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Surprise! Few saw Rays, Phillies coming

I was here for the first game in the history of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. I've never seen a baseball game in Tropicana Field since. That will change come Wednesday night, when the Rays (minus the Devil) meet the Philadelphia Phillies in Game One of the World Series. What an odd cycle.

The first game was on March 31, 1998 against the Detroit Tigers. The Devil Rays were down, 11-0, before they scored in the sixth on a home run by future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and eventually lost, 11-6. It was the first of 99 defeats that year and opened a run of 10 straight seasons with at least 90 losses.

The Rays are the closest thing baseball has ever had to the '69 Amazin' Mets, a team with a woebegone past that's never even had a winning season now thrust on to the game's biggest stage. But the Phillies have their own problems. They've been around for 126 years and have exactly one championship (1980). So they don't want to hear about Rays' (or Cubs') fans gripes.

The Rays are here in their first trip to the playoffs, just like the '84 Padres, '97 Marlins and '01 Diamondbacks. The Phillies' appearance, meanwhile, makes it 10 National League teams in the last 11 years.

Starting in '98, the NL has been represented by the Padres, Braves, Mets, Diamondbacks, Giants, Marlins, Cardinals, Astros, Cardinals (the only repeat), Rockies and now the Phillies. That's parity even the NFL has to envy.

If you've been paying attention at Dunn Tire Park since the Bisons rejoined the International League in 1998, you probably shouldn't be surprised at this matchup.

Six times from 1998-2004, the Bisons played a playoff series against either the Durham Bulls or Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons. Triple-A clubs of which parents? Yep, the (then-Devil) Rays and Phillies.

Durham, in fact, made the IL playoffs every year from 1998-2005 and it was hard to figure why that didn't translate to success at the big-league level. The answer largely was pitching. We saw all the great prospects at the plate like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Rocco Baldelli but the Bulls tended to have veteran journeymen on the mound.

The Red Barons, meanwhile, were Buffalo's most bitter rivals and we saw most of the big Phillies' names too. Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino were regular visitors here with Scranton, and Victorino holds a unique piece of Dunn Tire trivia. In a 2005 game against the Herd, Victorino joined former big-league catcher Damon Berryhill as the only visiting players to homer from both sides of the plate in the game against the Bisons.

Ryan Howard's last Triple-A game was in Buffalo on June 30, 2005, a Thursday afternoon that was highlighted by his laser off the left-center field wall on the fly for a double, something rarely done by a left-handed hitter. It was tattooed so hard that it evoked laughter -- yes, laughter -- in the press box. The guy was so ridiculously good, it was hard to believe he was still in Triple-A.

I was planning to arrive early the next day to talk to Howard prior to the game that night but I was too late. He got called up that morning, packed his stuff at the Adam's Mark and was off to Philadelphia for good.

Want a guy to root for in this one? Easy. See if Phillies backup catcher Chris Coste gets a chance. He was the Bisons' MVP in 2002 as a 29-year-old, a .318 hitter in his third year of Triple-A. He had the wild story of trying to make the big leagues after a heralded independent league career in his hometown of Fargo, N.D.

The Indians didn't give him a callup that year and he left the organization, eventually landing with the Phillies in 2005 and finally in the bigs in 2006. He wrote a book about his amazing tale called "The 33-Year-Old Rookie" and might get the call as the Phillies' DH when Tampa starts a left-hander. A new edition with another chapter might be coming.

I know the folks at FOX would have probably preferred Red Sox-Dodgers, with the whole Manny back to Fenway theme. Still, history shows ratings are driven by a great series. Four of the five-highest rated series since 1985 are smaller-market, seven-game affairs: Royals-Cardinals, Twins-Cardinals, Twins-Braves, Indians-Marlins.

High drama. That's what baseball needs for the next 10 days. We haven't even had a Game Six in the Fall Classic since Josh Beckett fired a shutout at the Yankees for the Marlins in the 2003 clincher. That's five years ago. Since then, we've had three sweeps and one five-gamer.

Phillies-Rays. You never would have guessed it in March. Here's hoping it's a hit in October.


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