My father played third base as a kid. He was named Henry Louis Troxler, after Lou Gehrig. This did not keep him, in his later years, from a healthy dislike of the New York Yankees and their bloated payroll.
From his hospital bed a few weeks ago, he asked me how "your team" was doing, and I knew exactly what he wanted to know. "Second-lowest payroll in baseball, first place in the AL East," I said. He smiled for the first time in a while and said, "That's all right." This was his highest praise.
I have a book that he gave me, which his father gave him, a 1956 tome titled The Fireside Book of Baseball. It's a collection of great sports writing. As a kid, I read it over and over. I used to know a lot of it by heart, like the famous poem about the legendary Cubs double-play combination:
These are the saddest of possible words,
Close to this book, I keep a black, loose-leaf binder, a homemade score book. For no particular reason, I'm looking at the page for April 24, 2005, a game between the Tampa Bay (then-Devil) Rays and the visiting Boston Red Sox.
That game was still within reach until the top of the eighth inning. My scorecard for the Boston half of that inning reads: Walk. Walk. Groundout. Walk. Single. Home run. Strikeout. Home run. Walk. Single. Walk. Flyout.
Red Sox 11, Rays 3.
Most of baseball consists of losing. Maybe that's not true mathematically, but it is true emotionally. Ask a Cubs fan. Ask a Red Sox fan. Ask our arriving friends from Philadelphia, whose ballclub, precisely because of its long and storied history, last year became the first club to lose 10,000 games.
Ten thousand games!
And yet, if you are from Philadelphia, you'll always have the Birthplace-of-Our-Nation, Cradle-of-Liberty thing going for you. Hard to top that. An occasional World Series for you is icing on the cake, even if your last appearance was 15 years ago.
But for us …
Look, I'll be honest. This is the Biggest Thing that Ever Happened in St. Petersburg, Period.
It's one of the biggest things ever to hit the Tampa Bay area, too, although the Lightning did win the Stanley Cup and the Bucs won the Super Bowl a few years back.
Oh, and give Tampa and Teddy Roosevelt credit for winning the Let's-Invade-Cuba Bowl a little earlier.
Otherwise, if it weren't for the Rays, one could argue this has been a pretty mediocre year around these parts, if not a mediocre few years.
Maybe it started in '04, when nature used Florida for hurricane target practice. That sure knocked the bloom off the orange tree. It didn't help when every insurance company in America suddenly said, "Wait a minute — you guys live near the water? You didn't tell us!"
For a while, too, everybody's house around here was worth a bazillion dollars, which unfortunately meant that everybody's house started getting taxed at a bazillion dollars. This has been a big problem. You guys in Philly like to boo the opposing team for fun. We boo city councils.
And then, all of a sudden, nobody's house was worth a bazillion dollars. Since our official state pastime in Florida is building houses and condos, you can see that this might have especially bad side effects.
This brings us back to the baseball team and its importance in a long, hot summer.
The Rays are upstarts compared to the Phillies, having begun play in 1998. But give us some credit in the suffering department — 10 years of losing and nine last-place finishes has to count for something.
These days Tropicana Field is full and exciting, and I am glad for it, but it hasn't always been that way. Heck, it wasn't that way a couple of months ago.
If you think the Trop is a bad place for baseball, you ought to see it with 8,000 people in it year after year, most of them rooting for the other team. If I never again am drowned out by the chant, "Let's go, Red Sox," or people gushing, "Look, it's JEE-tah, it's JEE-tah!" that will be fine.
So now, the World Series.
For us, this is a miracle of the universe, proof that anything is possible. Florida's bad year, the bad run of years, feels better.
Here is what the legendary Red Smith wrote in 1951 on the day that Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit "the Shot Heard Round the World" off Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers:
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
So, too, for the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays. So, too, for a World Series in St. Petersburg.
I took the book home and sat by my father's bedside and read to him, and we complained about the Yankees together. It was a good use of time.