Fresh matchup offers must-see baseball
Rays-Phils perhaps not TV gold, but this Series rates, all right
ST. PETERSBURG -- This World Series may not be the best thing for the business of baseball. But it should be very good for the game of baseball.
This is not the World Series matchup that anyone anticipated? Good. It proves that the possibilities of the game are expanding.
What we have here are the two teams, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies, which played the best October baseball in the two leagues, American and National. They deserve to be here. That is all that matters. The rest is gibberish.
You hear a lot of talk about "ratings," as though the game is played primarily to provide successful television programming. This is also definitely not about that and it can be proven.
Ratings took a hit when the Yankees did not reach the postseason. The departure of the Cubs after three games of a Division Series did not help the ratings. The departure of the Dodgers after the NL Championship Series will not help the ratings. The departure of the Red Sox after the AL Championship Series will not help the ratings.
A pattern has emerged here. The biggest-market clubs are not winning. This is not a crisis. This is growing parity. This is increased competitive balance. This is baseball in the new millennium. It is better than it used to be.
For business purposes, nobody liked the 1991 Atlanta/Minnesota World Series at first blush, either. Then it turned out to be one of the most exciting Fall Classics in history, and its viewership grew in proportion to its quality.
The fact that the Phillies have not won a World Series for 28 years and the Rays never won anything, period, until this year, also does not detract one iota from the caliber of this matchup.
The fact that the Rays never won more than 70 games in a single season until this year makes them much more like astounding than suspect. They won 97 games in the regular season. Their home record of 57-25 was the best in the AL. And they are not about to weighed down by the shortcomings of a brief franchise history.
"You know what? The history is history," reliever Grant Balfour said on Tuesday before the Rays workout at Tropicana Field. "And that's the good thing about it. It's history. It's in the past. It's done with.
"We moved on. We even have new uniforms. We like the blue, obviously. We don't like the green so much, or the purple, I guess. Blue's our color, blue and white. And we changed the name, taking the 'Devil' out of there. Maybe it was the name. Who knows? Maybe they should have done it 10 years ago. Maybe we would have won the World Series then. I can't tell.
"There were a lot of people this year who said that if this team won more than 70 games it would be unbelievable. So that's fine, all the talk. We don't mind. We don't worry about anything else. We've got a tight-knit team in here, we know what each individual can do, and we're out to win ballgames."
This is a Tampa Bay team that, if it did not have anybody putting up Manny Ramirez offensive numbers in the regular season, was built around the surest baseball commodities, pitching and defense. As a bonus, the Rays led the AL in steals. They are a fundamentally strong group, period.
The Phillies won the NL East, and led the NL in home runs, but it could easily be argued that improved pitching has led them to their current lofty level. They went a combined 7-2 against Milwaukee and Los Angeles in the two postseason rounds. At this level of competition, that's basically a dominant performance. There is no reason for the Fightin' Phils to change now, particularly since manager Charlie Manuel has supplied them with rubber ducks. The ducks are a code for staying relaxed.
"Before they go out on the field, they look up in their lockers and they see a duck, it means for them to play like they always have," Manuel said on Tuesday. "And we play as hard as we possibly can, and we play for that moment and we take it one day at a time and we plan on coming out winners."
The Phillies can plan on winning in part because they have the single best starting pitcher of the postseason to date, NLCS MVP Cole Hamels. Hamels was 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in the first two rounds.
What Hamels sees, he said on Tuesday, is a very evenly matched World Series.
"I know it's all other people's speculations, but I guess when you look at matchups or just the way that we've played, I think we're very even," Hamels said. "I just think we're very equal. I can't say who to favor. I'm going to pick my side, no doubt. But I think it is going to bring a good, competitive level to this World Series.
It's also a human World Series. The figures here are not larger-than-life. Maybe some of them will become that way over the next week or 10 days, but for now, no, they're humans. And that's a plus, too. We're dealing with people rather than myths.
For instance, Rays manager Joe Maddon, asked on Tuesday about staying relaxed at this most stressful of times, said that "the most difficult part is all this," meaning the media sessions. Maddon figures he has an obligation to keep producing fresh answers to repetitive questions. What a concept. This man is going to be the AL Manager of the Year, that much is absolutely clear, but there ought to be a Nobel Prize in here for trying this hard.
"The other worst part is getting tickets and rooms for your kids in Philadelphia and making sure that your mom is OK," Maddon said. "Those are the tough parts."
This is no time to try to become somebody else, Maddon believes. "Everybody wanted me to make kind of a Knute Rockne speech prior to some of these games with the Red Sox, but that would have been a departure from what I do," Maddon said. "Routine is important to me, being able to have my same workout and staying on the same kind of diet and stuff like that matters. I've been trying to stick with the routine."
The Phillies and the Rays are not the routine World Series clubs. But that is the beauty of this Fall Classic. This is not about reputation, name recognition, familiarity or potential for commercial endorsements. This is about getting here on merit, which the Phillies and the Rays have clearly done.
Far from being some kind of weird historical twist, this is what contemporary baseball can and should be about.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.