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Now, at last, it's our turn for baseball playoffs

ST. PETERSBURG — You wait. You pray. You dream.

You spend a lifetime in anticipation of postseason baseball.

And you decide, all in all, you've had better centuries.

Has a community so intertwined with the game ever waited as long to see genuine October baseball? This is, after all, the market of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial and Willie Mays in the spring. This is the market of Al Lopez, Lou Piniella, Wade Boggs, Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff in short pants on summer fields.

This is a market of nostalgia and anecdotes, of retired ballplayers and Little League heroes.

But it has never been a market for playoff baseball.

Not until today. Not until James Shields picks up a ball at 2:37 p.m., to be precise.

The Tampa Bay Rays have been around for a little more than a decade, but some of you have been here far longer. You have lived through the spring training tenures of the Cardinals and Mets. You may have lived through the Yankees before that, and you may have even heard tales of the St. Louis Browns' inaugural spring training in 1914.

You have seen postseason baseball from afar — the red, white and blue bunting on the backstops, the painted logos on the field, the looks of desperation and delight in the bleachers — and you have wondered if it is nerve-racking. If it is chill-bump-worthy. If it is unforgettable.

The answer is yes. And yes. And oh, yes.

"It's like being a kid in the candy store. You get to the store, and it's everything you ever wanted, and you just go to town," designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "You wake up, and you're excited. You feel like a Little Leaguer again."

And the best moments are not always reserved for the field. Floyd, 35, is playing in his fourth postseason for his fourth team, but he still was blown away by a rally that drew 8,000 to Straub Park in St. Petersburg on Monday.

"Every guy in here was hurt. I mean, hurting. During the course of the season there's a lot of pain we play through. And I'll tell you what, that (rally) brought us all back," Floyd said. "A lot of guys were like, 'Man, I sure wish I could enjoy this day off. Do we really have to go?' But it was 100 percent worth it to go out there and see those fans, to see how much they embraced everything going on around here.

"Going down the street on the bus and seeing the fans all around, it was like 'Man, this is incredible.' And what makes it great is we all did this together."

The Tampa Bay area has seen bigger sporting events than the first round of the baseball playoffs. We have hosted Super Bowls and a Final Four. We followed the Lightning through Game 7 of a memorable Stanley Cup final.

And yet, there is something different about the baseball playoffs — not necessarily better, just different. Baseball has a unique vibe. It has the weight of history that the NFL lacks. It has a day-to-day narrative quality.

Honestly, this is not a great baseball town, and there is no shame in acknowledging that. Really, relatively few great baseball towns remain. St. Louis is one. Boston is another. Maybe Baltimore, and probably Cincinnati. Chicago and New York, by sheer volume of fans, are perhaps the only others.

But for the past month, we have had a glimpse of what that world can be like. We wake up with box scores and go to bed refiguring the standings. We may not understand the origins of the Wall Street collapse, but we can go into great detail about the problems Scott Kazmir is having with his pitching delivery.

It is one of the things that separates baseball from every other sport.

The game is not as dynamic as football. These days it's not as popular, either. But it requires a greater investment, in time, in money and in emotional well-being. And for that reason, it can break your heart like no other. And convince you to fall in love.

Think of it this way:

T. Rowe Price can expand its operation in the bay area, adding hundreds of high-paying jobs and generating a far greater economic stimulus than a couple of baseball games. And yet, no one is getting Mohawks to celebrate the expansion of an investment firm. At its best, this is what a sports franchise can do for a community. It can entertain. It can inspire. It can unify.

"Baseball is more imbedded into the fabric of all of us," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Even though this is probably considered more of a football area, at this particular juncture it's a pretty solid baseball area. And people are really going back to their roots and really re-experiencing a lot.

"The deeper we get, the more it can draw the community together."

This afternoon my 5-year-old son will go to Tropicana Field to see the first Rays playoff game with his grandfather and, after the last pitch has been thrown, will put on his hat and grab his glove for a T-ball practice.

I can say without reservation that such an afternoon has never before happened in Tampa Bay. Not for my family, and not for yours.

It's not really a rite of passage, and it hardly qualifies as a momentous occasion.

Yet, at this moment, I can't imagine anything more cool.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Playoffs primer

In one of two American League Division Series, the Rays play the Chicago White Sox today in St. Petersburg. There are five games scheduled in this first round, and the winner of three games advances to the American League Championship Series to face the winner of the division playoff series between the Los Angeles Angels and the Boston Red Sox. There are seven games scheduled in the championship series, and the winner of four advances to play the National League champions in the World Series. The winner of four out of seven scheduled games in the series is the world champion.

Now, at last, it's our turn for baseball playoffs 10/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 7:24pm]
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