When I walked outside Sunday morning to the first brisk air in many months and we opened up the house, I did not take it as a sign. When I got gas later in the day and it was less than $3 a gallon, I did not regard it as good mojo.
I was knotted up, rounding the bend toward dread as game time approached. The Tampa Bay Rays were about to take on the playoff-tested, defending world champion Boston Red Sox in a decisive Game 7 after having blown a 3-1 League Championship Series lead. Further, they had pissed away a 7-0 advantage in Game 5 to lose 8-7, then looked off-kilter while dropping Game 6 at Tropicana Field. That haunted me, and I was absolutely sure it haunted the Rays.
I had reverted back to a non-believer. I hadn't even become a baseball fan until sometime in June, and now I couldn't envision that the Rays would prevail — that they would, as they had so many times this season, defy the odds and dispatch the Sox 3-1 to earn a trip to the World Series.
The World Series! Against some team called the Phillies. Imagine that. Let it sink in. Over and over.
Think back to the spring when the team was positively flush with optimism: This year, goshdarnit, was gonna be the year the Rays actually competed in the brutal American League East; '08, come hell or high water, was when the Rays would finally crack .500; if memory serves, pitcher Scott Kazmir was the only one who, while not quite predicting the team would make the playoffs, thought that the unthinkable milestone was within reach (and his teammates probably wanted to wrap his head in duct tape).
But this? Nah. To a man, the Rays never expected this. The fans never expected this.
Read the following with the volume on HIGH:
And further: YeeeeaaaaagggghhhhWOW!
Like the entire season and the playoffs, the ALCS clincher saw the team pulling freely from a big vat of contributors:
• Matt Garza, Mr. Maturity, Championship Series MVP, pitching seven innings-plus of one-run, two-hit baseball in the most important game of his life. Early in the season, if he had given up a first-inning home run in a huge game, his head might've popped off and landed in a catwalk. The pitcher in the other dugout: John Lester, who had never lost consecutive starts in his career.
•Willie Aybar, Spare Part, whose rally-starting double in the fifth (followed by Pull-at-your-Heartstrings Rocco Baldelli's single to knock him in), provided the go-ahead run. Then Willie's towering home run in the seventh to make it 3-1. No one was breathing easy, but the dream seemed within reach.
• Evan Longoria, Super Rookie, who got the Rays off the schnide with a double in the fourth that scored Carlos "The Resurrected" Peña from first (and kudos to third base coach Tom Foley for waving him home).
• And David Price, Super Newbie, who came in the game late and made like a kidnapper, binding and gagging the Sox and collecting the ransom. He earned his first Major League save in Game 7 of the ALCS. Tell me that's not a harbinger of good things to come.
It could've just as easily been Upton or Crawford, or Aki (whose game-ending play at second took a bad hop and was no easy task) or Bartlett or Navarro or, hell, Gabe Gross even. These Rays kids, they have become our guys — our stars (and steadily, stars in the eyes of the country at large).
It's worth remembering that this team had no real MVP candidate, that no one hit over .300, no pitcher had 15 wins or emerged as a shut-down closer. It was a season made up of crucial performances in crucial moments by just about every man on the roster. Team ball at its finest.
And let's not forget Joe — do we need to say his last name? — who presided over all the magic. He pushed the right buttons, pulled the right levers, spoke when necessary and knew when to shut up, too. (He left Sunday's motivational speech to Peña, thinking it would be better coming from a fellow player. Find me another coach who takes that tack.) Joe had the perfect temperament for this particular team — loose, positive — and, by the way, made some extraordinary game decisions over several months. On Sunday, for instance, he used four relief pitchers in the eighth inning to face five of the Sox' top hitters and get three outs. Then he left the barely-tested Price in to close out the ninth.
Let me switch focus for a minute to what this means to a fan of Tampa Bay sports teams who long ago shed his allegiances to childhood favorites up north. I suspect there are many like me out there.
Can I say this is bigger than the Bucs championship? No, because the Rays still have work to do. But I do contend that this AL pennant is a more astonishing achievement than the Bucs in '03, when Tony Dungy had laid the framework and Jon Gruden came in to finish the job. The Lightning in '04? Fabulous, but they had a build-up to a championship too.
The Rays? Worst to first, baby. An absolute stunner.
And as I said, I'm new to baseball fandom — purely because of the Rays' jaw-dropping 2008 season (and I'm sure there are more than a few other converts around here as well). The game that I had always thought slow and dull became cerebral, tense and brimming with jolts of excitement. This is the very first time in my not-so-short life that I've truly bled for a baseball team to win, and, man, it's agonizing. All that time between pitches, those abrupt time-outs, the pitchers reaching for the resin bag, the coaches' jogs to the mound, the spitting — all of it just allows time for the gastric juices to rumble. This hardly needs saying, but all those Tums have been worth it.
The Rays' regular-season run provided lots of us with a fun and surprising diversion through the Florida summer doldrums. The Rays' playoff success has offered a counterpoint to the ravaged economy and the rest of the bad news. At least we in Tampa Bay get to pick up the paper, watch TV or go online and see images of players joyously piling onto each other next to stories of bailouts, stock market plunges and decimated 401Ks.
Like I said, there's work to do. I don't know much about the Phillies other than they have a nigh unhittable pitcher, a terrific bullpen and a nice mixture of power and speed. Analysts have said they kind of mirror the Rays.
But I like our St. Pete club's chances. They have home-field advantage, opening Wednesday at Tropicana Field. They won a close race in the American League East, year after year the toughest division in baseball, and they did it by beating back high-payroll teams week after week. They defeated the defending world champs in an ALCS Game 7 at home after a stunning Game 5 collapse that could've withered a team with less resolve.
I'm not big on the whole team-of-destiny thing. You could easily argue that the Philadelphia Phillies are just as much a team of destiny as the Rays. I think the Rays have a combination of talent, confidence, management, battle-testedness and balls that will carry them to their first World Championship.
See you in the streets. I'll be the one dancing.