The idea of it probably struck you somewhere along the flight of B.J. Upton's first home run. If not, certainly by his second. Bring … By the fourth inning, when the Rays were ahead 4-0 and the American League Division Series had turned into a matter of time, the idea had blossomed into an eventuality. Just like that, nothing else made sense. … on … And then the Rays were bounding around the field, again, in that priceless little dance of wonder. Just like last time, and the time before, they looked like kids at a carnival, overjoyed to discover that it is not yet time for the ride to end. And even then, you could not help but think: Who's next? … the Red Sox! It is going to be Boston. Of course it is going to be Boston in the AL Championship Series. After all that has gone on between them, after all the feuding and the fussing and the friction, who else could it be?
The Red Sox are that sneering gunfighter you see in Westerns who you know is destined to draw against John Wayne. Or that glowering boxer who feels no pain who is bound to fight Rocky Balboa. The Red Sox are final-reel villains, and as formidable as they are, it is fitting that they should be the final team standing between the Rays and the World Series.
As it turns out, the ALDS was merely a warmup, a chance to beat the socks off a lesser bunch of Sox. The Rays won 6-2 Monday to close out a plodding Chicago team that seemed to have no clue how to score other than to hit an occasional ball over the fence.
Good thing the Sox fans wore black, wasn't it? The last time a White Sox team went this meekly out of the playoffs, it was 1919 and Arnold Rothstein was passing out hundreds to Chick Gandil and Shoeless Joe Jackson. In the end, the most damage Chicago could muster was to boo as the Rays celebrated on their field.
Somehow, the Rays endured. They danced a little more and partied a little more and added yet another chapter to their incredible story.
This was victory No. 100 for the Rays. Think about that: For much of their history, the Rays had to scramble in the final weeks of the season to avoid losing 100.
Embrace this. Manager Joe Maddon says this is just the start for the Rays. And indeed, they seem to be built for at least several seasons of success. But there is never anything as pure, as sweet, as that first unexpected taste of success. If you watched the turnaround of the Bucs, and that of the Lightning, you are aware that as of next year everything changes. As of next year, there will be expectations, and being only pretty good will feel pretty bad.
For now, they lead the league in celebrations.
The best part of their first footsteps into the postseason was that they began to let the nation in on all the characteristics they have shown to Tampa Bay all season long. After Sunday's victory, there were those who thought the White Sox might be able to sneak back into this series, that the pressure of postseason baseball might finally occur to the Rays.
If they have proved nothing else, however, the Rays are a bunch that seems to feed on the doubts of others. They are a stubborn, resilient bunch. They do not rattle. They do not back away.
Because of it, the Rays' locker room was once again wrapped in plastic for another celebration. There was spewing. There was splashing. Champagne dripped from the lights above. Who knew? When a franchise doesn't waste its money on Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman, it can afford a few bottles of champagne.
"This stuff never gets old," said James Shields, who looked as if he had been dropped into a dunk tank sponsored by G.H. Mumm. He didn't seem to mind.
For those whose memory banks have not been erased by the success, to those who still bear the scars of a decade of awful, it bears repeating: This is a franchise that, over its first decade, had precious few moments. Now it has won the ALDS and the AL East. And it's time for someone to ask an important question:
Where, exactly, is the trophy case at Tropicana Field?
And who, exactly, can stop the Rays from adding one or two more?
Yeah, you can talk about the Phillies, and you can talk about the Dodgers.
But if you know storytelling, you know better. In the end, in the final showdown, the opponent has to be the Red Sox.
So bring on the annoying Coco Crisp. Bring on the dangerous David Ortiz. Bring on the mouthy Jonathan Papelbon and Kevin Youkilis, the escapee from the biker bar. Bring on the entire cast of Bond villains that is the Red Sox.
None of this is to suggest that the Red Sox would be easy. To the contrary, the Red Sox would be the toughest opponent the Rays have left to face.
On the other hand, this stuff isn't supposed to be easy, is it?
Besides, can you imagine how much fun that celebration would be to watch?
Stay tuned. And bring a snorkel.