Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Letting a name and tradition fool you


It's an easy trap to fall into, so I won't laugh at a friend for the text messages he sent me after Boston's wins over Tampa Bay in Game 5 of the ALCS Thursday night and Game 6 Saturday night.

After Boston's improbable 8-7 comeback for the ages Thursday: "Well that sucks that might break the Rays."

During Boston's hotly contested 4-2 win Saturday, when I texted him that I smelled a Game 7: "It will happen and tampa will probably lose which sucks."

My friend wasn't the only one. Without doing a lick of research, I can guarantee you that even with Boston down 3-2 and needing two wins in St. Petersburg, a good portion of this country smelled two Boston wins. I'll bet my house — OK, I don't own a house; but you get the point — that prior to Game 7 Sunday, the majority of America thought Boston had another World Series berth in the bag.

The reasons for these thoughts? It's very simple, actually: name recognition and tradition. In other words, Boston had won two World Series in four seasons; Tampa hadn't sniffed the postseason ... ever. Fenway Park is one of the most recognized sports venues in the country and hundreds of books have been written about the Red Sox; the Rays haven't even been the "Rays" for a year and have only been a franchise for 11 seasons.

To make a bad analogy, you walk into a store to buy a six-pack. On one rack is Samuel Adams (no Boston connection intended). You know what you'd be getting. You've sipped hundreds of SAs over the years. On the other rack is an ale you've only seen at a party yet. You took one from a friend, but you aren't convinced you want to buy it yourself.

You take the Sam Adams simply because of its name and your history of drinking it.

It's a poor call. Just like giving up on the Rays to win the ALCS after their Game 6 loss.

The series went seven games, but the Rays dominated the first six games. There was no arguing that they weren't the better team. Just examine Games 3 through 6, because the first two games — Boston 2-0, Tampa 9-8 in 11 innings — cancel each other out as very tight ballgames.

Tampa dominated Games 3 and 4, both at Fenway, by scores of 9-1 and 13-4. Their hitters owned Boston pitching, sending seven balls out of the park and slamming 27 hits. The big bats in Boston's lineup, primarily David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, were as silent as Red Sox Nation during the blowouts.

We all know what happened in Game 5. The Rays dominated the game for six innings before two big Bostons swings, by Ortiz and , got the Red Sox back into the game after being down 7-0. A couple clutch hits later, Boston had an 8-7 victory.

Game 6 was a close contest throughout, with the most unlikely of home runs by Boston catcher Jason Veritek — his first and only hit of the series — and a Tampa Bay error allowing Boston to turn a 2-2 game into a 4-2 victory. It was a solid victory, closed out by Boston's bullpen, but in no way was it backbreaking. In no way was it a "Don't even bother showing up at the ballpark tomorrow" kind of win.

So the Rays showed up Sunday, loose and confident like they should have been. Of course they couldn't forget what had transpired the previous three days, but hey, they were still a game away from the Fall Classic. That's the attitude the precocious team took, and it worked wonders.

There was never a sense of panic, a whiff of desperation. When asked after Tampa's 3-1 Game 7 victory to "honestly" say whether there was doubt in the clubhouse, winning pitcher Matt Garza said there wasn't. I believe him.

You see, it's one thing when you get lucky in a game or two and squeak out a couple other games to get to a Game 7. In that scenario, it's hard for a team to be completely sure of itself. Living on the edge will do that to you. But entering Game 7, the Rays — have I said this already? — were the better team; they were the superior team during 162 regular-season games, and they were for the first six games of the series.

Still, the money was on Boston because it's, well, "Boston." I can't say I blame people. I'm no betting man, but with my minimal income, it would have been tough to bet on the Rays Sunday.

It happens in all sports all the time. The newcomer to the grand stage is written off — again, and again and again. Never mind that they've proven themselves countless times. Until they win that first championship, people doubt they have the chutzpah to pull it off.

Just look at the Pistons' easy series win over the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. People kept doubting the unfamiliar group of Detroit players, even as they dominated the familiar Lakers. Picking Kobe and Shaq, and their three previous championships, was easier (and, of course, just plain dumb, especially after wins by Detroit in Games 1, 3 and 4).

It occurs in college sports as well. I was inside Michigan Stadium last year when Appalachian State knocked off the mighty Wolverines. Even as the Wildcats led Michigan for most of the game, there was a sense among the Big House faithful that it couldn't possibly happen. That a tiny school from Boone, N.C., couldn't knock off fabled Michigan.

We all know what transpired.

And now the Rays are in the World Series, and anyone who continues to doubt them — regardless of how they fare in the World Series — is a complete nut job.

In fact, barring major offseason developments, anyone who doesn't predict the Rays to repeat as American League East champs next season will be disillusioned as well. With a super young team full of improving starting pitchers and everyday guys who play great defense, run the bases well and have power ... well, this team is here to stay for the long haul.

Oh, and did I mention that the man on the mound for Boston's final four outs Sunday was a kid, 23, who had pitched in a whopping five regular-season games?

Yep, that's right. David Price isn't going anywhere. And neither are most of his teammates.

You can doubt them if you want. Go ahead and pick the older Yankees or Red Sox to win the division next year.

Just know that you'll likely be basing your prediction more on the past than what's actually the case today.

And you probably won't be the only one.

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