THE RAMBUNCTIOUS Tampa Bay Rays have been a baseball team for 10 years and have never made the playoffs until now. Never even won half their games. Now they're the home team in the opening stand of the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. And what about those Phillies? The city of Philadelphia has gone a combined 100 seasons without a championship, if you add up the last 25 generally heartbreaking years for the Phillies, Eagles, 76ers and Flyers—easily the longest wait ever for any big-time, four-team sports town. Think anybody in Citizens Bank Park is hungry?
That's the good part of baseball's New Reality, not to be confused with the soured economy's so-called New Reality, the one that has middle-class Americans dumbfounded by whimpering bankers and begging insurance companies. Think anybody with a 401(k) is angry?
These are treacherous times for sports franchises built on corporately held, tax-deductible, entertainment-expensed luxury boxes, stadium-naming rights and debt-financed billion-dollar stadiums. What if free-agent athletes keep raising the salary bar? (Hi, Manny.) Better hope the television networks continue to money-whip Major League Baseball for the most attractive programming rights.
Any way you cut it up, fans are being asked to pay substantially more just to walk into a stadium or arena. Ditto the price of parking, hot dogs and souvenirs (and sushi if you live in Seattle). Ticket prices have been bumping upward for a decade, especially for the best seats. Which brings us to another reason to like the young Tampa Bay Rays. A 2008 season ticket for the Home Plate Club in the American League champion Rays' Tropicana Field cost $12,000; a seat in the row behind home plate at the new $1.3 billion Yankee Stadium will be $2,500 per game or $202,500 for the season. In other words, the price of five games in the Bronx is slightly more than the price of 81 games in St. Petersburg.
The Yankees have always had a knack for annoying people, especially when it comes to judgment about middle relief ... and premium waiter service. So it is no doubt good for baseball that they played themselves out of the postseason this year and that the almost heroic Red Sox are now "picking out Halloween costumes," as Boston manager Terry Francona put it at a press conference.
The new economic nightmares aside, 2008 has been shaping up as one of the best sports years ever. The Super Bowl came down to the final play. Kansas hit a desperation three-pointer to send the NCAA championship game into overtime and then beat Memphis. The Celtics restored themselves. Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open on a throbbing knee. Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in the greatest match in Wimbledon (and arguably tennis) history. The Beijing Olympics came through with Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. And now the once feckless Rays and the righteous Phillies are in the World Series.
It's about time, no matter who wins.
These are treacherous times for teams built on tax-deductible luxury boxes and debt-financed billion-dollar stadiums
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER