Thursday, October 9, 2008

One Devil of a Team


It has become a staple of just about every up-from-nowhere sports movie in history. The lovable losers, having shucked off the past ignominy of playing at a level similar to Ben Affleck’s recent movie career, reach the inevitable Moment of Truth. There, after absorbing repeated body blows, they regroup and carry on to great success.

You saw it in “Major League.” “Major League II.” “Caddyshack.” “Angels in the Outfield.” “Rocky II.” “Rocky III.” “Rocky XVII, Incontinence Island.” And so on. It’s a Hollywood formula designed to produce two-star, sweat-soaked, feel-good pictures you can watch again and again. Okay, so not “Caddyshack II.” That one made “Major League: Back to the Minors” look like “Stagecoach.”

That’s Hollywood for you, serving up pleasing entertainment designed to keep America uplifted and positive, sort of like an arts Miracle Bra. It’s usually doesn’t happen like that in real life. Away from the silver screen, dreams get dashed, quick starts become forgotten fades and Cinderella gets robbed at knifepoint on the way home from the ball.

Back in the heady days of June, when Tampa Bay was enjoying an are-you-kidding-me ride atop the AL East, most sensible observers figured it nothing more than an temporary high, like what happens when you stand up too quickly or an catch an inadvertent smile from the pretty girl who has mistaken you for someone else. You want the real stuff, you go to Keith Richards. Or the Red Sox. Tampa was going to fall all right. Even your esteemed narrator predicted a crash and burn scenario for TB. He even had some fun with the team’s decision to eschew all satanic nickname references. And in early September, when the Lucifer Rays dropped six of seven and saw their lead shrink faster than a guy’s best friend in Arctic waters, you knew what was coming next. Reality was ready to take the final hand. Step aside, boys, and let the Pros from Dover play through.

Only it didn’t happen that way. Tampa took four of six from the Sawx and closed out the AL East, completing one of the most amazing turnarounds in sports history. The Miracle Mets had nothing on these guys. The Mephistopheles Rays were so bad the producers of “Ishtar” laughed at them. Their 10 years of existence were only marginally more successful than the French army’s performance in WWII. The “high water” mark came in 2004, when TB raged to a 70-91 record and finished only 30.5 games out of first. There was bad, Michael Bolton-bad and the Devil Rays. To improve on a franchise’s best mark by 27 wins and to triumph 31 more times than its immediate predecessor is absolutely indescribable. You could convene a meeting of Billy Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, Leo Tolstoy and Joan Rivers and they couldn’t come up with the words to portray the colossal accomplishment of this team. With apologies to Chuck D (Dickens, that is), “It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.”

The Abaddon Rays took things even further in the ALDS, dumping the ChiSox in four and robbing the baseball world of another couple weeks Ozzie Guillen’s comedy stylings. Now, it’s the Carmine Hose in the other dugout, and Tampa Bay can’t possibly win again, can it? Look at this team. Exactly one of its regulars hit better than .286 for the season, and that was the catcher, Dioner Navarro. (Who?!) Only two Satan Rays players hit more than 20 homers. Tampa Bay’s current closer has a save percentage of 72.2%, not exactly a shining Fireman of the Year resume. And have you seen those silly glasses on manager Joe Maddon? Maybe they work at Spago. Maybe. But on the Gulf Coast, they make him look like he’s trying to identify (unsuccessfully) with the younger players. What’s next, Timbaland and T-Pain blasting out of the manager’s office? Talk that s***, indeed.

Then you have the Sawx, with Papi and Youk and Coco and Dice-K. With two Series titles in the last four years. With enough success to turn them from America’s lovable losers and cursed sympathetic heroes into the New Yankees. Really, can anybody outside of New England root for these guys – frontrunners excepted, of course. It’s enough to make you want to hug Hank Steinbrenner. Don’t laugh. Baseball needs his special version of craziness. At some point during his tenure, he’s going to charge into the clubhouse with a loaded gun. You wait and see.

How can the simple, underdog Beelzebub Rays contend with the Nation? Come on, now. We’re talking the Ghost of Bloody Sock Schilling here. The Comeback. Next to all of that, Tampa Bay looks like it’s an American Legion outfit. So, the smart money and even the dumb money is screaming, “PICK BOSTON.” But El Hombre has learned his lesson. He predicted the collapse that never came. Made fun of the Prince of Darkness Rays when praise was in order. Something special is going on down there, and not even the Sawx can spoil it. Boston got a break when it drew the Angels in the ALDS. All it had to do was throw a cap onto the field with that signature “B” embroidered on the front and the whole L.A. team would need to change its uniform pants. Tampa Bay isn’t like that. It won’t back down.

Besides, Josh Beckett is hurting. Mike Lowell is out. And Manny, for all his loutish behavior and malingering, isn’t around, either. The Sawx couldn’t get it done in September against the Satan Rays, and they won’t do it in October, either.

The dream continues: Tampa Bay in Seven.
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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Thanks for stopping by, Cubbies. Since when does the 100th anniversary of anything guarantee you anything? Chicago fans thought they were owed some sort of cosmic reward for their suffering. Instead of getting a world title, they attained an annoying status that rivals that of the Red Sawx – without the championship. Let’s see, that’s two series, two 0-3 losses for Lou Piniella’s team. Nice work…So now T.O is a man of God. Good for him. It was inevitable that he would assume that persona at some point. Wonder if he’ll ever try to be a good teammate, or is that out of the question?…Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin will drop the ceremonial first puck before the Flyers’ home opener against the Rangers, as part of the team’s “Ultimate Hockey Mom” contest. After she drops it, Democrat VP hopeful Joe Biden will enumerate the reasons why he would have held onto it. No word on Tina Fey’s plans for the evening…Things are so bad in Tennessee that fans are actually staying away from Volunteers’ home games. Come on, now, that four-point win over Northern Illinois wasn’t that bad, was it? The good news is that underachieving head coach Phil Fulmer is signed for seven more years at $3 million per. Talk about a lack of financial oversight. Still, there is no truth to the rumor that a couple more losses will convince the school to change its fight song to “Rocky Bottom.”

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Back in 1983, gas cost $1.24, Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, and Joe Morgan and Tony Perez were each about 63 years old. Still, those two geezers led the Phillies through a remarkable September run and an NLCS victory over the Dodgers, with Sarge Matthews riding shotgun in the Cadillac. The two teams get it on 25 years later, and it’s tough to find a discernable difference between them. Both have solid pitching, a good-but-not-great lineup and above-average gloves. The difference will then come down to something off the field, an intangible if you will. Look no further than the dugout, where LA’s Joe Torre matches “wits” with Uncle Charley Manuel. Manuel is known for his ability to keep a team loose, but Torre somehow cured the rift between the old and young players on the Dodgers – and he found a way to keep Manny Ramirez from laying hands on the team’s support staff. The series could come down to a few key moves, and there’s no doubt Torre has an edge in that department. While the Yankees fiddle, Torre leads L.A. into the Series. That may be enough to send Uberfuhrer Steinbrenner to the last roundup and push his idiot son, Colonel Klink, into the Laughing Academy. Dodgers in seven.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Good thing the International Cycling Union relaxed its rules to let Lance Armstrong return early from his “retirement” to continue his self-aggrandizing ways. Those pesky anti-doping safeguards? Don’t worry about ‘em, Lance. Forget the fact that he steadfastly refuses to let previous urine samples be tested by today’s advanced techniques, the better to determine whether Armstrong was doping during his Tour de France title runs, as has been alleged by U.S. cycling legend Greg LeMond and many others in Europe. Let Armstrong ride and flaunt the rules, all the while doing nothing to help a sport that has been ravaged by scandal. Armstrong will get his new dose of fame, but he had better be careful, because the world’s anti-doping forces are more vigilant than ever.


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