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Phillies fans are deserving of title

October 23, 2008|Mike Bianchi | Bianchi is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — There is no denying the Tampa Bay Rays are the more inspirational story of this World Series. They are young, carefree and charismatic, and trying to spin one of the greatest rags-to-riches tales in sports history.

But deep down -- if you have any sense of what is right and just -- you must acknowledge their fans do not deserve this euphoric, historic joyride into America's heart. If indeed there are any baseball gods up there in That Big Luxury Suite in the Sky, they are looking down and declaring fanatical Philadelphia fans to be much more worthy of a championship than are the bandwagon boosters of the Rays.

Phillies fans have been aching and agonizing for 28 years to win a championship; Rays fans have been waiting for about a week and a half.

"The World Series is just fun and games for Rays fans," says A.J. Tyler, a lifelong Phillies fan who moved to Florida last year. "For us, it's life and death."

Tyler is standing outside Tropicana Field on Wednesday trying to buy tickets to Game 1. He shakes his head with disgust when two Tampa Bay fans walk by wearing multi-colored "Rayhawk" hairdos. "I hope they don't plan on coming to any games in Philly looking like that," he sneers.

Tyler is obviously old-school. He thinks fans, real fans, should have to suffer along with their team for at least a few years. He thinks you should have to cry in your beer before you taste the champagne.

The closest comparison to Rays fans I can come up with are Magic fans back in 1995, when Orlando won the Eastern Conference to advance into the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets. One of the fans at Amway Arena that night held up a sign that said, "Finally!"

Yes, Magic fans had suffered through six whole years of hitting the lottery and winning divisions before they "finally" got to play for a championship. But at least Orlando fans packed the arena in the early years, unlike Rays fans who have virtually ignored baseball for a decade -- until the playoffs began a few weeks ago.

While the Rays as a franchise have suffered through 10 consecutive losing seasons, it's not as if their fans were there with them every step of the way. Motto of Rays fans: "We've been with you since the beginning -- the beginning of September."

One of the most glaring examples of fan apathy came in early September, after the Rays traveled to Chicago and won a huge series with the White Sox. When the conquering heroes returned home, they were greeted by a 36,000-seat stadium that was two-thirds empty.

"We were disappointed because we were in first place and we're beating the Yankees, the Red Sox, the whole American League East, and we're wondering why the fans aren't coming out," James Shields, the Rays' Game 2 starter, acknowledges.

Here's all you need to know about the two sets of fans in this World Series: The Rays, despite one of the most remarkable comeback seasons in sports history, drew only half as many fans (1.7 million) as the Phillies (3.4 million). The Rays finished with the fourth-worst attendance in the league; the Phillies finished with the fifth-best.

If Rays players ever stood up at a pre-World Series news conference and claimed they wanted to win a championship for their long-suffering fan base, they'd get laughed off the podium. But when the Phillies coaches and players said it Wednesday, you could tell they meant it.

"We owe it to ourselves, but we sort of feel like we owe it to the city too," Phillies Game 2 pitcher Brett Myers said.

The last time Philadelphia won a championship of any kind was in 1983, when Dr. J. and Moses Malone led the 76ers to a sweep of the Lakers. No other city with four major team sports -- football, baseball, basketball and hockey -- has ever gone 25 years without a championship.

Says Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel: "Our fans love baseball and they've been starving for a championship for a long time."

So, too, have Rays fans.

They've been hoping and dreaming for this moment ever since last week.

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