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Four times since 2000 baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been summoned to Washington to testify before lawmakers on the biggest perceived threats to the game: competitive imbalance and performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball, went the Beltway wisdom, owed its fans a labor climate in which the same big spenders didn't win all the titles, and it owed them a tough antidrug policy that would restore trust in the players and their statistics. ¶ The result of baseball's effort to comply was on display last Saturday night in Philadelphia, where the World Series--already assured of crowning an eighth different champion in nine seasons--returned for the first time in 15 years. Neither the interloping Phillies nor the Tampa Bay Rays had been to the Fall Classic since the six-division format began in 1994. Their surprise entries capped a season in which no major leaguers tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and the rate of home runs dropped to its lowest level since '93. For Selig, the biggest controversies related to the use of instant replay, the dangers posed by splintered maple bats and, most recently, the near-disaster of Game 5, in which only a Carlos Peña single spared the commissioner the embarrassment of ordering the first 24-hour rain delay in World Series history.
Yet this is what happened when the Phillies and the Rays played a suspenseful version--Saturday's Game 3 was decided, in the best of boyhood backyard dreams, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth--of this postmodern game in October: Almost nobody watched. Doubtless harmed by a pregame rain delay of 91 minutes, Game 3 attracted the smallest viewing audience by nearly 25% since Nielsen started tracking the World Series in 1968.
Wasn't this the tidied-up kind of baseball the public had wanted? Well, yes, if you also believe that most people really prefer veggie burgers to bacon double cheeseburgers. Without the heavily financed teams or heavily muscled galoots, here's what remained: an entertaining symposium on the state of the game and where it's going. Philadelphia and, in particular, Tampa Bay proved that no team is too far from the World Series, so long as it is stocked with young pitching and athleticism.
"If you appreciate the game," said 45-year-old Phillies lefthander Jamie Moyer after Game 3, "you appreciate this Series. But I don't know if our society likes it this way. Our society likes the five-run homer and the 10-run game."
Added Rays manager Joe Maddon, "I think the game has been heading this way for the last couple of years. And to be honest with you, that change allowed us to get where we are. The style we play is where the game is now and where it's going."
Philadelphia, however, was clearly better at this new brand of baseball than Tampa Bay over the Series' first four games. And what says new paradigm better than a crown for Philly, a city that, entering the Series, had been 0 for 99 in professional championships since the 76ers won the NBA title in 1983? Ringless since 1980, the Phillies moved through the postseason's first three weeks with such ease that their fans seemed to throw off their notorious inferiority complex. Optimistic Phillies fans? Oh, my, this really is a new paradigm.
"You can see the excitement, the passion, the sheer joy on people's faces," Phillies infielder Greg Dobbs said on Sunday after his team's 10-2 victory in Game 4. "These people have embraced this team. We can see it driving home after games. If we lose, it's not, 'Oh, boo. You suck.' None of that. After we lose, they're eager to pick us up and say, 'Get 'em tomorrow. We're not worried.' "
The Phils helped flip the Philadelphia story by winning back-to-back National League East titles despite being seven games out with 17 games to play last year and 3 1⁄2 games out with 16 to play this year. The karma is so good that the team went nine games over 33 days without losing at home. Such success for a suffering city dovetails with some cosmic pay-it-backward force that has been at work in baseball ever since Selig told a Senate judiciary committee in 2000 that too many franchises were bereft of "hope and faith." In a five-year stretch the 2002 Angels (42 years), '04 Red Sox (86 years), '05 White Sox (88 years) and '06 Cardinals (24 years) won titles that were a generation or more in the making.
You got an inkling of what a baseball championship means to Philadelphia when country singer Tim McGraw reached into his back pocket during the pregame ceremony at Citizens Bank Ballpark before Game 3. McGraw is the son of the late Tug McGraw, the joyful reliever who closed the 1980 Phillies' championship. Tim produced some of his father's ashes and scattered them on the mound. You gotta bereave? Not anymore, it appeared.
These un-Phillies were built around a homegrown core: leftfielder Pat Burrell, 32; shortstop Jimmy Rollins, 29; second baseman Chase Utley, 29; catcher Carlos Ruiz, 29; first baseman Ryan Howard, 28; setup reliever Ryan Madson, 28; starting pitcher Brett Myers, 28; and lefthanded ace Cole Hamels, 24. (Centerfielder Shane Victorino, 27, was plucked from the Dodgers' system at 24.) All of those players except Burrell remain under contract through at least next season.