(Editor’s Note: Sports has become an economic development engine in Florida, so today we introduce our FORWARD Friday column, looking at news and developments affecting this vital industry.)
Florida, blessed by weather that makes baseball a year-round sport, long has been a hotbed of talent for America’s Pastime. But, what happened Thursday night on the other side of the continent was a showcase for why it may be second only to golf as a centerpiece of the Sunshine State’s multibillion-dollar sports industry.
With the National League Division Series on the line, Stetson University alum Jacob deGrom took the mound at Dodger Stadium for the visiting New York Mets, where he squared off in a classic duel against Apopka High School graduate (and Los Angeles ace) Zack Greinke. It was a duel against last year’s NL Rookie of the Year (deGrom) against one of the leading candidates for this year’s Cy Young Award (Greinke). Both acquitted themselves beautifully, but deGrom and the Mets ultimately prevailed, 3-2.
But, that’s not where the Florida story ends. The offensive hero of the game was Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, a Jacksonville native. Murphy tied the game in the fourth with an ultra-alert steal of an unprotected third base, which allowed him to score on a subsequent sacrifice fly, and then he hit the go-ahead solo home run off Greinke in the sixth.
Florida’s spot at center stage is not entirely a surprise. According to a 2014 census, we trailed only California and Texas in the number of major league players produced. But, still to produce the three key players in a critical postseason game is an accomplishment unlikely to be matched this year.
As for the players themselves, Greinke’s moment in the spotlight is almost to be expected. The 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner with the Royals, Greinke has been either the ace or the number-two pitcher for every team on which he has played. He also has a compelling story, having overcome depression and an anxiety disorder to become an elite MLB player.
DeGrom, meanwhile, has dispelled the notion that Rookie of the Year award winners face a sophomore slump. After going 9-6 with a 2.69 earned run average last season, he became the focal point of one of baseball’s best young pitching staffs by going 14-8 with a 2.54 ERA this season while improving in virtually every statistical category by which pitchers are measured. He also has won both his starts this postseason while posting a 1.38 ERA.
More surprising perhaps is Murphy in the offensive hero’s role. He did make the NL All-Star team last year, and this season was one of his best offensively. Still, he is far more the definition of a “value” player, someone who produces solid numbers at a reasonable cost.
The Mets (and Dodgers) no doubt felt they got more than their money’s worth from the state of Florida.
Florida’s Other Award Winner
Lost a bit in the excitement of the postseason is another Stetson baseball product who fared well in 2014, Cleveland pitcher Corey Kluber. Last year’s AL Cy Young Award Winner, Kluber at first glance would appear to have fallen on hard times in 2015. His won-lost record plummeted from 18-9 to 9-16 and his ERA rose from 2.44 to a still-respectable 3.49.
Traditional, top-line statistics don’t always tell the entire story, which is why baseball geeks (and, increasingly baseball general managers) look at a host of advanced statistics and seasonal splits. By that standard, Kluber did not fall all that far. His WHIP (walks/hits per inning pitched) count was better this year, as were a variety of other per-game metrics. He had a strong second half and was a big part of Cleveland’s late charge for a wild-card spot (the Indians ultimately finished 4½ games behind the Astros). A somewhat disappointing season aside, he remains the ace of a steadily rebuilding Cleveland staff.
Florida Football Shake-up
In any other week, college football – specifically this past Monday – would have dominated all Florida sports stories.
Shortly before noon on Monday, UCF Head Coach George O’Leary finally bowed to the pressure brought on by the Knights disappointing 0-5 start and relinquished his duties as the school’s interim athletic director. There was a time when the head football coach and athletic director routinely were the same person at many large universities, but that was before college sports became a multimillion-dollar business. Athletic directors today have to be full-time fundraisers and CEOs rolled into one, and long gone are the days of the figurehead AD who can delegate day-to-day responsibilities to others. O’Leary had to choose and the most successful coach in UCF history understandably chose his first love.
A little later in the afternoon came the news that UF quarterback Will Grier was being suspended for a year for taking a banned substance, a situation the quarterback and the school attributed to his failing to get school and NCAA clearance for an over-the counter nutritional supplement.
Finally, early Monday evening, South Carolina and (former Gator) head coach Steve Spurrier announced he was retiring/resigning – the two words were used interchangeably – effective immediately. Arguably the best coach in both schools’ history, the former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback also was one of the media’s favorite “quotes.” Cbssports.com compiled a list of his best, and two of his most memorable involve Orlando’s own Citrus Bowl game, which traditionally features the number-two team in the SEC. In the mid-1990s, Florida and Tennessee were consistently dueling for the SEC title, and Spurrier’s Gators routinely would win, going on to play for national titles while the Volunteers headed to Orlando. The Head Ball Coach’s two classic lines:
“You can’t spell Citrus without U-T.”
And, upon hearing that Peyton Manning was returning for his senior year at Tennessee, he quipped, “I know why Peyton came back . . . He wanted to be a three-time MVP of the Citrus Bowl.”
The Tampa Bay Lightning fared extremely well this week when ESPN released its “ultimate standings” of all 122 major league (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL) franchises. The rankings are based on a variety of factors, including affordability of the game experience, ownership quality, fan relations, player quality (on and off the field) and, of course, winning. The Lightning were third overall and tops among NHL teams.
Other Florida teams performing well were the Miami Heat (21st) and Tampa Bay Rays (45th), as well as the Florida Panthers, which jumped from number 102 to 48 in the course of one year. The Jacksonville Jaguars (64th) and Orlando Magic (78th) were in the middle of the pack.
Not doing as well were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (91), Miami Dolphins (92) and Miami Marlins (106).