Dick Vitale, Tampa Bay super fan, revels in city’s current pro sports surge

Before basketball became his passion, Dick Vitale's heart belonged to baseball  as a kid growing up in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

His mother got him a pinstriped Yankees uniform as a five-year-old and he admits to skipping school to see baseball games at the old Yankee Stadium.   

"People associate me with basketball for obvious reasons, but as a kid I was such a baseball fanatic that one time I even was able to sneak into Yankee Stadium and run around the dugout," Vitale told USA TODAY Sports. "That love of baseball has always stayed with me."

That's what prompted Vitale, an ESPN college basketball commentator for more than 40 years, to become a Tampa Bay Rays season ticket holder 21 years ago near his homein Lakewood Ranch, Florida. He's been with them from the start in 1998. 

Dick Vitale is ready for the Rays to appear in the franchise's second trip to the World Series. (Photo: Courtesy of Vitale family)

Vitale's upbringing near Yankee Stadium also made the Rays' playoff victory over the Yankees so sweet, giving him an opportunity to cherish the series win over family members who are Yankees fans.

The 81-year-old is not shy about being a Rays super fan, throwing out the first pitch at several games as the team's good luck charm, wearing his customized team attire and joking that at games fans and even players will come up to him for pictures. "In reality, I'm trying to be a groupie as a fan," Vitale said. 

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"I have a blast whenever I'm there at games. The only negative thing about this year is I don't get to see the games in person, but it's OK because watching sports helps us escape the seriousness of coronavirus and everything we are going through in this country."  

Once the Rays reached the World Series following Saturday's Game 7 win over the Astros, Vitale said he went "completely ballistic" celebrating as a Rays super fan. Social media evidence confirmed it, as Vitale jumped for joy as if he were a kid again watching the Rays reach the World Series and posting on Twitter to his 880,000 followers. 

Here come the ⁦@RaysBaseball⁩ World Series Baby! pic.twitter.com/LadjFrPdDk

Vitale has also been a die-hard Tampa Bay Lightning and Buccaneers fan. He was likewise ecstatic when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, even though he felt that he knew the franchise would win it all before its own head coach, John Cooper. 

"He and I are good friends," Vitale explained. "What I told them after they lost last year (in the first round of the playoffs) after such a great season was you are going to be the Virginia and Tony Bennett of hockey next year."

Vitale drew a correlation to his sport in college basketball when Virginia lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2018 as the first-ever No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16. Then the next year, the Cavaliers, coached by Bennett, won the national championship in redemptive fashion. 

"So I see John Cooper on ESPN after winning the Stanley Cup and he's wearing a Virginia hat," Vitale recalled. "Nobody knew the reference, but I did!"

Vitale said he's living the dream with three great sports teams, knowing that the Tom Brady-led Bucs also have a chance to do something special in 2020. Tampa will play host to the Super Bowl this year. An NFL team has never made the Super Bowl when it has been in its home stadium.

Dick Vitale shows off his fandom with customized Rays gear. The 81-year-old has been a season ticket holder for 21 years. (Photo: Courtesy of Vitale family)

"The Bucs changed into a contender overnight," Vitale said. "(Tom) Brady has the competitiveness of the Jordans and LeBrons, that 'it' factor – a thirst to get better every day and not care about the trophy but focus on winning and what's next."

Vitale, known for his catch phrases in college basketball like "diaper dandy" and "it's awesome baby," said he's carried over the passion he brings as a broadcaster into fandom. 

What a magical time to be a sports fan in the Tampa Bay Area! It is #awesomebabypic.twitter.com/FkPrSLfNRo

"I've always been a glass is half full kind of guy, during tough times, and being a fan means going through some of that to get to times like these," he said. 

"We could have three champions in one year, baby."

Vitale's new book, "The Lost Season: A Look at What the Journey to the 2020 National Championship Could Have Been," can be found on his website, with all the funds going to his cancer research foundation. 

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