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They call it The Show: Times critics analyze the game

We asked performing arts critic John Fleming and pop music critic Sean Daly, both serious baseball fans, to apply their critical thinking skills to the American League Division Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. Their older essays will be at the bottom, with the newer ones on top.

In Tuesday’s Game 5 recap, John muses on what it means to be a fan. Sean reports from a concert, where his frustration at following the game via his BlackBerry turns into a strange kind of hope for the team — and the area.

Hey John:

Never mind the Funyuns and the radio: I’m happy you made it to the game, no matter the outcome. (In fact, I’m 96-percent positive it wasn’t your fault.) While you were rooting on the Rays from the upper deck, I was reviewing the Vampire Weekend show at Jannus Live in downtown St. Pete. So close to the action – and yet so far away.

I’ve never been to a concert where so many people did NOT watch the concert. They were listening, sure. But as the nerdly Columbia U. grads plucked out their hepcat blend of Afro-pop and indie wonkery, great swaths of the 2,000-strong crowd were glued to their iPhone, their BlackBerry, the flat-screen TVs dotting the glistening rock ’n’ roll landscape.

When Zobrist knocked in that lone run, the triumphant uproar overpowered whatever music was playing, so many happy, jubilant faces in the soft glow of pocket technology. 1-1!

Vampire Weekend is a fun, fiendishly clever band, and at myriad moments I got wholly sucked into their gig, forgetting about baseball altogether, at least for a song or two. But then I’d have this sudden moment of panic, of realizing I hadn’t heard that specific sports cheer erupt from the crowd in awhile. And I’d check the score: 2-1, 3-1, and so on and on.

At the start of the night, I was restless in my desire to be at the Trop. I was powerless, helpless. But soon enough, I realized I didn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s one thing to cheer with fans in the stadium; it’s another to realize the love is just as fervent among hipsters at a cool-kids show.

You said the mood was “lighthearted” leaving the stadium. I love that. It makes a certain poetic sense for this area, too. Tampa Bay fans took a boatload of digs from droning heads for not showing up during the regular season and watching the Rays win games. And yet, we easily sold the joint out to watch them lose the three biggest games of the season. That’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming, isn’t it? Like a parent at a hospital holding a scared child’s hand. Who says this isn’t a heated affair?

When the Vampire Weekend show ended, the Rays were down 5-1, a smattering of outs away from bidding adieu to 2010. As people wandered out of Jannus Live, the talk was not about the show, but about the Rays, of course. And while we cursed the Rangers — let’s start the “Cliff Lee is a soulless cyborg” rumors right here! — we were steadfast with our devotion, no matter where we watched, to a team we supposedly didn’t support.

On the way out, I told a barback that the Rays would be better next year. And you know what? He believed me. And he should have! But tell you what, John, I’ll save my breakdown for the spring, for our next baseball chat. It’ll be nice to have something to look forward to, my friend.

Sean

While Sean recuperated from his concert — and watched the game in full this morning — managing editor Mike Wilson, a bigger baseball nut than both of our correspondents combined, couldn’t resist weighing in.

Dear John,

Sean was out late reviewing Vampire Weekend, so he’ll watch the game on DVR this morning and reply around lunchtime. In the meantime, I hope you don’t mind if I chime in.

I watched the game after spending much of the afternoon talking to colleagues about what we would put on this morning’s front page. The Rays, we knew, would be a major story, but what about those Chilean miners? The rescue capsule emerging with a grateful miner inside it was sure to make a great photograph. After a lot of back and forth, we settled on a plan to put the Rays (the biggest story in our circulation area last night) above the fold and the miners below it.

The miners were in the back of my mind (and still far below ground) when I settled in at home to watch the game. Though the game ended less than 12 hours ago as I write this, I remember little of it; it passed in a blur of Cliff Lee curve balls and Little League-style gaffes by the Rays. My clicker finger got itchy, so during a commercial break I switched over to Anderson Cooper on CNN to check on the miners. They were just loading the first rescuee, Florencio Avalos, into the big pencil case for the ride up. It would be perhaps 15 or 20 minutes before he broke the surface.

I turned back to the game, where we were soon in the last of the ninth. I watched as the last three Tampa Bay batters feebly succumbed, Longoria then Pena then Upton. The Trop fell silent as the Rangers swarmed the field, dancing their big unruly tango with no band to accompany them. TBS’ cameras lingered for a moment on the Rays’ dugout, where the players and coaches watched forlornly. It occurred to me there were probably about 33 men in there, trapped like the miners in their little hole. Like the Chileans, the Rays are brothers by virtue of the work they share, but for them there was no hope of rescue.

TBS was interviewing Cliff Lee when I switched back to Anderson Cooper. The rescue capsule had just surfaced. Florencio Avalos emerged from it as casually as could be, without theatrics, as if he were just returning from from lunch, or from a bathroom break. I marvel at people’s ability to remain steadfastly who they are, whatever the circumstances. Back on TBS, the Rays were heading downstairs into the hallway on their way to the clubhouse. That hallway is called the tunnel.

Mike

Dear Sean,

I screwed up. Instead of following your instructions — munching Funyuns and listening on the radio — I went to Game 5. But I wasn’t ignoring your petition to the baseball gods; I thought I had something going that trumped it. Back on May 16, I was at the Trop when the Rays actually defeated Cliff Lee — then a Seattle Mariner — and I figured that was an omen and I needed to be there Tuesday night.

I bought one of those $30 (plus $11 in fees) tickets for a seat usually covered by the blue tarp, five rows from the top, section 305, and it wasn’t bad at all, though so high above home plate that it was impossible to comprehend what makes Lee quite so tough, except that he throws strikes. (And, man, does he have Carlos Pena’s number: six Ks in two games.) When the Rangers went up 3-1 in the sixth, you knew it was going to take a miracle, and I guess the Rays used up their magic over the weekend in Texas.

The crowd was great on Tuesday, and there seemed to be a curiously lighthearted vibe as everyone trooped out of the Trop into the warm night air. I overheard people saying that at least the Rays didn’t get swept, or that it just wasn’t meant to be this year, that sort of thing. Rays fans don’t have the existential angst — the fear and loathing — that fans of teams like the Red Sox or Cubs have, burdened as they are by the weight of history.

You know, Sean, all through our little colloquium — much too brief, my secret sharer — on the Rays and Rangers, I have been thinking about what it means to be a sports fan. When I was a kid in Minnesota, I lived and died with my teams — the Gophers, Twins, Vikings and North Stars — and if I had kept that up, I think I would have eventually been locked up, or ended up like the obsessed New York Giants fan who narrates A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley’s 1968 novel on the malaise of fandom. His account of getting wild and crazy and drunk in upstate New York roadhouses while watching the Giants on Sundays is brilliant and recognizable to most any fan — and scary. I don’t become too invested in sports these days, though baseball does retain a deep hold on me, especially when a team is as interesting as the Rays have been the past few years. But as the song goes, “If they don’t win it’s a shame,’’ and it’s not the end of the world.

John

Hey John:

I have a favor to ask. Do you mind following Game 5 on the AM dial, as well? Because let’s be honest: There’s a strong chance the crackly electromagnetic radiation gamboling from your Philco Table Radio to your eloquent brain somehow allowed the Rays to push things to a fifth and final tilt. You could have been the catalyst! Sure, people can scoff at that — but any good baseball fan knows you don’t mess with the juju. I ate Funyuns during Game 4; thus it shall be Funyuns on Tuesday’s menu, too! Maybe those magical sodium-socked rings were the ticket!

Imagine if I didn’t eat Funyuns for Game 5, and you watched the game on TV...and the Rays lost.

I can’t handle that guilt, man.

Baseball is a game of headcasery, on the field and off. It’s all about quirky synaptic firings and dark belief in mysterious forces, demons that control streaks both good and eeevil. I firmly believe that your radio has magical powers. In fact, it might be the only reason to explain how Carlos Pena lived out great chunks of the 2010 season significantly south of the Mendoza Line and then, for no explicable reason (but plenty of supernatural ones, you better believe), he comes alive right when we least expect him to — and being driven in by B.J. “Sybil” Upton, no less!

Forget about stat men; where’s Edgar Cayce when you need him? Tell Dionne Warwick to re-open the Psychic Friends Network!

And imagine what Carlos is thinking right now. Or maybe, if he’s smart, he’s not thinking at all. It’s a heck of way to live, riding a hot streak. Why does a player get lucky? Why does he win? Are there ghosts in the machine? Is it free will? Is it because they eat chicken before every game? Or they never step on the chalk lines? Is it because they use the same bat, same ball, same stinky socks and undies?

Or maybe they’re just due.

Hmmm...

It’s enough to make a grown man crazy — or defy the odds and win three straight games to make the championship series.

Every sport breeds its own brand of headcasery, but there’s no greater mind-screw than baseball, with its 162 games of ebb and flow, ups and downs. It breeds the life of the mind. It’s all in your head — or is it?

Prognostication is at an all-time high these days, from ESPN to some loser’s lowly blog. But the older (or perhaps crazier) I get, the more I realize anything can happen at any time. And in this series, it has. It’s why I never leave my seat early at a game. It’s why I don’t boo players. There are greater forces at work. Or maybe, god bless us, we all need to see a shrink.

Whatever the case, keep that radio on, John. And it probably wouldn’t hurt if you ate a few Funyuns, as well.

Sean

Dear Sean,

I went old school today and took in most of the game on the radio with Rays broadcasters Andy Freed and Dave Wills. I almost never listen to games on the radio anymore, and it was nice for a change to use my imagination as Freed provided little visual vignettes during the Rangers’ last at bat: “Soriano steps forward, looks into Jaso … a ball and a strike here for Elvis Andrus.’’

One of my favorite aesthetic experiences of all time was listening to a radio broadcast tape of Vin Scully calling a Sandy Koufax no-hitter — Shakespeare couldn’t have built up the drama over several hours more artfully — and I wouldn’t dream of putting Freed and Wills in that league, but it was refreshing to hear them after watching the first three games on TBS. For one thing, they bring a more savvy, inside baseball perspective to the game than the TV announcers, who must appeal to the casual fan as well as the diehards. In the bottom of the fifth inning, with Andrus at the plate and a runner on base, Wills quickly pointed out that lefty reliever Randy Choate was up in the bullpen so as possibly to be ready for lefthanded slugger Josh Hamilton two batters away; the TV guys would likely have waited a batter before bringing that up. In any case, starter Wade Davis worked out of the jam.

Freed and Wills also are more like fans — to them, the Rays manager is “Joe,’’ the rightfielder is “Matt’’ — and they were clearly concerned about Evan Longoria’s reduced mobility. “He’s a shadow of himself running with that sore quad,’’ Freed said. That the previously slumping Longoria hit a homer and two doubles was a gallant performance that’ll go down in baseball annals if the Rays win this series.

The Rays announcers are also like fans in that they are quick to criticize the players. Wills griped about Matt Joyce “taking fastballs and swinging at curveballs’’ as he struck out in the eighth. Both announcers ripped shortstop Reid Brignac in the bottom of the fifth for not immediately trying to get a forceout on the slow-moving Bengie Molina after making a good play on a grounder in the hole. Freed and Wills are also generous with praise when things go right, calling Grant Balfour “a much more well-rounded pitcher now than in 2008’’ as he shut down the Rangers in the seventh.

And like most fans, the Rays announcers cultivate an atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety, always imagining the worst that could happen. Even with the Rays up 5-2, Wills worried that the Rangers had the momentum. Finally, to end a tense but essentially routine ninth for closer Rafael Soriano, Freed said the wonderful words: “Game 5 Tuesday at Tropicana Field!’’

After this weekend’s wins, it is clear that the Rays were not as much at fault in the first two games of the series as it seemed, but that they simply ran into great pitching by Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson. Now Tuesday’s finale is a crapshoot, but I like our chances, even against Lee. What about you, Sean?

John

Hey John:

As the old adage goes, “Swagger transforms unfresh men into legends of confidence.” Or at least that’s what the back of my Old Spice deodorant stick says! Sorry: I’m giddy! How ’bout dem defibrillated Rays?!

While you spent Saturday afternoon watching the opera at the cineplex (arias and Milk Duds — I dig it!), I was on the 10-yard-line at Ray Jay jaw-dropped and jubilant as my Syracuse Orange football fumblers upset the perennially packed USF Bulls. If the citrus doormats could triumph, why not our floundering batsmen of fall as well? Maybe that was the $7 Bud Light talking, but when I tuned in to Game 3 and saw Mother Nature’s monstrous shadows carving up the Arlington ballpark — well, it all made awesome sense.

Those shadows: like a horrific special effect, the maw of darkness. Vincent Price should have called that game, not Buck Martinez. But therein lies the great twist.

Down with air-conditioning; up with pure oxygen, baby.

If there were ever a game to present as argument for a new outdoor baseball stadium in Tampa Bay, this was it. Now, now: This isn’t another potshot party at the Trop. I’ve actually grown to like watching hardball in that steroidal Rainforest Café.

Instead, I’m merely presenting an observation that beloved stars CC and ’Los, while bedecked in shades and sun-blockers to protect from the elements, full-on thrived from being out in God’s green goodness, battling in a stadium stuffed with rah-rah fans and so-pretty accoutrements. Did you see Craw frolicking in the natural grass? Good lord, wild horses don’t run that free.

Kaboom! Kablammo! Guess who’s feelin’ mighty good about themselves again?

We should have seen this coming. Leaving St. Pete was a godsend. They were down, they were out — and then they were outside. Poof! This is a squad that rises and falls, together, on emotion, so sensitive, so fickle. But by changing dreary scenery, they were renewed, rebirthed, re-flippin’-loaded. Even B.J. Upton, feeling scolded in a home uni, felt downright devilish in away togs. It’s not just that they lost two at home; it’s also that the escalating attendance chatter became a disease, the Trop giving off all the welcoming warmth of Shawshank.

Now they were playing on their someday field of dreams. Never mind that they were outnumbered by fans and big bats. It must have felt like freedom.

Is this merely rampant homerism raging forth? Perhaps. But the Rays can’t wait to get back on Texas firma for Game 4. If we take Sunday’s skirmish, David Price gets the ball back on home field. That’s a concern. But if our guys are smart, they’ll wear sunglasses inside the dome and tell fans to hold the plaid and strut Rangers red instead.

’Til the final out, my friend,

Sean

Dear Sean,

Before the game today I went to see Das Rheingold, the first installment of Wagner’s Ring cycle, which was simulcast live from the Metropolitan Opera into movie theaters. The opera, which I saw at the multiplex in Pinellas Park, is a marvelous new high-tech production by Robert Lepage, a French-Canadian director who has done shows for Cirque du Soleil and Peter Gabriel. But it also turned out to be a good warmup for the Ray’s exhilarating win. As TBS announcer Buck Martinez said after Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña put the game away with homers in the top of the ninth inning, “This team has some magic in the late innings.’’

Das Rheingold is all about magic — the magical gold at the bottom of the Rhine River that brings glory and power to whomever possesses it — and during the opera this afternoon I found myself thinking that Wagner’s musical drama isn’t a bad metaphor for the Rays’ improbable success story. Now I’m not quite ready to equate manager Joe Maddon to Wotan, the one-eyed ruler of the gods who is obsessed with a ring made from the Rhine gold, but you have to admit, there was something magical about the way the Rays overcame such massive odds to win the AL East title. Did Maddon and his compatriots in the Rays front office scheme to steal some gold from baseball’s version of the Rhine Maidens that allowed them to hold off the Yankees and Red Sox in the regular season? Well, maybe the acquisition of Joaquin Benoit counts.

It would have been a shame for this fascinating, resourceful ballclub to go three and out in the playoffs with the Rangers, so tonight’s return to form for the Rays was only just. I could imagine Wagner’s stirring, triumphant Ride of the Valkyries rising up as the team finally got its act together with strong pitching by Matt Garza and Benoit, great defensive plays by Crawford and Jason Bartlett, and opportunistic hitting by Peña, Dan Johnson, B.J. Upton and John Jaso. (Actually, Valkyries is heard on a car commercial between innings.)

There’s another aspect of the Ring that reminds me of playoff baseball: Wagner’s opera is long and totally immersive. In all, the four works in the cycle run about 16 hours — Das Rheingold is the short one, at under three hours — and ideally you see them one right after the other. The two times I’ve experienced the Ring live, in Seattle and Toronto, the four were performed over five days, and all I thought about during the marathon was the opera. The same syndrome is starting to set in for me with the Rays and Rangers. Outside of a few necessities, like work and walking the dog, I have done little more than watch the games and ponder every twist and turn (Evan Longoria must still be hurting; he didn’t seem to be running full out today) since Wednesday. At this point, the Rays and Rangers are still at the equivalent of the Das Rheingold stage of the playoffs cycle — perhaps edging into the next one, Die Walkure — but tonight’s win gave me hope that we could be in for a long haul. The guys seem to have rediscovered their Rhine gold.

Quick turnaround for Sunday’s game, Sean, and I’m starting to get into it. Let’s keep this thing going.

John

Hey John,

Funny you ask about last night’s Dylan gig in Tampa. As I got up and grooved to the choogling voom of Stuck Inside of Mobile, I realized that the 69-year-old Bob displayed significantly more spunk and sheer bounce-back-ability than our youthful hometown heroes. (Although I’m pretty sure that, at this point, Don Zimmer can out-sing Mr. Zimmerman.) And while you so eloquently admired the graceful pitching form of Cliff Lee & Co., I spent Game 2 lost in the woeful mug of Rocco Baldelli, who now appears to me not unlike a velvet painting of a basset hound in sad clown makeup.

James Shields didn’t lose that game. Nor did Kelly Shoppach or B.J. Upton. Rocco Baldelli, who didn’t even play, nevertheless gets the L for that one, with more than a lil’ help from Joe Maddon.

Listen, I don’t want to dump on Baldelli— he’s a fighter and a class act, I’ll give him that — but for the sake of sexing up these disastrous first two games, in which the Rays bats have seemingly been soaked in salt peter, allow me this jiggly analogy:

Let’s say there’s a big bash planned at the Playboy Mansion. (Just go with me on this, okay?) All of the Bunnies are excited to dance the night away. But right before the shindig, Miss March, beloved by all the girls, is injured in a freak trampoline accident. She cries, puts on a sweater and sufficiently kills the vibe of the party. No one feels like having fun anymore. Heck, Hef doesn’t even bother to iron his robe.

Now throw some baseball unis on the gals, and what you have is not so different from the Rays. For the longest time, Baldelli has been a symbol of hope for Tampa Bay — even after the malady “mitochondrial disorder” could be diagnosed by every yahoo calling in to talk radio. People love this guy. And sure, Maddon was trying to boost the levels of energy and magic, in the clubhouse and in the stands, by inserting Baldelli in the Game 1 lineup. But Rocco was once again shelved by fatigue, scratched from the roster before Game 2. Even worse, he gave a depressing, weepy press conference right before the game, which had to do wonders for everybody’s spirit. Then, as further depressing reminder of the team’s sudden loss of strength, he sat there in the dugout looking forlorn.

Play ball!

Or, um, not.

It’s unwise to question Maddon’s decisionmaking skills in this town, but I’m going to do that right now. Baldelli is like Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the movie Unbreakable. You know, Mr. Glass? And although there’s a nobility to including him in these reindeer games, the truth is that he never should have been on the postseason roster in the first place. He’s a big beating heart for this organization, yes, but he was bound to break down again. And when he did, it would bum out everyone just like it always does. The risks far outweighed the gains. Unfair? Cold, callous? Really flippin’ mean? Maybe.

But now, as the Rays sit in an 0-2 hole, the entire town, and the entire team, is having heart trouble. We’re all a bunch of Rocco Baldellis. You could say that’s a good thing. And maybe it is — unless you want to win games.

I’m enjoying these chats, John. But alas, I fear we only have one more chance to talk baseball.

Sean

Dear Sean,

The pitching motion is the American form of dance for men. Such are the random thoughts that kept me fitfully interested, watching on TV at home today, in another disappointing performance by the Rays. I started formulating this theory yesterday, inspired by Cliff Lee’s effortless, rocking chair motion in setting down the Rays. Today’s masterful outing by the other Texas lefty, C.J. Wilson — who, with his boyish good looks and shaggy hair, could pass for a principal with a ballet company — reinforced the idea.

The American male, of course, is famously anti-dance — Exhibit A was a commercial several years ago in which the worst possible thing a beer-drinking sports fan could be asked to do by his wife was to go to a ballet — and many dance companies would kill for a few good men. Where are all the guys who could do turns, spins, pirouettes and leaps with ease and grace? They’re on the pitching mound.

The delivery of a great pitcher is a thing of beauty, and every one of them is different, just as every great dancer moves in his own way. Many a boyhood has been misspent perfecting a stylish pitching motion, instead of going to dance class. I guarantee you that Wilson has had that funky little twist of the wrist at the end of his delivery since he was playing Wiffle ball in the back yard. For the most part, his motion is efficient and functional — no windup, just a short step back before bringing the ball to the plate — and that is typical of our no-nonsense times. One of his heroes was Greg Maddux, who epitomized the no muss, no fuss delivery.

Then there was James Shields, who has a pretty classic motion himself, except when he was stumbling on the mound and bouncing the ball behind Michael Young or managing to hit the mighty Matt Treanor (.211 batting average) twice. The Rays starter even had TBS announcer Buck Martinez sounding a bit like a dance critic when he cautioned that Shields had to be careful not to “spin off toward the first baseline’’ or his technique would suffer. Shields does have one distinctive movement in the deep crouch that he goes into during his stretch with runners on base (in other words, most of the time). Give this man a ballerina to lift!

Every pitcher has an idiosyncrasy — Dan Wheeler kneading the ball in his glove, Darren Oliver’s bravura leg kick – but many of today’s motions have an assembly line quality, as if everyone went to the same pitching academy. They’re a far cry from the flamboyant hurlers of the past. Roger Angell, in his great baseball stories for the New Yorker, wrote like a lake poet about Luis Tiant’s baroque mannerisms on the mound. As a kid, I had a special fondness for the eccentric delivery of the Cuban curveballer, Camilo Pascual.

Much the same is true in dance, by the way, as national ballet traditions — Russian, say, or Danish or French — have given way to a more homogenized international style. Think of Mikhail Baryshnikov as the last of an individualistic generation of dancers, ballet’s version of, oh, Sandy Koufax or Tom Seaver.

On the tattoo front, thanks to the writer for the info on CC’s. And, no, Sean, I have not succumbed to the allure of body markings. In the days when I might have gotten one, my only possible role models were an uncle in the Marine Corps who had a faded American flag tattooed on his forearm and a guy I worked with on a bridge construction crew who had “love’’ and “hate’’ carved on his knuckles.

Now I want to know what the deal is with those braided things that a lot of the players – just about the entire Texas bullpen, it seems – wear around their necks.

How was Dylan? A few years ago he was playing concerts in minor-league ballparks.

John

Hey John:

First of all: Why do I get the sneaking suspicion that all your tattoo talk is leading up to a shocking Game 2 revelation: JOHN FLEMING HAS FLAMING EAGLE TAT ON BACK! That would certainly add to your intriguing rep at the newspaper. Too bad you can’t mash a baseball 500 feet. We could use John Hamilton 2.0 around here.

So: I was all set to play hooky and watch Game 1 on TV, but thanks to my well-connected lawyer pal Mitch, I instead played hooky and watched Game 1 from Sec. 131, Row UU inside Tropicana Field — which, much to my dismay, wasn’t all that gussied up for the first round of the playoffs. What, bunting too expensive??? (I was also a lil’ miffed that I didn’t get any good swag at the door. Is it too much to ask for a Carl Crawford batting glove or maybe an inflatable Zimmer tub toy. But I digress...) The sightlines from my seat were fine; the sights, however, left something to be desired. To those folks stuck in the nosebleeds, rest assured: Seeing Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton whiff weakly and frequently is no less painful from a $55 seat.

That’s not to say I spent the entirety of the game where I was supposed to be. I’ll now ask my mother to stop reading for the following revelation: During times of great stress, beer consumption and related sports chicanery, I tend to wander just outside the glass doors to the smoking deck. Yes, I’m a besotted social dwogger — not proud, but if you overlook the deathly implications, hanging with the Cig Army often proves fascinating.

Strangely enough, out among the Parliament clouds, the optimism for the home team swelled along with the Rangers lead. It was the darndest thing! As David Price did his James Shields impression (and here’s hoping Shields does his Price impression this afternoon), there was defiance among the Black Lung Brigade. No matter our anemic bats, we’re going to — hack! cough! spit! — win this thing.

Whether they were sucking on Camels or Marlboros, all agreed that Joe Maddon was a “genius” and would get the Rays out of this mess. I tried to play the role of bad guy, saying the skipper’s swing-away approach with men on base would prove costly — bunt ’em home, for cryin’ out loud! — but my fellow smokers were having none of it. You can bemoan the owner. You can question Upton’s spirit. You can put your face into the sun and dream of an open-air stadium. But you can’t question, Joe. Ever.

Alas, I’m not going to today’s game; neither my wallet nor my lungs can afford it. However, I’ll miss the guys and girls on the smoking deck. People are really nice out there. Mannerly, too, what with all the lighting of other people’s coffin nails. But there’s also a great sense of hope, and we could use some of that today. Yes, this region is in great economic peril. Yes, this is a baseball team with attendance woes. But I left Game 1 feeling pretty good about the Rays, and pretty good about us. Sure, I got winded walking out of the stadium, but I was smiling. Go get ’em, Rays! Win one forthe smokers.

Enjoy Game 2, John.

Talk to you later,

Sean

****

Dear Sean,

I played hooky this afternoon and watched the game at home on TV. In the bottom of the fifth, when the Rays were behind 5-0 and meekly went three up and three down, I started checking my emails, cleaning out the cat box and wondering who the sleekly coiffed blond sitting next to Nolan Ryan was. Was she the wife of the Texas Rangers president? The TBS announcers never said.

Sometimes this season, when the Rays were going through a tough stretch, I would superstitiously choose not to watch a game, or turn the TV off, hoping that my absence would spur one of their improbable rallies, but today I stuck it out. The lackluster result was disturbingly true to recent form for the Rays. Carlos Pena, who has been killing us all year, hitting well below his weight, struck out three times, and Rocco Baldelli continued the Rays tradition of designated hitters who can’t hit.

To lose behind starter David Price is “a real psychological drain on the Rays,’’ because the second game’s scheduled starter, James Shields, is questionable, said Buck Martinez, who was in the TBS booth with Don Orsillo. I have always enjoyed the commentary of Martinez, probably because he is a former catcher. Of all ex-players turned announcers, those who wore the tools of ignorance seem to have the most analytical handle on the game (Bob Brenly is another), and Martinez had interesting things to say about catcher Bengie Molina, the Rangers’ hero, along with starter Cliff Lee.

Martinez, in his distinctively smoky, nasal voice, dwelled on the backstop who joined the team midway through the season, and how well he meshed with the team’s pitching staff. That was something of a theme of the broadcast, that the Rangers had acquired several key players at the trade deadlines in July and August, while the Rays essentially stood pat or added players from the farm system, none of them with a hot bat.

One thing I’d like to hear the announcers address are the tattoos that various players have. There’s Josh Hamilton, of course, whose muscular arms are covered with them, but also Carl Crawford, who sports a weird, hook-shaped image on the right side of his neck. I’ve never heard these explicated, and surely they have meaning for the players. This is a genuine cultural revolution in baseball. Can you imagine Duke Snider or Carl Yastrzemski or Sandy Koufax with a tattoo? Because the game was so desultory, I paid more attention than usual to the aerial shots outside the Trop, sunny scenes of sailboats, the Skyway bridge and waters where manatees lurk. The chamber of commerce has nothing to complain about.

What did you think?

John

They call it The Show: Times critics analyze the game 10/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 12:57pm]

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