Commentary

Five reasons to embrace Phillies-Rays matchup

Updated: October 22, 2008, 8:37 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

You'll be living in a dreadlock-free zone when you watch the 2008 World Series.

You won't be shocked to learn that Joe Torre no longer manages the New York Yankees when you watch the 2008 World Series.

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And we can pretty much guarantee that you won't have to witness a single freeze-frame of Ben Affleck, Stephen King, Tommy Lasorda or Barbra Streisand writhing in those box seats when you watch the 2008 World Series.

Yes, friends, you can thank the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies for freeing you from the torture of all that stuff.

Apparently, the Rays and Phillies never did get the official October script of the MLB marketing department in the mail -- the script that was supposed to bring Manny Ramirez back to Fenway Park for a Dodgers-Red Sox World Series that would outrate all the "CSI" shows put together.

Well, you know what? Who the heck cares -- outside of every resident of New England, the 213 area code and the Fox bean-counters department?

We're here to reassure you that you don't need Manny, Joe, Fenway, Chavez Ravine or nostalgic flashbacks to bloody socks, Kirk Gibson or tearful Brooklynites to have a great World Series.

Heck, no. Rays-Phillies has a chance to be a great World Series. And we'd like to prove it -- by presenting five reasons Rays-Phillies is a better story than Sox-Dodgers:

Reason No. 1: Fresh faces

OK, so Manny used to play for the Red Sox, and he's really, really good at being Manny. We get that. We've heard that. We don't need to hear it another 1.8 quadrillion times to make this World Series worth watching.

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesCole Hamels, 24, will start Game 1 for the Phillies.
We always thought the best story lines were the freshest story lines. We always thought the best part of being a sports fan was the joy of discovery -- that first time you laid eyes on the rising stars and franchises who were redefining their sport in front of your eyes.

Think Josh Beckett. Think K-Rod. Think Derek Jeter, for that matter. It wasn't so long ago that the big October stage introduced those guys to America. And how'd those fellows turn out?

So this World Series is about Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and David Price. It's about Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard. Every one of those men is a charismatic, jump-off-your-flat-screen talent whose run of glory will last for years. Many years.

If you can't get your pulse racing over the chance to watch those guys put on a show for a week, you must be one of those people who thinks it's more entertaining to flip to the stock channels and watch your retirement portfolio blow up for another week.

Reason No. 2: Do you believe in miracles?

Here's a warning for you: At no point in the next week will we allow anyone we know to utter the phrase, "Nobody wants to watch the frigging Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series." Or any variation thereof.

Rays through the years

YEAR RECORD GB
2008 97-65 --
2007 66-96 30
2006 61-101 36
2005 67-95 28
2004 70-91 30.5
2003 63-99 38
2002 55-106 48
2001 62-100 34
2000 69-92 18
1999 69-93 29
1998 63-99 51
Don't even try it. Don't even think it. Because if you even think it, you're missing the point.

Don't you understand what's happening here?

The Greatest Team Turnaround Story in the History of Modern Sports.

That's what.

The Rays are not just another plucky little underdog team that sneaked into the World Series, friends. They're an official sporting miracle.

For the first 10 years of their existence, they were a joke, a disaster, a train wreck. They weren't merely the losingest team in baseball. Only six other teams were within 100 losses of them.

The greatest season in the history of their franchise had been a year during which they lost 92 games -- and sprayed champagne after their 70th win. Seriously.

Exactly one year ago, they had the worst record in baseball. The very worst. Now, they're in the World Series. Amazing.

Suppose they win it. You may be wondering: How many teams in any of the four major pro sports have had the worst record in their sport one year and won the championship of their sport the next year?

That answer is none. Zero. Nada. And only one other team since the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration has even played for a title in any of those sports -- the 1991 Braves.

So you could be witnessing something 100 percent unprecedented here -- an underdog tale for the ages. And since when did America not get wrapped up in a great underdog tale -- let alone the greatest underdog tale in Don Zimmer's lifetime?

If you don't care about this team's fate, you don't deserve to call yourself a sports fan.

Reason No. 3: The city that never celebrates

In Philadelphia, they're growing a little tired of hearing about how the poor, downtrodden, cursified Chicago Cubs never win. In Philadelphia, you see, nobody ever wins.

Phillies' World Series history

YEAR OPPONENT OUTCOME
1993 Toronto Blue Jays L 4-2
1983 Baltimore Orioles L 4-1
1980 Kansas City Royals W 4-2
1950 NY Yankees L 4-0
1915 Boston Red Sox L 4-1
You would think it would be just about impossible for a city to run teams out there in all four major pro sports for an entire quarter-century and not have one of them win some kind of championship, let alone do it in the fourth-largest TV market in America.

But that's the sad story of Philadelphia, the United States' most parade-free city since 1983.

So this World Series is a chance to set these people free so they can toss around a little ticker tape, cancel their psychiatrist appointments and move on to a brighter tomorrow, with smiles on their faces and cheesesteaks on their plates -- forever and ever. Or at least until the next time the Eagles get stuffed on fourth-and-goal.

But this isn't just about all those teams. It's about this Phillies team. The losingest team in the history of any sport. A team with a sad, star-crossed, angst-laden history that is shockingly overlooked by baseball fans everywhere.

This is the Phillies' 126th season on Earth. They've won one World Series. That's one fewer than the Cubs have won. That's three fewer than that team across the state, the Pirates, have won. Sheez, that's even one fewer than the Marlins and Blue Jays have won.

That pall has hung over this franchise for a whole disastrous century, a century so messy that all Philadelphians know way more about Joe Carter, 1964 and Black Friday than they do about, say, their kids' report cards.

But this Phillies team seems different somehow. It's a group that keeps talking about raising the bar, changing mindsets and rewriting the sorriest history in sports. So explain to us why this isn't just as compelling a story as the Cubs' trying to undo their own sorry history.

It's missing ivy, billy goats and that fun little round number, 100. We get that. But other than that, it's pretty much the same tale of woe, heartbreak and misfortune. And what does America love more than a good tale of woe, heartbreak and misfortune?

Reason No. 4: The managers

Terry Francona and Joe Torre are fine fellows. We know them well. We've seen them in action. And for those of us who write about baseball for a living, we've spent more time in October with them lately than with our wives, our kids, our pets and our house plants put together.

Joe Maddon

Maddon

Manager
Tampa Bay Rays

Profile

Managerial Career
YR TEAM W-L PCT. DIV
2008 Rays 97-65 .599 1st
2007 Rays 66-96 .407 5th
2006 Rays 61-101 .377 5th
1999 Angels 19-10 .655 --
1996 Angels 8-14 .364 --
But we need to prove that it's safe to have a World Series without those two familiar faces in a dugout near us. So it's time to move on. To Joe Maddon. To Charlie Manuel. To two men who don't fit any kind of mold. Not as managers. Not as men.

We need to retell the story of why Maddon wears that No. 70 on his uniform (because he knows that nobody who plays for him will ever try to steal it from him).

We need to know more about a man who is so at home in his own skin, he wears glasses with rims thicker than Akinori Iwamura's bat.

And we definitely need to know more about a man who might be the only manager in history to refer to a strike zone as "amorphous," who casually quotes everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Meat Loaf and who is always a threat to issue an intentional walk to, say, Ryan Howard with the bases loaded.

But we also need to spend more time re-examining the countrified genius of Charlie Manuel.

Charlie Manuel

Manuel

Manager
Philadelphia Phillies

Profile

Managerial Career
YR TEAM W-L PCT. DIV
2008 Phillies 92-70 .568 1st
2007 Phillies 89-73 .549 1st
2006 Phillies 85-77 .525 2nd
2005 Phillies 87-74 .540 2nd
2002 Indians 39-48 .448 3rd
2001 Indians 92-70 .568 1st
2000 Indians 90-72 .556 2nd
For two years, his own town looked at him as some kind of goofy bumpkin who couldn't possibly know what he was doing, just because he didn't exactly orate like Sir John Gielgud and definitely didn't talk like anybody from Kensington.

Now we find those same people sitting in the seats of Citizens Bank Park, chanting Charlie Manuel's name when he allows his players to celebrate on the field without him.

Now those same people seem to understand that managing is about handling human beings, not mastering the double-switch.

Now those same people have come to admire a man who found the strength to manage an October baseball game on the same day he lost his biggest fan, his mother.

Charlie Manuel. Joe Maddon. These are two of the most refreshing personalities in any dugout. Just keep your dictionaries handy during those postgame news conferences.

Reason No. 5: The ballparks

There's only one Fenway. There's only one Dodger Stadium. We'll just have to scrape through this World Series without them. And that's OK.

Like Fenway and like Chavez Ravine, Citizens Bank Park and Tropicana Field have a chance to put their own inimitable stamp on this World Series. And there's no telling how much fun that might be.

Citizens Bank Park is one of America's most beautiful new ballparks. The Trop is, well, America's most unusual ballpark.

What goes up in this park might not ever be found again.

--Cliff Floyd about Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field

The Bank is one of the most-talked-about parks in baseball, if only because of the widely exaggerated notion that it's such a hitters' paradise that it makes Coors Field look like Petco Park. Eh, not quite. In fact, the Bank ranked as only the 11th-easiest park to hit a home run in this season -- behind even (we kid you not) Comerica Park and Shea Stadium.

Nevertheless, it's a park that freaks out visiting pitchers everywhere. And it definitely changed the face of Game 1 of the NLCS, when the Phillies launched two game-turning home runs off Derek Lowe that would have been outs in 75 percent of the other parks in America -- including Dodger Stadium. So it will be fun to see how the Rays' staff enjoys the view of baseballs plopping into those petunia beds.

The Trop, meanwhile, is our largest, finest baseball pinball parlor -- with its one-of-a-kind turf/dirt combo, its outfield manta rays tank and its always-entertaining catwalks collection.

No park in the history of October has ever had more reachable, dangling, overhead obstacles than Tropicana Field. So we can't wait to see how one of those pesky catwalks might change this World Series.

In fact, the Trop presents us with a possibility never before witnessed in any World Series -- the possibility that the final ball hit in this Series could go up and never come down.

That's a concept Sir Isaac Newton never saw coming. But no one ever told him that the Trop was the one place on baseball's earth where the law of gravity has apparently been repealed.

We observed to the Rays' Cliff Floyd last month that we'd always thought that what goes up is supposed to come down.

"Tell you what," he replied. "What goes up in this park might not ever be found again."

And if that isn't enough reason to watch the 2008 World Series, what the heck is?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com