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October 20, 2008: The Improbable Dream

Baseball in 2008 as a haiku:

“Devil” was struck out
Thrown out of the Rays team name
World Series here we come

You can’t make this kind of thing up. The team that has been so bad for so long, the perennial butt of jokes, finally not only has a winning season, they win the AL East, then beat the Red Sox in 7 games, AND go to the World Series. It remains to be seen whether the final flourish in the tale will be actually winning the World Series, or if just reaching the biggest stage of all for the first time will be the top of the mountain.

Tonight’s game saw the flourishing of a new breed of fans in Tampa Bay, too, starting what could be their own continuing traditions if their club continues to be good in seasons to come, like the proliferation of cowbells. When there was just one “cowbell guy” in Tampa, whose percussive enthusiasm rang hollowly in their usually half-filled domed stadium, was one thing. Now that there are droves and droves of cowbell-ringing fans, game seven’s starter, Matt Garza, wore earplugs. One fan held up a sign that read: MORE COWBELL.

Another clever fan held up a sign that read “The Improbable Dream,” a historical nod to the team they were about to beat, the Red Sox, whose “Impossible Dream” in 1967 revived baseball in Boston, as 2008 has revived it in St. Pete. Ownership there has been trying to get the city to build them a waterfront, open-air ballpark… Winning a World Series seems a great PR move in that direction.

The Rays, whose franchise is only 11 seasons old, will face one of the oldest franchises in the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies, whose franchise was founded in 1883. They adopted the name Phillies officially in 1890, and have won exactly one World Series since then, in 1980.

The homer happy Rays should have a good time in the hitter haven that is Citizens Bank Park, while the Phillies outfielders will probably not enjoy trying to play balls against the beige canvas dome at Tropicana Field. The franchises have faced each other before in Interleague play.

An interesting note which may or may not presage anything: of all the NL East teams, the Phillies have had the worst record in interleague play. Often this has come from playing “down” to bad teams in the AL East like the Orioles and then-Devil Rays, rather than getting beat by the historically strong teams like Boston and New York. In 2001, the Phillies ended the season only 2 games out of first place, but had been swept at Tampa Bay earlier in the season.

When the two teams met in 2006, both Cole Hamels and James Shields were rookies pitching for their respective teams. Now they are both aces. The three-game series was played in Philadelphia and both Shields and Scott Kazmir earned wins for the Rays, facing a lineup that looked similar to the one the Phiting Phils will field on Tuesday: Jimmy Rollins leading off, and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard coming soon after, and other familiar faces like Shane Victorino. Hamels was hammered for 7 hits, 6 runs (5 earned) and knocked out in the fourth inning.

The one Phillies pitcher who did beat them back in 2006 was a highly touted prospect, Ryan Madson, who this season was a cog in bullpen, one piece in the “bridge to Lidge.” He notched a 3.05 ERA and an excellent 1.23 WHIP.

Of course, all the numbers mean nothing once the game actually starts. Great hitters can fail, shaky pitchers can get at’em-balls, and anything an happen. In fact, it is exactly the things that are against all odds that amaze us the most about baseball. Each and every game can be an Improbable Dream.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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