ST. PETERSBURG — As they rushed toward the field, finally, it did not matter that you had seen their dance before. The sight of this level of joy never grows old.
The darnedest team you have ever seen, the underdog of all underdogs, was bounding across the artificial surface of Tropicana Field. Once again, the Celebration Boogie had taken hold of the Tampa Bay Rays — as familiar by now as the twist or the Macarena — and on a fairy-tale night, the Wonder Boys danced on.
By the time the music stops, they will be in the World Series.
The Rays won their Sunday night showdown in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series 3-1. Despite the dryness in your throat, despite the dampness in your palms, despite your fraying nerves and your nagging doubts and the superb Jon Lester, the Rays turned out the lights on the stubborn Red Sox. At last.
You thought it was slipping away, didn't you? You thought these Rays were doomed to be remembered not by a turnaround but by a meltdown. Admit it. A team spends enough time teetering on a cliff and you cannot help but worry about the jagged rocks below. If this felt like an upset, it was because two out of three voices you heard before the game seemed convinced the Rays were going to lose.
All of which is where this Rays team seems to want you, isn't it? If you have paid attention to it at all, you are aware that being surrounded by doubt is its natural habitat. If you know nothing else about the Rays, it seems that they have to be counted out before they can be counted on.
As it turns out, the Red Sox will not be an everlasting nightmare after all. The Rays won the series, which means that seven-run lead they blew in Game 5 is no more than a backstory. Leave it to Boston fans to discuss what went wrong.
It was minutes before midnight, and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg stood on the infield dirt, champagne and cheers dripping off him, the American League championship trophy cradled in his arms. Sternberg stared into the upper reaches of Tropicana Field and grinned at the sight of fans still there, still roaring.
Sternberg was asked if, all things considered, it was better that the series worked out the way it did instead of the Rays ending it earlier.
"Absolutely,'' he said. "The things that are the most important always take the longest road to get there. And we always take the long road.''
Think of it like this: If the Rays had closed out this series instead of blowing the Game 5 lead, the critics would have written off Boston as an aging opponent. If they had won in Game 6, it would have been because of Josh Beckett's injury.
This way? This way, the Rays won a game that every one of them will remember on their deathbeds.
"Is it better?'' vice president Andrew Friedman said. "You mean better for my heart, or for the story line?
"No question, this is better. All year long we've responded when people counted us out. It seems like we want that chip on our shoulder.''
Add "contrary'' to the list of descriptions of the Rays. Already you have "resilient'' and "amazing'' and "surprising.'' From now on, you can crack open the thesaurus and let the adjectives spew like champagne. Describe manager Joe Maddon as bold (for inserting rookie pitcher David Price with the bases loaded in the eighth, for instance). Describe the Rays as deep (Rocco Baldelli and Willy Aybar, hitting stars?). Describe them as gritty (Matt Garza, seven innings of two-hit baseball).
Also, describe them like this: World Series-bound.
It seems surreal to say it out loud. The Rays, the team of pinched nickels and blurry blueprints, have won the American League pennant. The Rays, the team of Wilson Alvarez and Danny Clyburn, of Ben Grieve and Vinny Castilla, are going to the playground of Reggie Jackson and Kirk Gibson, of Babe Ruth and Joe Carter.
Considering that, is anything in sports still impossible?
When it was over, the Red Sox seemed stunned. Lately, the Rays seem to have that effect on opponents. They keep beating back the doubts, and then someone raises the stakes, and they beat back the new doubts, and on and on.
A winning season? Check. A playoff berth? Check. The AL East title, and the division series, and the American League pennant? Check, check and check.
The World Series? Four more victories and you can call it checkmate. Also:
Never has a franchise redefined itself so quickly. In the blink of an eye, the Team That Didn't Matter has come to mean so much to so many.
To the fans, the Rays are proof that money doesn't always buy victory, that higher ground can be reached from low beginnings, and that no matter how bad it looks, perhaps tomorrow will be better after all. In a tough time economically, in a noisy time politically, this team has given a region a reason to smile.
To the small-market teams of baseball, the Rays represent hope that results are not based solely on economics, that if a team is intelligent enough and determined enough, if it finds the right players at the discount rack, it is possible to climb the standings in even the toughest of divisions.
To the players, from the talented kids who rose up through the system to those who came in search of a second chance, there is the possibility of falling in with the right team at the right time.
More than anything, that's who these players are. They are indeed the Rays of hope.
There are impossible dreams, and then there are the ones you do not even say out loud. Oh, let's admit it. We all knew the Rays were going to be better this year. None of us suspected anything like this.
This is history's greatest turnaround, better than the 1969 Mets and the 1991 Braves, better than North Carolina State and Villanova, better than the 2001 Patriots. Better than the Bucs. Better than the Lightning.
Odd. This was supposed to be the lily pad year, remember? This was the year the Rays were supposed to finally be better, but it wasn't supposed to be the year they got ripe. Instead, it was like watching the movie Big; the trick was that the Rays grew up all at once.
Overnight, it seems, the Rays have become the smartest organization in baseball. They are the best defensive team in the game. They have great starting pitching, great relief pitching and — who saw this coming? — bats made of magic lumber. They are young, they are hungry, and for some reason, they think the spotlight is kind of pretty.
And now, they have this World Series thing coming up.
Think about that for a minute. Let the phrase roll over your tongue. Savor the thought of it. Ponder the improbability.
From here, one dance is left.
From here, only a few steps are left to take.