Which would be bad enough, but this Series is special. Ptomaine poisoning or Michael Brown special. Everything regrettable, pernicious and just plain bad about the modern edition of Major League Baseball is front and center in this series.
We can start with House. The Fox medical drama in which Hugh Laurie chews more scenery than an army of sadistic termites has become a ratings blockbuster for Murdoch's boys, and Fox doesn't want anything to interfere with it. Like, for example, the World Series.
So, on Saturday night, as a cold, blustery storm nailed eastern Pennsylvania, the Phillies and the Rays, and their fans, waited and waited and waited to play. Why not just postpone the game and take advantage of a forecast for dry weather after Saturday night? Because, then the two teams would have to play on Tuesday (scheduled as an off day), thus pre-empting House.
Unless the ballpark actually floated away down Broad Street, Major League Baseball and Fox were bound and determined to get the game played. It finally started at 9:30 p.m. Eastern and ended as the little hand crept towards the 2. And even at that, Baseball got lucky: The game was actually tied for a while in the ninth and could have gone into extra innings, until 3:00, even 4:00 in the morning. Few fans at the game fell asleep, because it was too cold and wet and miserable, but you can bet just about everybody watching at home did well before the dénouement.
The rain delay only highlighted the ongoing absurdity of television forcing World Series games into an 8:30 Eastern timeslot so as to maximize revenue with a half-hour prime time "warm-up" show heavily laden with commercials. Because of this, hardly any of the games end before 11:30, and many go much later. Hey, if no one's around to see the end of the most important games of the year, it's no skin off their nose as long as there are plenty of eyes glued to those commercials at 8:15. Viva Viagra, y'all!
"Warm up" — hey, that reminds me: About half of the teams in Major League Baseball play in cities that can reasonably be expected to have weather issues in late October. That's another problem with starting the games so late (and all at night, even on the weekends): It's just plain bad for the players and the fans.
But I complain about that every year. Let's get to the stuff that's made this Series unique.
You have to start with the umpiring, which has been astonishing, the kind of work that would make Tim Donaghy squeal with outrage at the terribleness of it all. Not one, not two, not three, but four different umpires have made terrible calls or had awful games:
• On a 3-2 pitch in Game Two, home plate umpire Kerwin Danley rung up a batter on strike three swinging, but then bizarrely allowed an appeal to first base, where the first base umpire reversed Danley's call, causing the batter to walk instead of strike out. This has never happened in the thousands of games I've seen because it's against the rules: If the home plate umpire calls a swing, that's it. Play over. It's the kind of mistake a high school umpire would be embarrassed to make. Danley later told the press that he actually called the pitch a ball and could see how the gesture he made to accompany that call could be "misinterpreted." Yeah, I can see that too, because the gesture he made is the exact same one he uses to, uh, call strikes. Danley's explanation was so lame that Colin Powell would have refused to take it to the U.N.
• Fieldin Culbreth was behind the plate in Game Three, much to the delight, as it turned out, of veteran Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer. Culbreth, as Fox Trax and an overhead camera plainly showed, consistently gave Moyer strikes on pitches that were two, three, even four inches off the plate — kind of a welfare program for aging pitchers. (Moyer is 45, the second-oldest pitcher ever to appear in a World Series.) Moyer makes his substantial living pitching on guile, and he went to town with this huge advantage and mostly shut down the Rays. Culbreth's zone was so wide that Moyer actually tipped his cap to Culbreth when Moyer left the game in the seventh inning. He doubtless meant it as a friendly gesture, but I can't think of anything more insulting to the professionalism of an umpire or referee.
• Every World Series, if it's going to be memorable, needs a signature fielding play. Think Brooks Robinson in the '60s or Joe Rudi in the '70s. This Series actually had one, too, but a blown call by first base umpire Tom Hallion turned it away from a lifetime residence on highlight reels and relegated it to a soon-to-be-forgotten footnote. On a ball hit down the first base line in the early innings of Game Three, Moyer dived and made the split-second — and correct — decision that the only way he could make the play was to shovel the ball with his glove towards first. He was airborne and horizontal when he made the choice and yet somehow successfully got the ball headed toward Ryan Howard at first base. Howard could have reached across his body and taken the ball in his glove, but he also made a split-second — and correct — decision that the runner would be safe if he did that, so he reached out with his bare hand, snagged the ball and held onto it. An unbelievable play on both ends. Runner out by half a step. Hallion called the runner safe.
• The Phillies began Game Four with a major threat, putting runners on the corners with nobody out against Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine, but Sonnanstine got a huge break: a chopper back to the mound. He chased the runner back to third, threw the ball there to Evan Longoria covering, who made the tag to retire the runner. Except Tim Welke called the runner safe despite watching the tag from no more than a couple of feet away. Welke's blown call loaded the bases, and even the Phillies, who have specialized in this series in blown opportunities, couldn't miss this one, took the lead, and never looked back.
As terrible as the umpires have looked, the players have looked worse, and none more so than the best players on both teams.
On the Rays, there's Longoria, Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton. Longoria and Pena are still looking for their first hit. Upton has a handful of singles. On the Phillies, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard are the difference makers, but they've only played up to their star billing in one game, and much of their damage came after the game was out of hand.
Maybe, you know, it's just that good pitching beats good hitting. That's one of baseball's hoariest sayings, but there's scant evidence of it in this series. The Tampa Bay pitchers, in particular, have had a couple of amazing lapses in concentration, allowing Carlos Ruiz (one of the worst hitters in the major leagues) and pitcher Joe Blanton (one hit all year) to take them out of the park. Of the Tampa Bay starters, Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir of the Rays were all over the place, and Sonnanstine got bombed. Only "Big Game James" Shields has come through for the Rays. On the Philly side, Hamels was fantastic, but Brett Myers was mediocre, and Moyer couldn't get out of Game Three's seventh inning despite all the help from Culbreth and Blanton's unusually high number of strikeouts was obviously attributable to a big lead, a cold night, and frustrated and overanxious Rays hitters. And for Blanton, it bolsters the reputation he gained at his time with Oakland A's as a front runner: If you give him a lead, great, but you don't want him anywhere near a tight game.
Which brings up one of the most truly bizarre statistics in modern baseball history: Forty-six Phillies have come to the plate in this series with runners on second, third or both. Forty-six with runners in scoring position (RISP, for you statheads). Only six of them have managed to collect a hit — a .130 average — a record of futility that is virtually unmatched in the history of the sport. Six hits — Of the five that actually produced a run, one was the accidental, swinging bunt by Ruiz that traveled about forty feet and won Game Three.
And that is perhaps the biggest black mark in this series, against a Phillies team that is setting new standards for trying to bat with their hands wrapped firmly around their own throats. The bumbling Rays (five errors and three unearned runs in four games, by the way) are down three games to one and facing elimination.
Against this backdrop of incompetence, little has been said about managers Charlie Manuel of Philadelphia and Joe Madden of Tampa Bay, but the two have made some of the more bizarre bullpen decisions you'll see in Major League play. For Manuel, the decision to use J.C. Romero — one of the toughest relievers in baseball this year — in the tight Game Three was a no-brainer. But why on earth would he then use Romero to pitch the ninth inning of Game Four with a 10-2 lead, thus rendering Romero's availability and effectiveness a question mark for Game Five?
Madden is the kind of manager who obviously likes to ride a hot hand, but his reliance on kid lefty David Price, the hero of Game Seven of the ALCS against Boston, has reached ludicrous extremes: Madden was planning on leaving Price in to face Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell in the ninth inning of Game Two despite Burrell's predilection for dismembering left-handed pitchers while struggling against right-handers. There isn't a manager besides Madden in all of baseball who'd do that, I think. Madden also used Grant Balfour, the Australian hothead, to pitch the ninth inning of Game Three with disastrous results: Balfour can barely handle the intensity of being out there in the sixth or seventh; having him pitch the ninth inning of a tie game was a huge mistake. Balfour's inability to control himself or his pitches ended up costing the Rays the game.
The series can still end up a memorable one: If the Rays somehow beat Hamels, and if the last two games in St. Petersburg, Fla., are tight and well-played, the garbage from the first four games will be forgotten. That's baseball, too: a team can look awful for a few days, and unbeatable for a few days. But, as Bob Dylan put it, "I don't think it's liable to happen/Like the sound of one hand clappin'". And it would belie the identity of 2008's World Series: the worst one ever.