IF JIMMY HOFFA were a pirate, Pat Croce would have found his body by now.
What you might not know about Croce, the hard-charging former 76ers president, physical therapist, TV commentator, motivational speaker, writer and entrepreneur, is that he's also a hard-core "pirate aficionado."
And he just discovered Sir Francis Drake's burnt shipwrecks off the coast of Panama - a monumental breakthrough in underwater archaeology that solves a 400-year-old mystery.
"Explorers have been trying to do this stuff forever, and here I am, a homeboy from Philadelphia in the Caribbean and we score!" Croce told the Daily News last night. "It's pretty wild."
Leave it to a Philly guy to channel Vince Fumo's WGSD attitude (remember the "We get s--- done" shirts the senator's aides used to wear?) and go diving into Portobelo Bay to make a find that has eluded all prior expeditions.
"It's like we're sitting on a cloud," Croce said by phone, as he stood on the north side of the Panamanian harbor at sunset, gazing toward Drake Island.
Croce, 56, founder of the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, financed the expedition that led to the discovery of the 194-ton Elizabeth and 50-ton Delight. The ships were scuttled by Drake's crews in 1596 after the English sea captain was buried at sea.
The 12-person crew consisted of Croce and explorers from the United Kingdom, France, Scotland, Australia, Panama and Colombia. They were armed with the most sophisticated equipment in the world, including a magnetometer, GeoSwath and sub-bottom profiler that can scan the ocean floor.
"We've really, I feel, hit a home run here with what we found with Pat," said marine archaeologist James Sinclair. "Finding the Elizabeth and Delight near where Sir Francis Drake is buried is as exciting to me as helping discover the Atocha and diving the RMS Titanic."
Drake, who was born in 1540 and died of dysentery, was a privateer and naval war hero under Queen Elizabeth I, who called him "my pirate." He was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, and he terrorized Spain's New World empire.
In other words, he was a badass plunderer, Croce says, and the most successful privateer in maritime history.
"If it weren't for Sir Francis Drake, we might all be speaking Spanish," Croce said. "He was the ultimate pirate, bro. I love this guy."
Croce decided to launch the expedition while researching Drake for his illustrated-book series. He hired London researcher Trevor McEniry to dig up information on Drake, which was used to pick a quadrant of the bay.
Then they got lucky. The water cleared.
"You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face," Croce said. "The day we happened to go, the visibility was sparkling clear."
The Elizabeth and Delight were emptied and torched after Drake died, so no pirate booty has been recovered, Croce said.
"You're not going to find any weapons because they scuttled it," Croce said. "They weren't going to leave anything behind for the Spanish. Drake hated the Spanish."
The ships, which will remain in the water, belong to Panama, but Croce hopes that some items can be lent to his museum, located in St. Augustine, Fla., a city Drake burned to the ground after a raid in 1586.
"Finding ship structures from that time period in this temperature water with the type of organisms that exist is a treasure in itself," Sinclair said. "We have an area that future students of underwater archaeology will be able to use for years to come."
Jay Usher, president of subsea specialists Deeptrek, was almost at a loss for words last night as he recounted the once-in-a-lifetime discovery over Croce's cellphone.
"Staggering find. Absolutely bloody unbelievable," Usher said. "When you've got this caliber equipment and this caliber team, success comes. I was hoping for good things, and we got it."
There's only one thing that could have topped the discovery of the shipwrecks: locating Drake's underwater coffin.
But like a shark smelling blood in the water, Croce hopes to dive back into Portobelo Bay and find his "favorite pirate." Drake is believed to have been buried in a lead coffin in full body armor.
"We're still looking for his body. If I find him, I'm calling back!" Croce said. "It's truly a needle in a haystack, but so were the ships. We found them within a week. We just haven't found him - yet."