World set to bow before Fall Classic
Rays, Phillies headline baseball's premier event Wednesday
W is for the Whole 2008 Story, improbable and historic every step of the way, nearly 80 million fans through the turnstiles amid tough economic times -- baseball as their happy place -- and now a Wonderful Wednesday that will feature Phillies vs. Rays at Tropicana Field to start the 104th Fall Classic.
O is for Oklahoma, where Mickey Mantle was born on this day in 1931. He hit more World Series home runs than anyone in history. He is one of the legends upon which a best-of-seven nirvana is built, one memorable moment after another.
R is for the Rays and their remarkable dogpile celebration, which only makes you wonder how they could possibly top it later this month. It is for Carlos Ruiz squeezing the final out in Los Angeles, and for a Phillies team that is ready to make a run at its first World Series championship since 1980 -- before many Phillies fans were born. It's for Rocco Baldelli and manager Joe Maddon's faith in him; Ryan Howard; Raymond the Mascot; Ryan Madson; big-time October role players like Willy Aybar; a Jimmy Rollins leadoff homer; and a fond farewell to Cal Ripken Jr. (and MLB.com's own Harold Reynolds) now that TBS has just been sent out in style.
L is for Losing with dignity. As a baseball fan, you have to appreciate that it could have been a boring weekend waiting all week for the World Series after a Tampa Bay club went up, 7-0, in Game 5 on Thursday at Fenway Park. The Red Sox somehow fought back, winning Games 5 and 6 and pushing it to the wire, and you have to tip your hat to any club that makes it interesting and gives a real-life lesson in perseverance.
D is for David Price and the potential of greatness. It is what Major League Baseball is all about, the constant infusion of can't-miss prospects, and here was the rookie left-hander, drafted No. 1 overall by the Rays in 2007, recording his first big league victory in the 11-inning thriller in Game 2 against Boston and then recording his first big league save in the clincher on Sunday. His strikeout of J.D. Drew with the bases loaded in the eighth on that low-and-away pitch on the paint will be long remembered by Rays fans.
S is for the Score: 3-1. Maybe you were just waiting for David Ortiz to turn it into 4-3 with one typical swing. It was not to be on Sunday night in St. Petersburg, and the Rays were American League champions for the first time. When merely .500 ball would have been an advancement, everything is a first time for them at this point. When you take their 97 regular-season victories and add on the postseason tally, you can see that these Rays are going to win almost twice as many total games in 2008 as in '07.
E is for the End of the Wild Card streak. This will be the first time since 2001 that a World Series has been played without at least one Wild Card, now that Boston's hopes are dashed. It was the Angels and Giants in 2002, Marlins in '03, Red Sox in '04, Astros in '05, Tigers in '06 and Rockies in '07.
R is for Repeating as World Series champions. It hasn't happened since the Yankees beat the Mets in 2000. It won't happen this month, either.
I is for Incomparable, which is what today's MLB postseason is. There are invariably efforts to compare it to previous Octobers by looking at television ratings and assorted metrics, but it is futile. It is a new time, this golden age. Technology has officially changed the game -- just like that iPhone TV commercial says while touting its red-hot MLB At-Bat application. You would have to measure the number of fans in all corners of the world now with new access to the sport, all the expatriates who are about to follow the World Series with the MLB.TV International Package.
E is for Every fan who has been to a 2008 postseason game so far: 1,126,969. The fans have swayed with the heartbeat of baseball: the highs that make you lose your voice and come to a game with flags on your car; the lows that make you wonder why you give everything you have to these uniforms whose bodies change through the years. It's also for Every team. Now that the Rockies (2007) and the Rays ('08) have broken through, only three have not tasted a World Series: Mariners, Nationals and Rangers.
S is for Mike Schmidt, who led the Phillies to glory in 1980; Tom Seaver getting his knee dirty while delivering for the Mets in '69; Enos Slaughter and his Mad Dash for the Redbirds in '46; Willie Stargell leading Pittsburgh's Family in '79; Darryl Strawberry and the Mets in '86; Tris Speaker guiding Cleveland in '20; Bruce Sutter closing it out for the Cards in '82; Casey Stengel managing five consecutive Yankees World Series champions; and Warren Spahn making it back-to-back World Series appearances for the Braves exactly 50 years ago this month.
It is the 104th World Series, the return of grandeur, always seemingly one more improbable than the one before it. "Keep fighting, keep fighting to the end of nine," Matt Garza said after doing just that for the Rays, and that is what a World Series ultimately is -- the final fight until only one is left standing.
This one starts on Wednesday. Phillies at Rays in the opener at Tropicana Field. The best time of year, with the possible exception of Opening Day, is almost here.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.