Four times since2000 baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been summoned to Washington to testifybefore lawmakers on the biggest perceived threats to the game: competitiveimbalance and performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball, went the Beltway wisdom,owed its fans a labor climate in which the same big spenders didn't win all thetitles, and it owed them a tough antidrug policy that would restore trust inthe players and their statistics. ¬∂ The result of baseball's effort to complywas on display last Saturday night in Philadelphia, where the WorldSeries--already assured of crowning an eighth different champion in nineseasons--returned for the first time in 15 years. Neither the interlopingPhillies nor the Tampa Bay Rays had been to the Fall Classic since thesix-division format began in 1994. Their surprise entries capped a season inwhich no major leaguers tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and therate of home runs dropped to its lowest level since '93. For Selig, the biggestcontroversies related to the use of instant replay, the dangers posed bysplintered maple bats and, most recently, the near-disaster of Game 5, in whichonly a Carlos Pe√±a single spared the commissioner the embarrassment of orderingthe first 24-hour rain delay in World Series history.
Yet this is whathappened when the Phillies and the Rays played a suspensefulversion--Saturday's Game¬†3 was decided, in the best of boyhood backyarddreams, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth--of this postmoderngame in October: Almost nobody watched. Doubtless harmed by a pregame raindelay of 91¬†minutes, Game¬†3 attracted the smallest viewing audienceby nearly 25% since Nielsen started tracking the World Series in 1968.
Wasn't this thetidied-up kind of baseball the public had wanted? Well, yes, if you alsobelieve that most people really prefer veggie burgers to bacon doublecheeseburgers. Without the heavily financed teams or heavily muscled galoots,here's what remained: an entertaining symposium on the state of the game andwhere it's going. Philadelphia and, in particular, Tampa Bay proved that noteam is too far from the World Series, so long as it is stocked with youngpitching and athleticism.
"If youappreciate the game," said 45-year-old Phillies lefthander Jamie Moyerafter Game¬†3, "you appreciate this Series. But I don't know if oursociety likes it this way. Our society likes the five-run homer and the 10-rungame."
November 3, 2008
Added Rays managerJoe Maddon, "I think the game has been heading this way for the last coupleof years. And to be honest with you, that change allowed us to get where weare. The style we play is where the game is now and where it's going."
Philadelphia,however, was clearly better at this new brand of baseball than Tampa Bay overthe Series' first four games. And what says new paradigm better than a crownfor Philly, a city that, entering the Series, had been 0¬†for¬†99 inprofessional championships since the 76ers won the NBA title in 1983? Ringlesssince 1980, the Phillies moved through the postseason's first three weeks withsuch ease that their fans seemed to throw off their notorious inferioritycomplex. Optimistic Phillies fans? Oh, my, this really is a new paradigm.
"You can seethe excitement, the passion, the sheer joy on people's faces," Philliesinfielder Greg Dobbs said on Sunday after his team's 10-2 victory inGame¬†4. "These people have embraced this team. We can see it drivinghome after games. If we lose, it's not, 'Oh, boo. You suck.' None of that.After we lose, they're eager to pick us up and say, 'Get 'em tomorrow. We'renot worried.' "
The Phils helpedflip the Philadelphia story by winning back-to-back National League East titlesdespite being seven games out with 17¬†games to play last year and 31‚ÅÑ2¬†games out with 16 to play this year. The karma is so good that theteam went nine games over 33 days without losing at home. Such success for asuffering city dovetails with some cosmic pay-it-backward force that has beenat work in baseball ever since Selig told a Senate judiciary committee in 2000that too many franchises were bereft of "hope and faith." In afive-year stretch the 2002 Angels (42 years), '04 Red Sox (86 years), '05 WhiteSox (88 years) and '06 Cardinals (24¬†years) won titles that were ageneration or more in the making.
You got an inklingof what a baseball championship means to Philadelphia when country singer TimMcGraw reached into his back pocket during the pregame ceremony at CitizensBank Ballpark before Game¬†3. McGraw is the son of the late Tug McGraw, thejoyful reliever who closed the 1980 Phillies' championship. Tim produced someof his father's ashes and scattered them on the mound. You gotta bereave? Notanymore, it appeared.
These un-Phillieswere built around a homegrown core: leftfielder Pat Burrell, 32; shortstopJimmy Rollins, 29; second baseman Chase Utley, 29; catcher Carlos Ruiz, 29;first baseman Ryan Howard, 28; setup reliever Ryan Madson, 28; starting pitcherBrett Myers, 28; and lefthanded ace Cole Hamels, 24. (Centerfielder ShaneVictorino, 27, was plucked from the Dodgers' system at 24.) All of thoseplayers except Burrell remain under contract through at least next season.
General managerPat Gillick, who won titles with Toronto in 1992 and '93, turned a good clubinto a World Series team by thievishly filling out his roster. After arrivingin November 2005, he added Moyer, Dobbs, closer Brad Lidge, utility player EricBruntlett, relievers Chad Durbin and Scott Eyre, third baseman Pedro Feliz andoutfielders Jason Werth, Matt Stairs, So Taguchi and Geoff Jenkins--all at themajor league cost of just two inconsequential players, middle reliever GeoffGeary and unproven outfielder Michael Bourn.
The Philadelphiaphantasmagoria wasn't complete, however, until Hamels emerged as the bona fidestopper. The Phillies drafted him with the 17th pick in 2002 out of RanchoBernardo in San Diego, where his appreciation for Padres closer Trevor Hoffmanand his lack of an overpowering fastball led him to embrace the changeup."Growing up in San Diego," Hamels says, "the competition is soheavy that guys can hit 95-mile-an-hour fastballs. . . . You can't really goout there and think, I can blow away everybody."
Over 84 majorleague starts, the 6' 3", 190-pound Hamels has gone 38-23 and establishedhis change as one of the best in the game. "I play catch with him, and eventhen the movement on his changeup is amazing to see," Moyer says. "Whatseparates his from other guys' is he has such good movement and he throws it toboth sides of the plate. The typical lefthanded changeup moves down and awayfrom righthanders. But Cole will throw his anytime and anywhere. He can getaway with throwing it down and in to lefthanders because there's so muchmovement. Maybe a scientist can explain it better, the way he's tall and it'sall about levers and such. But it's so good, it's almost like an opticalillusion as it comes to the plate."
Only the forces ofnature could slow Hamels's ascension to the pantheon of elite postseasonpitchers. Slogging through the rain on Monday night, Hamels limited the Rays toone run through 52‚ÅÑ3 innings before the soggy conditions and Tampa Bay finallycaught up to him. With two outs and nobody on, B.J. Upton reached on an infieldsingle, hydroplaned to second with a stolen base and scored on the single byPe√±a. The hit and the rain--Game 5 was suspended in the bottom of thesixth--ended Hamels's bid to become the first pitcher ever to win five startsin a postseason, the 2008 version of which had become his personal property asmuch as October 1988 had belonged to Orel Hershisher.
"He likesbeing in this position," pitching coach Rich Dubee says of the playerteammates call Hollywood for his comfort in the spotlight. "He knows he hasstardom written all over him."
Hollywood stolethe glamour from the Rays, who otherwise were a breakout hit themselves. Theyset a postseason record with 23 stolen bases and, through Monday, were just twohome runs shy of that postseason record (27 by the 2002 Giants). Tampa Bay'syouth and ability to manufacture runs, without any great sacrifice in power,make it the right team at the right time, a well-rounded model for thepost-Mitchell Report era: The AL home run champion this year (Detroit's MiguelCabrera) went deep the fewest times (37) for an AL leader since 1989. The Rays'inventiveness was on full display in Game¬†2, which they won 4-2 without anextra-base hit but with the help of three runs that scored on outs--twogroundouts and a safety squeeze. "I can't tell you how happy I was withthat," Maddon said. "Ground ball, ground ball, bunt, three points rightthere. That's beautiful."
Beautiful? Indeed,the Series was shaping up as a connoisseur's delight, with the little-watchedGame 3 installment continuing the trend. The Rays, down 4-1 in the seventh,summoned more resourcefulness, tying the game with two runs on groundouts andadding another in the eighth without the ball leaving the infield, thanks toUpton's speed. The centerfielder beat out an infield single and, one out later,zipped around the bases on two pitches, stealing second on the first and thirdon the next, then continuing home when catcher Carlos Ruiz threw wildly.
The Philliesanswered with a bizarre run of their own to win the game in the ninth.Bruntlett, a .217 batter, was hit by a J.P. Howell fastball to open the inning,moved to second on a wild pitch and continued to third on a throwing error bycatcher Dioner Navarro. Maddon had the next two batters intentionally walked toload the bases, then repositioned rightfielder Ben Zobrist to a fifth infieldspot, behind the mound and in front of second base. At 13 minutes before two inthe morning, the diamond in South Philly resembled the 30th Street trainstation. Fifteen men were jammed around it: five infielders, four umpires,three baserunners, a pitcher, a catcher and a batter, Ruiz. Taking a mightycut, Ruiz--himself only a .219 hitter during the regular season--found onepiece of no-man's-land inside the crowded infield. He bounced a 45-footdribbler toward third; Evan Longoria hopelessly flung the ball wildly to theplate. The latest start in World Series history (10:06¬†p.m. first pitch)ended with the first walk-off infield hit in World Series history.
I think it's greatthat right now the game is getting back to a game for athletes with speed andmultiple skills," Rollins said before Game 4. "I look at a guy likeB.J., and he's just ridiculous. He can just flat out fly. But you know what?It's pretty good to have power too. There's still nothing like having theability to score with one swing."
Indeed, for alltheir young legs, the Phillies, trying to become the first team since the 1984Tigers to lead its league in homers and win the World Series, still can mashwith any team in baseball, as their Game¬†4 rout attested. Howard drove inhalf the runs with two swings, a three-run bomb to left and a two-run bomb toright. Werth also walloped a homer, as, remarkably, did winning pitcher JoeBlanton, a career .061 hitter (2 for 33, postseason included) whose ovoidsilhouette and massive swing made him look, as Stairs put it, "like ayounger Babe Ruth."
It was the firsthome run by a pitcher in 34 Fall Classics. "I literally fell off mychair," reliever Clay Condrey said.
It was that kindof Series of surprises, even if it failed to be a ratings hit. "Tampa Baywinning is a manifestation of the change in this sport and how good that changehas been for baseball," Selig says. "If it means lesser ratings in theshort term, so be it."
At a quarter totwo in the morning on Sunday, Citizens Bank Park was filled with energizedPhillies fans waving their white rally towels. An hour later, downtownPhiladelphia was still so crazy with happy baseball fans that a section ofBroad Street was closed to traffic, except when Victorino happened to drive upand police quickly permitted him to go through. It is the kind of civicgoodwill that Nielsen ratings can never measure. "The longer you wait forthings," Moyer says, "the more you appreciate them."
The Top 50 Free Agents
SI's Ben Reiter ranks the best players on the marketthis winter
# 3 Manny Ramirez
L.A.'s still in the relationship's first blush, butbeware. Manny is baseball's Catherine Tramell: Enticing in the extreme, but gettoo close and you'll find an ice pick in the neck.
LOGICAL DESTINATION: Dodgers
# 5 A.J. Burnett
Despite a history of brittleness, he threw 2211?3innings and his 231 K's led the AL. His filthy stuff will have G.M.'ssalivating, particularly those out of the CC Sabathia derby.
LOGICAL DESTINATION: Braves
# 18 Juan Cruz
The fireballer's K rate of 12.37 per nine innings wassecond among pitchers who threw at least 40. K-Rod is the big-name free-agentcloser; Cruz, 30, a more cost-efficient option.
LOGICAL DESTINATION: Mets
# 50 Jason Varitek
An offensive black hole at age 36 (.220 average), hecan still call a good game. Unless Boston can shake, say, Russell Martin fromthe Dodgers, it doesn't have a better answer.
LOGICAL DESTINATION: Red Sox
FOR SI'S COMPLETE LIST OF THE TOP 50 FREE AGENTS, GO TOSI.COM/MLB
"He likes being in this position," pitchingcoach Dubee says of Hamels. "He knows he has STARDOM WRITTEN ALL OVERHIM."
Beautiful? The Series was a CONNOISSEUR'S DELIGHT, withlittle-watched Game 3 continuing the trend.
"I think it's great the game is getting back to agame for athletes," says Rollins. "I look at a guy like B.J., and HE'SJUST RIDICULOUS."
Hamels continued his playoff mastery until persistent rain (above) put a Phillycelebration on hold.
Navarro kept the speedy Phillies honest on the bases, but his Game¬†3throwing error proved costly.
Werth and the Phils busted out in Game¬†4 with four homers.
Bruntlett became the first Series player ever to score on a walk-off infieldsingle, a 45-foot dribbler by Ruiz (51).
Breakout star Upton did everything he could to keep the Rays afloat, stealingthis crucial bag in Game 5.