ST. PETERSBURG, FL: Pitcher Jake McGee of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches during a game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The New York Yankees are a team of some renown, having won a number of Major League Baseball's championship tournaments over the last few decades. What's more, a fair number of ex-New Yorkers live in the general vicinity of St. Petersburg, and might be expected to make the modest trek to see their hometown team in the flesh.
The Tampa Bay Rays are of less renown, having once been a perennial laughingstock (but only among the cognoscenti) and still playing in a relatively small region, in terms of population. Still, these particular Rays are a compelling group of young men.
In 2008, these Rays won a huge number of games that nobody expected them to win. After a bit of a letdown, they did that again in 2010. These Rays weren't supposed to win a great number of games in 2011, but after a terrible first week followed by a surge that eventually carried them to first place, the Rays slowly fell out of contention, for either the American League East championship or the American League Wild Card. They seemed well out of the races in late July, and well out of the races in late August. They were just, you know, well out.
As late as the 8th of September, the Rays trailed the first-place New York Yankees by 10½ games and the Wild Card-leading Boston Red Sox by 8 games. At that moment, not even three weeks ago, the Rays had no chance. Well, not no chance. They had Frosty the Snowman's chance in Hell. They had Pee Wee Herman's chance in a cage match with Manny Pacquiao. They had a lab rat's chance against a really hungry python.
That's what the numbers said, anyway. The numbers didn't know the Red Sox would stop winning, and that the Rays would win 11 of their next 18 games.*
* Actually, the numbers would have predicted something close to 11-7, because 11-7 isn't at all out of bounds for a pretty good team, which the Rays were. It's the Red Sox thing that fooled the numbers.
My point being that the Rays entered this season with a three-year history of success. And while their fans' hopes were undoubtedly dashed through much of the summer, the last few weeks have turned a somewhat disappointing season into one of the best stories in the whole wide world of sports; when those New York Yankees arrived in the Tampa Bay Area for this three-game series, the Rays trailed the Wild Card-leading Red Sox by one game.
One measly game. That difference can be made up in three measly hours, and in fact that's exactly what happened Monday night, when the Rays beat the Yankees and the Red Sox lost to the Orioles.
Monday night In St. Petersburg, maybe 18,000 fans were at Tropicana Field to see the Floridian half of that equation.
Tuesday night in St. Petersburg, maybe 20,000 fans were at Tropicana Field to see the Rays retain their share of the Wild Card lead.
I'm torn, when it's between the Red Sox and the Rays. I tend to root for the Red Sox, because I have personal affection for Fenway Park, and also because I have a personal affection for Bill James, who works for the Red Sox. I tend to root for the Rays, because they're a plucky, under-financed operation, and also because I have a personal affection for Jonah Keri, who wrote a book about the Rays.
I want both teams to win, and this week they cannot both win.
All other things being equal, I would probably pull for the Rays. The Red Sox have won World Series; the Rays have not. And of course the Rays are the underdogs, and how can you not pull for the underdogs?
Except I look at those attendance figures, and I wonder how many people actually care about the Tampa Bay Rays. I know that hundreds of thousands of people care passionately about the Red Sox. Yes, they've had their fun in recent years. But from a purely utilitarian standpoint, won't the joy in the universe be significantly greater if the Red Sox win this week? Should the Universe bother to favor a team with so few passionate fans? Should we?
Fortunately, neither the Universe nor the Rays care what we do. If the Red Sox win, I will be pleased for their fans, and for Bill James. If the Rays win, I shall be pleased for their front office, for Jonah Keri, and for their fans.
What few of them might be found.