Baseball fans outside of the fan bases of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies should have an intense rooting interest in the World Series that starts tonight.
They should be rooting for a long series.
Six- and seven-game series are the ones in which both teams can envision victory, and it is where the most dramatic moments occur. The intensity and the drama of the '67 World Series, when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson reaffirmed his stature as one of the greatest of all time, was key in making me a baseball fan. I was seven, and my brother had taken me to get a haircut that day (yes, World Series games were played in daylight back then and with no preliminary tiers to clutter the postseason schedule, Game 7 of the World Series took place on Columbus Day).
Norman's barbershop on 47th Street in Chicago's Southside filled up with onlookers excited by Gibson's feat; he pitched 27 innings that year and gave up only three earned runs. The place was delirious as Gibby mowed down one Red Sox hitter after another, leading the Cards to a World Series win.
More recent Game 7s have had comparably transfixing moments. In 2001, Luis Gonzales of the Arizona Diamondbacks blooped a hit over a drawn-in New York Yankee infield, to end the only Fall Classic where the lead changed hands in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7.
The 1997 World Series went into extra innings before Florida Marlins fans could celebrate their victory over the Cleveland Indians. And in 1991, Kirby Puckett singlehandedly took over Game 6 of the World Series with two game-saving catches and a home run to enable the Minnesota Twins to reach Game 7 against the Atlanta Braves. In the final game, Jack Morris of the Twins pitched a 10-inning shutout to lead Minnesota to victory.
In recent years, the World Series has sorely lacked such moments. There have been three sweeps and one five-game series in the last four Octobers. There's nothing wrong with a short series if it is confirming the greatness of a team, such as the Cincinnati Reds four-game sweep of the Yankees in '76 or the Yankees' quick dispatch of San Diego in 1998. But most of the time a sweep is a party pooper, only of interest to the fans of the winning team. They become baseball's equivalents of those dull Super Bowls of the late '80s and early '90s when the guacamole and chicken wings were the only memorable attractions.
The performance-enhancing drug scandal of recent years has made hulking guys in suits speaking to congressional committees into one of the dominant images of baseball, so the sport is in dire need of some moments of postseason mythmaking. This World Series is a good bet to deliver. The Rays are a Cinderella story that just won't quit. By contrast, the Phillies are the league's hottest team. They won 13 of the final 17 games, and they have won seven of their nine postseason contests.
The series will also provide a salve to those who have bemoaned the decreasing presence of blacks in baseball. The Phillies feature two of the game's biggest stars, shortstop Jimmy Rollins; the 2007 National League Most Valuable Player and first baseman Ryan Howard, one of the game's pre-eminent sluggers. The Rays feature the next generation of stars with players like outfielders Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton and pitcher David Price.
The big-picture indicators favor the Rays but only slightly. Although Tampa Bay won 97 games to Philadelphia's 92; their run differentials were comparable. However, Tampa Bay played in the stronger American League, and in the brutally tough Eastern Division; in contrast, the Phils played in the relatively easy confines of the National League East. Although the Rays were known for their line-drive hitting, defense and speed, they beat the Red Sox in the American League championship series by hitting a record-setting 16 home runs. The Phillies have relied on superb starting pitching and power hitting all year, but they are not a slow team that would struggle on the artificial turf of the Rays' Tropicana Field.
Ultimately the series should come down to starting pitching. The Phillies will start Cole Hamels in Game 1 tonight, and he is having a postseason that, given to this offense-infused era, is nearly Gibson-esque. However, the rest of the Phillies rotation, even standout Brett Myers, has been mediocre at best. By contrast, the Rays rotation is deep and has performed very well. Matt Garza, MVP in the Rays series win over Boston is probably only their fourth—yes, fourth—best starter. The Phillies should do what they can to minimize the Ray's advantage by pitching Hamels three times in the series, in Games 1, 4 and, if necessary, 7.
I don't know if the series will go seven games, but it should go six, and it will feature a new crowd of baseball stars like Hamels, Rollins, Howard and Shane Victorino of Philadelphia as well as Crawford, Upton, pitcher Scott Kazmir, third baseman Evan Longoria and catcher Dioner Navarro for the Rays. The Rays have a slightly deeper offense and a much deeper pitching staff. For this reason, the improbable dream season of the folks in Tampa shouldn't end until they hold the victory parade. Their celebration should be something that all baseball fans (except for those in Philly Nation) should enjoy.