Tampa Bay Obamas vs. Philadelphia McCains

    The World Series has finally arrived and, contrary to popular opinion, Manny Ramirez neither plays for nor has played for either of the two teams. While a nation of Dodgers and Red Sox bandwagon fans aimlessly wanders, waiting to purchase either a new Evan Longoria or Chase Utley jersey, the Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies now enter the final stage of the MLB playoffs.

    Watching the Rays rip up what looked to be another miraculous Red Sox comeback en route to their third World Series title in the last three years, many found comparisons of this squad to previous out-of-nowhere contenders. The Rays’ worst-to-first approach seemed to rival that of the legendary 1969 New York Mets, or maybe a fellow Floridian expansion team like the 1997 Marlins, or possibly what they were displaying was the hustle and tenacity of a team like the 2002 Angels. However, as we enter the final weeks of election season, maybe the best comparison for the Rays and fellow World Series participant the Phillies is to the two major-party (sorry, Ralph Nader) presidential candidates.

    The youth and energy the Rays have displayed, downing battle-tested division opponents in the New York Yankees and the Red Sox to take the AL East crown, mirrors the surge that Sen. Barack Obama exhibited in passing former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards and former-first-lady-turned-politician Hillary Clinton in winning the Democratic nomination for president. The Philadelphia Phillies, like Sen. John McCain, also looked to be out of the race early on, lacking any of the big moves that divisional foes the Mets made in acquiring Johan Santana, or that Republican rival Mitt Romney made by harnessing the power of his magical underpants. Still, the Phillies were able to use the experience from passing the Mets at the wire last year and then took it a step further by not settling for a playoff appearance and riding three Cole Hamels victories to the World Series. McCain similarly relied on his experience from having faced off with President George W. Bush in 2000 to make it to the top of the Republican heap, rather than settle for the grating “graceful loser” role again.

    Obama and the Rays share a tendency for overusing phrases that really don’t make that much sense. In the case of the Rays, “nine equals eight” might sound nice with nine players, playing nine innings to get one of the eight playoff spots, but the education of young Tampa Bay fans (I’m sure they got some this season) is being put at serious risk. Obama’s platform of “change you can believe in” would work, since there is definitely change we can’t believe in.

    However, there is serious doubt that this politician, no matter how long he’s been out of Washington, will truly change the entire American political system as we know it.

    McCain and the Phillies both exhibit a straightforward, undeniable anger that can be uplifting — or unsettling — to their base. For the Philadelphia Phillies, Jimmy Rollins went the unsettling route when — while calling it how he saw it — the former MVP said that Philadelphia fans were a little bit fair-weather. While most sports fans would agree with this assessment, and add that Philadelphia fans are also kind of jerks and smell like wet garbage, it’s usually not a great idea to insult the people you want cheering for you. McCain’s anger has shown through during screaming matches with the press on his “Straight-Talk Express” (and “Air Straight-Talk”), debates with his opponents and whenever he sees youngsters using that damned text-messaging contraption.

    The comparisons might also extend to the teams’ managers and the candidates’ running mates. Rays skipper Joe Maddon and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden, in addition to sharing the greatest first name ever, share a wealth of experience in their respective fields. Furthermore, both seem to disregard their previous experience, Maddon with the Angels, Biden in the Senate and from previously running for president, because of decisions or speeches that seem a little off. On the other side, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and Republican vice-presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin are both … sexy?

    All right, so that might be where the comparisons end. The World Series will definitely not get the same ratings as the debates or even recent “Saturday Night Live” episodes, and that’s not a bad thing. Choosing the next leader for our country probably deserves a little more attention than who will become the next baseball team to visit that leader.

    Nonetheless, the Rays vs. Phillies is a World Series worth cheering for. It shows that a team in Tampa Bay with the 29th-lowest payroll and a team in Philadelphia that chose not to compete in acquiring players with other big market opponents can both make it to the final stages of the MLB season.

    Truthfully, baseball has proven time and again that there is no magical formula to winning a championship. Getting hot at the right time can carry you far, and then a great pitching performance or an offensive exhibition on the other side can end your momentum in a heartbeat. Few would have predicted that these teams would meet in the end, even as the playoffs began, and anyone who thought the Rays would make it this far at the start of the season is a liar. Still, both teams have been able to overcome flashier squads, higher payrolls and better stories to make it here.

    The Phillies have a dominant offense, even with Ryan Howard struggling thus far through the postseason. If Howard, Rollins, Utley and Pat Burrell all heat up in the next week, all the facial hair in the world won’t save Matt Garza. Though no pitcher is dumb enough to throw Matt Stairs the only pitch he is physically able to hit again (thanks Jonathon Broxton), the Phillies nonetheless have found great value in pieces like Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino that other teams thought they could survive without. Cole Hamels is the only legitimate ace in this entire series and has the ability to put together a Josh Beckett or Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling-esque performance to single-handedly keep his team alive. Unfortunately, Brett Myers is nowhere near as reliable and Jamie Moyer is so old that Moyer has probably already written down any “Jamie Moyer is so old” jokes that I could insert here in his papyrus notebook.

    The Rays lack any bona fide offensive superstar, though Longoria looks like the Next Big Thing and BJ Upton has nearly matched his season home-run total (nine) with an AL record-tying seven in the playoffs. The Rays also rely on a staunch defense, with Akinori Iwamura making what has been a mostly seamless transition in his first season as a second-baseman and Carl Crawford, Upton and the rotation of Fernando Perez, Gabe Gross and Rocco Baldelli adding up to one of the fastest, though sometimes mistake-prone, outfields ever. Scott Kazmir is looked to as the leader of the pitching staff, and though he hasn’t gone deep in a game since July, it was only after he was pulled that Boston was able to produce anything in their miraculous game-five comeback. James Shields has been better overall during the season and Garza made the Rays trade of Delmon Young look even better with his MVP performance in the ALCS.

    The matchup looks — on paper at least — like it should break the monotony of recent World Series sweeps. The Phillies bullpen looks in better shape, with Brad Lidge and his “bridge” of relievers providing experience. The Rays, on the other hand, have had a shaky bullpen at best. Yet, David Price gave fans of other AL teams reason to worry for years to come with his relief performance in game seven against Boston. If Maddon elects to send Price out there more and ignore Dan Wheeler, the Rays have a tough, if untested, relief corps. The delay that the Phillies had to endure might end up making a difference, as it did for halting the Rockies’ surge last season. While most sports enjoy extra time to heal, sitting for a week might mess with the Phillies’ momentum and lead to a slow start from Hamels. It’s a crazy proposition to think the Rays could really win the World Series, but in this election season, it looks like the youth vote has it.

    Joe goes with: Rays in six, Obama in ’08.

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