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Rays make SI cover

29

October

Sicover Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli is pictured colliding with Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz at home plate on the cover of the Nov. 3 issue of Sports Illustrated.

It is the Rays' second appearance on an SI cover this season and first featuring an actual player photo. Carl Crawford was shown hoisting the Yankees' Derek Jeter in the air on an illustrated cover (see below) in May.

Here is Tom Verducci's story from this week's issue:

Dear America, Wish You Were Here
The Phillies and the Rays played long ball and small ball, had plenty of close calls, even rain and drama long after last call in the latest Fall Classic to open its doors to the game's upwardly mobile. So, where were you?

BY TOM VERDUCCI

Four times since 2000 baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been summoned to Washington to testify before lawmakers on the biggest perceived threats to the game: competitive imbalance 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 the titles, and it owed them a tough antidrug policy that would restore trust in the players and their statistics.  The result of baseball's effort to comply was on display last Saturday night in Philadelphia, where the World Series—already assured of crowning an eighth different champion in nine seasons—returned for the first time in 15 years. Neither the interloping Phillies nor the Tampa Bay Rays had been to the Fall Classic since the six-division format began in 1994. Their surprise entries capped a season in which no major leaguers tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and the rate of home runs dropped to its lowest level since '93. For Selig, the biggest controversies related to the use of instant replay and the dangers posed by splintered maple bats.

Jeter Yet this is what happened when the Phillies and the Rays played a suspenseful version—Saturday's Game 3 was decided, in the best of boyhood backyard dreams, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth—of this postmodern game in October: Almost nobody watched. Doubtless harmed by a pregame rain delay of 91 minutes, Game 3 attracted the smallest viewing audience by nearly 25% since Nielsen started tracking the World Series in 1968. With an average viewership of 13.2 million through Game 4, the Series threatened to overtake the 2006 St. Louis–Detroit matchup (15.8 million) as the least-watched ever.

Wasn't this the tidied-up kind of baseball the public had wanted? Well, yes, if you also believe that most people really prefer veggie burgers to bacon double cheeseburgers. Without the heavily financed teams or heavily muscled galoots, here's what remained: an entertaining symposium on the state of the game and where it's going. Philadelphia and, in particular, Tampa Bay proved that no team is too far from the World Series, so long as it is stocked with young pitching and athleticism.

"If you appreciate the game," said 45-year-old Phillies lefthander Jamie Moyer after Game 3, "you appreciate this Series. But I don't know if our society likes it this way. Our society likes the five-run homer and the 10-run game."

Added Rays manager Joe Maddon, "I think the game has been heading this way for the last couple of years. And to be honest with you, that change allowed us to get where we are. 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 in its decisive Series victory. And what says new paradigm better than a crown for Philly, a city that, entering the Series, had been 0 for 99 in professional championships since the 76ers won the NBA title in 1983? Ringless since 1980, the Phillies moved through the postseason with such ease that their fans seemed to throw off their notorious inferiority complex. Optimistic Phillies fans? Oh, my, this really is a new paradigm.

"You can see the excitement, the passion, the sheer joy on people's faces," Phillies infielder Greg Dobbs said on Sunday after his team's 10–2 victory in Game 4. "These people have embraced this team. We can see it driving home 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're not worried.' "

The Phils helped flip the Philadelphia story by winning back-to-back National League East titles despite being seven games out with 17 games to play last year and 31⁄2 games out with 16 to play this year. The karma is so good that the team went its final 10 home games, over 33 days, without losing. A world championship for a suffering city dovetails with some cosmic pay-it-backward force that has been at work in baseball ever since Selig told a Senate judiciary committee in 2000 that too many franchises were bereft of "hope and faith." In a five-year stretch the 2002 Angels (42 years), '04 Red Sox (86 years), '05 White Sox (88 years) and '06 Cardinals (24 years) won titles that were a generation or more in the making.

You got an inkling of what a baseball championship means to Philadelphia when country singer Tim McGraw reached into his back pocket during the pregame ceremony at Citizens Bank Ballpark before Game 3. McGraw is the son of the late Tug McGraw, the joyful reliever who closed the 1980 Phillies' championship. Tim produced some of his father's ashes and scattered them on the mound. You gotta bereave? Not anymore.

These un-phillies were built around a homegrown core: leftfielder Pat Burrell, 32; shortstop Jimmy Rollins, 29; second baseman Chase Utley, 29; catcher Carlos Ruiz, 29; first baseman Ryan Howard, 28; setup reliever Ryan Madson, 28; starting pitcher Brett Myers, 28; and lefthanded ace Cole Hamels, 24. (Centerfielder Shane Victorino, 27, was plucked from the Dodgers' system at 24.) All of those players except Burrell remain under contract through at least next season.

General manager Pat Gillick, who won titles with Toronto in 1992 and '93, turned a good club into a champion by thievishly filling out his roster. After arriving in November 2005, he added Moyer, Dobbs, closer Brad Lidge, utility player Eric Bruntlett, relievers Chad Durbin and Scott Eyre, third baseman Pedro Feliz and outfielders Jason Werth, Matt Stairs, So Taguchi and Geoff Jenkins—all at the major league cost of just two inconsequential players, middle reliever Geoff Geary and unproven outfielder Michael Bourn.

The Philadelphia phantasmagoria wasn't complete, however, until Hamels emerged as the bona fide stopper. The Phillies drafted him with the 17th pick in 2002 out of Rancho Bernardo in San Diego, where his appreciation for Padres closer Trevor Hoffman and his lack of an overpowering fastball led him to embrace the changeup. "Growing up in San Diego," Hamels says, "the competition is so heavy that guys can hit 95-mile-an-hour fastballs. . . . You can't really go out there and think, I can blow away everybody."

Over 84 major league starts, the 6' 3", 190-pound Hamels has gone 38–23 and established his change as one of the best in the game. "I play catch with him, and even then the movement on his changeup is amazing to see," Moyer says. "What separates his from other guys' is he has such good movement and he throws it to both sides of the plate. The typical lefthanded changeup moves down and away from righthanders. But Cole will throw his anytime and anywhere. He can get away with throwing it down and in to lefthanders because there's so much movement. Maybe a scientist can explain it better, the way he's tall and it's all about levers and such. But it's so good, it's almost like an
 optical illusion as it comes to the plate."

Hamels was so hot that he alone overcame a host of factors working against his club in its 3–2 Game 1 victory. The Phillies had not played in seven days, setting them up for the same rustiness that undid the 2006 Tigers and the '07 Rockies in the World Series; they had not played indoors on turf in 21⁄2 years; and their opponent owned the biggest home field advantage in baseball beneath the circuslike big top of funky Tropicana Field. Hamels—who is the youngest pitcher to win four starts in the same postseason—was so good (seven innings, two runs) that Philadelphia became the first team to win a Series game with 13 hitless at bats with runners in scoring position.

"He likes being in this position," pitching coach Rich Dubee says of the player teammates call Hollywood for his comfort in the spotlight. "He knows he has stardom written all over him."

Hollywood stole the glamour from the Rays, who otherwise were a breakout hit themselves. They set a postseason record with 22 stolen bases and, through Sunday, were just two home runs shy of that postseason record (27 by the 2002 Giants). Tampa Bay's youth and ability to manufacture runs, without a great sacrifice in power, make it the right team at the right time, a well-rounded model for the post–Mitchell Report era: The AL home run champion this year (Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera) 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 an extra-base hit but with the help of three runs that scored on outs—two groundouts and a safety squeeze."I can't tell you how happy I was with that," Maddon said. "Ground ball, ground ball, bunt, three points right there. That's beautiful."

Beautiful? Indeed, the Series was shaping up as a connoisseur's delight, with the little-watched Game 3 installment continuing the trend. The Rays, down 4–1 in the seventh, summoned more resourcefulness, tying the game with two runs on groundouts and adding another in the eighth without the ball leaving the infield, thanks to B.J. Upton'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 third on the next, then continuing home when catcher Carlos Ruiz threw wildly.

The Phillies answered 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 by catcher Dioner Navarro. Maddon had the next two batters intentionally walked to load the bases, then repositioned rightfielder Ben Zobrist to a fifth infield spot, behind the mound and in front of second base. At 13 minutes before two in the morning, the diamond in South Philly resembled the 30th Street train station. Fifteen men were jammed around it: five infielders, four umpires, three baserunners, a pitcher, a catcher and a batter, Ruiz. Taking a mighty cut, Ruiz—himself only a .219 hitter during the regular season—found one piece of no-man's-land inside the crowded infield. He bounced a 45-foot dribbler toward third; Evan Longoria hopelessly flung the ball wildly to the plate. 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 great that right now the game is getting back to a game for athletes with speed and multiple skills," Rollins said before Game 4. "I look at a guy like B.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 the ability to score with one swing."

Indeed, for all their young legs, the Phillies, trying to become the first team since the 1984 Tigers to lead its league in homers and win the World Series, still can mash with any team in baseball, as their Game 4 rout attested. Howard drove in half the runs with two swings, a three-run bomb to left and a two-run bomb to right. Werth also walloped a homer, as, remarkably, did winning pitcher Joe Blanton, a career .061 hitter (2 for 33, postseason included) whose ovoid silhouette and massive swing made him look, as Stairs put it, "like a younger Babe Ruth."

It was the first home run by a pitcher in 34 Fall Classics. "I literally fell off my chair," reliever Clay Condrey said.

It was that kind of Series of surprises, even if it failed to be a ratings hit. "Tampa Bay winning is a manifestation of the change in this sport and how good that change has been for baseball," Selig says. "If it means lesser ratings in the short term, so be it."

At a quarter to two in the morning on Sunday, Citizens Bank Park was filled with energized Phillies fans waving their white rally towels. An hour later, downtown Philadelphia was still so crazy with happy baseball fans that a section of Broad Street was closed to traffic, except when Victorino happened to drive up and police quickly permitted him to go through. It is the kind of civic goodwill that Nielsen ratings can never measure. "The longer you wait for things," Moyer says, "the more you appreciate them."

[Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 12:43am]

    

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