‘You guys don’t get it, man. I want your autograph.’ ”
Vitale’s favorite Tampa sports moment came inside Tropicana Field in 2008 after the Rays had eliminated the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, clinching their first appearance in the World Series. Red Sox slugger David Ortiz collected his bats and gave them to Vitale’s three grandsons, telling them he didn’t need them anymore.
There might have been more celebrating in October had Rays pitcher Blake Snell been allowed to continue his dominance of the Dodgers in Game 6 of the World Series.
“I’m telling you, the people out in L.A. are so blessed, so lucky that the baseball gods were looking after them,” Vitale said, “because if [manager] Kevin Cash doesn’t take Snell out of the game, they win that game 1-0 and with the pressure on the Dodgers in Game 7, [Charlie] Morton would have beaten them and we would have had the world championship as well. Tell them I said that.”
Many of Vitale’s predictions have come true. He told Lightning coach Jon Cooper that he was going to be the hockey equivalent of Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett after the Lightning ended a 62-win season with a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019 NHL playoffs, mirroring the Cavaliers’ historic loss to a No. 16 seed one year before winning the national championship.
Sure enough, the Lightning rebounded to win the Stanley Cup in September. Cooper wore a Virginia basketball hat during interviews afterward as a tribute to Vitale’s prophecy.
There were many seasons when Vitale couldn’t give away his Bucs tickets, interest in the team lagging during a 12-year playoff drought preceding its run to Super Bowl LV. Vitale figured the Bucs’ fortunes were changing when the team acquired Brady before this season in a move that surprised those who figured the future Hall of Famer would retire with the New England Patriots.
“Brady, to me, is the greatest acquisition that Bucs ever made,” Vitale said. “I can’t thank Mr. [Bill] Belichick and Mr. [Robert] Kraft enough. They should get a beautiful Christmas present from the Bucs.”
Vitale will watch the big game Sunday in a suite with his wife, Lorraine, because his doctors advised him against sitting among the 25,000 fans who will be allowed to inhabit the stadium seats amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He picked the Bucs to beat the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs and said he’s going to go three for three because they’re also going to topple the favored Chiefs.
“My Vitale Bald Dome Index is lighting up,” he said, “and it’s telling me, ‘Relax, the Bucs will win.’ ”
Either way, rest assured he’ll have something to say about it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.