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Crowd control


Last night at Chase Field, under the dark iron sky of an unretracted roof, ants marched. They marched before the game, as prelude to at-bats, when pitching coaches visited the mound and during inning breaks. Their march was a message and that message was: All you Diamondbacks faithful get out of your seats and cheer, for if the jangly white-man goodness of the Dave Matthews Band doesn't fire you up, what will?

If this were the regular season, Mr. Matthews' music would have failed in its purpose (though not for lack of persistence; Ants Marching must play a dozen times a game). But this is the playoffs, and fans are materializing, though from whence amid the desert sprawl of Phoenix, where every place is 45 minutes from every other place, remains unclear. Whereas Chase Field was consistently half-empty all season -- 58.3 percent capacity, 28,598 per -- Games 1 and 2 brought in virtual full houses of 48,000-plus.

For those tuning in on national TV, you might think these were standard conditions, and these quite enthusiastic fans. They wore red, and they shook white plastic pom-poms, and they stood and clapped and high-fived when the D-Backs scored (which was often during Thursday night's 8-4 win in Game 2 of the NLDS), and some even danced to all that music, so that for once it served the purpose of inspiring fans rather than sitting in for them. As Arizona Republic columnist Dan Bickley described the novel response in Game 1, "Webb vs. Zambrano actually mattered more than Ketchup vs. Relish."

Forget for a moment that a good 15 percent or so of those present wore blue and cheered for the Cubs, whose spring training headquarters is in nearby Mesa -- turning the "Let's Go D-Backs" chant into a mashup that sounded like "Let's Go D-Bubbies." And never mind that there really is no such thing as "Diamondbacks faithful," unless you count singular superfan Susan Price, who shows up at 1 p.m. for every game and yells things like "Ex-Sell-ent Brandon Webb, Best in the Universe!" to the players for hours each day ("and she's here every single day," says Webb.) And never mind that no self-respecting baseball fan should ever, ever wave a white plastic pom-pom. For the Diamondbacks players, it's about taking what you can get.

"Hey, you can't bash the fans," says Webb, echoing a common clubhouse sentiment. No, for that there is Bickley, who chastised Valley residents in late September when they booed the Diamondbacks during the pennant race, writing "to boo this team or this manager now -- when you weren't engaged for most of the summer, when you've been one of the 30,000 empty seats for most of the ride, when you don't even know their story -- is just callous and wrong."

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In a way, it's understandable. The rub with this Diamondbacks team is that they are simultaneously difficult and easy to love. Difficult because, well, they're not that good, at least in a big-picture sense. As has been oft-noted, Arizona was outscored this season and had the lowest batting average in the NL. No one on the team hit .300 and no one drove in 100 runs. To fans looking for big-name players and gaudy statistics (and TBS execs sweating the possibility of a Phoenix-Denver demo instead of Philly-Chicago), there's not much of interest here, especially compared to the Sorianos and Lees and Zambranos of Chicago.

But in another sense the D-Backs are a fan's dream. One of the biggest gripes about pro sports today is that the games are full of overpaid, me-first, blasé athletes who can't be bothered to run out a ground ball. This is not a problem in Arizona. Perhaps it's because the roster is so young that only a few players earn enough to afford such an attitude. Regardless, there's a lot of sprinting during the games, and it's interspersed with fundamentals and teamwork, the hardest of baseball skills to quantify. Manager Bob Melvin calls it "27 Hard Outs" and indeed they are, even if "hard" doesn't always refer to difficulty of procurement Chris Young for example, struck out 141 times this season, often with apparent ease) but rather to intensity of effort.

Still, the city of Phoenix waxes nostalgic for Schilling and Gonzo and Randy Johnson, stars whose careers began elsewhere, rather than a team such as this one, stocked with products of the farm system. Or maybe what they really want is for spring training to continue year-round, so they can go watch the Cubbies or see Ichiro up close while sitting on the grass and drinking a big plastic cup of beer (and this is not to knock such an experience, which ranks as one of the best in sports).

Two evenings of playoff fan support do not change this reality. Last night when Young hit a home run the cheering was raucous, but one got the sense that the fans merely enjoyed the act of cheering -- as if an emcee at Chase had commanded "All the Fellas in the House say Yeah-ay" -- rather than feeling genuine team identification. There wasn't an air of anxiety unburdened, of crazy joy, of despair averted, that one hears in the cheering of, say, Philadelphia fans. Not to mention, Philly acolytes probably wouldn't leave in the bottom of the 8th up only 8-4, as droves of D-Backs fans did on Thursday night, pouring upward toward the exits. All they missed was the conclusion to a huge Game 2 victory that put "their" team one game from the National League Championship Series. But hey, gotta watch Grey's Anatomy on the DVR, right?

The Phoenix sports radio hosts made a point today to commend fans for their effort in Game 1, in the same way one would commend a child who brings home a B- instead of a C+. No doubt these same hosts were relatively impressed with the fans in Game 2 (the early-exiters aside). It was loud, especially with the roof closed, and there was a buzz of sorts. After the game, Young said he felt like he was "floating on air out there" while rounding the bases in front of 48,000. In the Cubs clubhouse, a despondent Derrek Lee said "we kind of ran into a buzzsaw," and then even allowed that, "I'm sure they were feeding off the crowd."

Feeding off the crowd? Now there's something new for Arizona players. But perhaps it's the start of a new trend, perhaps these aren't just bandwagon-jumping football fans out for the event, not the team. After all, when it came time to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the seventh-inning stretch, the assembled Phoenicians did yell "root, root root for the D-BACKS" as loud as possible in an effort to shout down the minority of Cubs backers, who may have a century's worth of practice rooting for a team but had 35,000 fewer rooters with which to accomplish it on this night. For the record, the Arizona fans were successful. Barely.