WITH THREE innings to play in the fifth game of the American League Championship Series, clubhouse workers and officials for the Tampa Bay Rays began preparing for a celebration in the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park. Twenty cases of champagne and 15 cases of beer were unpacked and loaded into huge tubs of ice. A separate stash of high-end champagne was set aside to be chilled for Rays executives. AL CHAMPIONS T-shirts were being sorted by size for the players. Nine outs still needed against the Boston Red Sox—who, come October, die about as easily as vampires—typically is no time to make party preparations. But if there is only one lasting lesson from the 2008 baseball season, it is this: The Tampa Bay Rays are not your typical World Series team.
Having defied Las Vegas odds, conventional baseball strategy, the Boston--New York power axis and the myth of postseason experience, the young Rays had no hesitation about defying the baseball gods too. This, after all, is a team whose manager, Joe Maddon, hates managing by the book and is more apt to explain his off-beat game strategy by quoting Einstein and Oliver Wendell Holmes than John McGraw.
Sure enough, the Rays, leading Game 5 7--0 in the seventh, blew the biggest lead ever by a team in position to clinch a postseason series. By the time they lost 8--7 in the bottom of the ninth, the liquor had been repacked into the cases for return to the distributor. They lost Game 6 as well. Their apparent hubris and impending collapse, naturally, served only as a prelude to the most subversive chapter of their unbelievable tale: Not only did Tampa Bay win the AL pennant, but it did so by asking a 23-year-old pitcher who had never saved a game in his life, not even against Austin Peay the one time he tried, to close Game 7. Only then did the champagne flow.
"What it means is, We've arrived," Maddon said, trying to peer through the champagne drops on his trademark black-rimmed glasses on Sunday night. "Obviously, we're never going to sneak up on anybody anymore."
The World Series will never be the same now that the Rays are in it, and it's not just because the Faux Classic opens at Tropicana Field, the team's ersatz ballpark, which has all the solemnity of a juke joint, with its catwalks, cowbells, aquarium, tank tops, flip-flops, fake grass, B-list celebrities (Rob Schneider? Dick Vitale?), leather recliner box seats and Taser-wielding security officers. No, the World Series is different because dues are no longer required. Anybody is welcome.
THE WORLD SERIES has more typically belonged to blue-blooded franchises such as the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves, neither of which qualified for this postseason, or angst-ridden Sisyphean teams such as the Philadelphia Phillies, the Rays' opponents. The Phillies had won between 80 and 89 games for seven consecutive seasons before stepping up this year to 92 victories, a National League Division Series win over Milwaukee and a five-game thrashing of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS to reach their first World Series since 1993. They hadn't won the Series before their 1980 championship and haven't won it since, and the city has no major sports titles to speak of since 1983 (page 51). The dues-paying Phils are properly long-suffering.
The Rays, on the other hand, simply showed up without warning—unless you count Maddon's crazy spring training motto of 9 = 8, which suggested that nine players playing hard every day could result in Tampa Bay being one of eight playoff teams. The Rays were the worst team in the majors last year, had never come close to a winning season in their 10-year franchise history and spent less money in 2008 payroll than every other team but the Florida Marlins. Vegas set odds of 200 to 1 for Tampa Bay to win the World Series this year. The Rays, however, won 97 games and the pennant (you might have suspected something was up when they won their first ALCS game by 9--8), putting themselves in the company of the 1969 New York Mets and the 1991 Braves as the least likely World Series teams of all time.
"I'm sure there is a wow factor out there about the Rays being in the World Series," said Brian Anderson, the team's assistant pitching coach. "To be honest, there's a wow factor in our clubhouse too."
No money, no experience, no household names, no closer? No problem. The Rays are the right team at the right time. Thanks to the major leagues' testing for performance-enhancing drugs, plus enhanced revenue sharing that has made the free-agent market more inefficient (as more rising stars sign lengthy contract extensions early in their careers, fewer are up for bid in their prime years), inexpensive young talent under contractual control is the coin of the realm—and that is what has enriched Tampa Bay. In the seven ALCS games against Boston, all but two of the Rays' hits and all but 32/3 of their innings pitched came from players 30 years old or younger.
Former first-round draft picks B.J. Upton, 24 (the second player selected in 2002), and third baseman Evan Longoria, 23 (the No. 3 pick in '06), have turned the postseason into their coming-out party. Upton and Longoria each tied the LCS record with four home runs, and their 13 combined homers thus far in this postseason are one short of the record for teammates, set in 2002 by Barry Bonds and Rich Aurilia of the Giants. (Similarly, Phillies ace and NLCS MVP Cole Hamels, 24, drafted 15 picks after Upton, has forged his own breakout October. He was 3--0 with a 1.23 ERA entering his start in Game 1 of the World Series, on Wednesday.)