ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Took in Game 1 of the World Series here last night and I have to say, I have mixed emotions about it. I’ve covered dozens of games down here over the years, not to mention the months on end spent living in this area while working multiple spring trainings. Never in my wildest imagination could I have envisioned attending a World Series game at Tropicana Field, so it was fun actually being down here before, during and after the game to soak in the atmosphere.
And that’s the problem. The atmosphere before this 3-2 win by the Philadelphia Phillies over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 was a lot better than it was during the game itself. The area around the ballpark, normally a pretty desolate place surrounded by highway off-ramps and parking lots, was turned into a street festival. Over at Ferg’s bar, the unofficial World Series party joint, a few blocks from the park, folks were lined up on the sidewalk outside drinking beer in buckets by mid-afternoon. A radio station had set up a platform in a vacant lot behind the open-air bar as well, blaring music from speakers while souvenir vendors sold game jerseys, banners, and even cigars, from makeshift kiosks.
Check it all out right here in this video.
On the streets outside, there were unofficial tailgating parties and even a barbecue pit set up where folks could buy ribs and pulled pork.
It was all tons of fun. The problem is, once inside the stadium, the fun stopped. This was the 37th World Series game I’ve attended and I know all about atmosphere. As much as I wanted to see some last night, I just wasn’t feeling any vibe at all.
The fans were loud — on occasion. But it wasn’t World Series loud. The fans lacked the ability to produce a spontaneous outburst. There were times all night when it looked as if the Rays were about to jump right back into this game, putting Phillies starter Cole Hamels on the ropes. And yet, there was no taunting of Hamels. No deafening roar that would make it difficult for him to throw a strike.
All game long, at crucial junctures, fans scurried to and from stadium exits to buy beer, popcorn, cotton candy and programs. They chatted in the stands about the stock market, work, kids and anything but the game going on in front of them. There was no intensity. It reminded me of Game 1 of the 2003 World Series at Yankee Stadium when New York fans — still buzzing about a Game 7 walkoff win over the Red Sox in the ALCS — never seemed to get focused on the Fall Classic against the Florida Marlins.
These fans pictured below tried to “call” a home run by Evan Longoria in the late innings. Didn’t work out and they couldn’t get anyone around them to join in. That’s what I mean by being spontaneous. Just wasn’t happening last night. Forget about the Rays’ major league best 57-24 home record in the regular season, much of it accomplished in front of miniscule crowds (making you wonder how big a factor the fans actually were in that record). This is the post-season. Everything is ratcheted up a notch. Intensity and atmosphere matter. Ask the 1987 Minnesota Twins, one of the worst teams to ever win a World Series, how much the homefield advantage mattered. Intensity counts at this stage. On and off the field.
Maybe this is what happens when half the fans in the building last night were probably attending their first Rays game. Let’s face it, the Rays, darlings of the national media and underdog fans everwhere, have only been around for a decade and it wasn’t one worth remembering. The fans who are now attached to this team likely were not converted much before 2008. Sure, there are always exceptions. But on a whole, the crowd last night struck me as one that wasn’t quite sure how it had gotten to a World Series and what it was supposed to do next. Many seemed happy to be there. As if they were attending the latest hot theatre attraction in town. It was an event, but lacked passion. And why wouldn’t it? How much passion could the Rays have possibly inspired since 1998?
For me, this is an important reality the Rays will have to overcome in this series and I don’t think they will. They simply do not have a homefield advantage. If they lose tonight, this series will be over in four or five games. The Phillies can match the Rays homer-for-homer and have a superior bullpen. They have some starting pitchers who, as Hamels did last night, can shut anyone down. And they have homefield fans who understand the significance of the World Series and how fleeting an appearance in it can be.
Philadelphia fans may not have manners. But passion is not a problem. The environment at bandbox Citizens Bank park will be a hostile one for the Rays. Fans there will be glued to every pitch, screaming their lungs out rather than posing for pictures. If the Phillies lose, those fans will be crying in the exitways, thinking of smashing something. They won’t be filing out the way the Rays supporters did last night, slightly disappointed, but more interested in taking more pictures, videos and finding the next party spot.
For me, that’s a huge disadvantage for the Rays. This was my first playoff game at the Trop and I have to say, I’m not surprised the Red Sox split two of the four ALCS games there and could have swept all four. If the Rays are to get into this World Series, their fans will have to do the same.
Both teams looked sloppy last night, failing to make routine plays in the field. They were obviously a little nervous and the Phillies, perhaps a bit rusty. They left 11 men on-base and went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position, which is tough to do in a World Series game that lasts only nine innings. Usually, teams that make it here do so because they get the routine stuff done. For me, this could be the Phillies’ downfall if it continues. The main criticism of them in the playoffs thus far is that they have trouble scoring with anything but the home run. And that won’t cut it. When it gets down to a battle of bullpens, as it might throughout this series, the ability to manufacture runs will be key. Ryan Howard has to get his bat going and the Phils will have to do something once they get runners to second and third with fewer than two out.
They don’t have to do it all that often. In fact, they need only do it tonight. If the Phils go up 2-0 in the series, given their obvious homefield advantage, this championship could be over before it ever truly starts.