PHILADELPHIA—Forty minutes before the first pitch of Game 4 of the World Series, the closest thing Philadelphia has to a bad-luck charm comes climbing through our section. Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, now rather tame-looking in a suit and tie and with hair cut short, is the guy who blew the Phillies' last chance at a championship, giving up a series-ending home run to Joe Carter in 1993. Even so, Williams doesn't get the black-cat treatment tonight—every man and woman in a Chase Utley jersey (and they're all wearing Chase Utley jerseys) wants to shake his hand and grab a photo.
Williams' enduring popularity owes something to his stint as a local radio host, but it also seems like a response to what the pitcher was able to achieve despite lacking much natural ability. Never skilled enough to be an elite reliever, he always took the ball, gripped it tight, and threw it as hard as he could. Fifteen years ago, his best simply wasn't good enough. This is the story of the Phillies, a team that's been cursed by something a lot more mundane than the heavens: not having enough talent.
The 2008 Phillies don't have that problem or any other visible affliction. After beating the Tampa Bay Rays 10-2 behind Joe Blanton's pitching and two Ryan Howard home runs, the Phils need but one more win to take the World Series. Taking comfort in the skills of Howard and Utley and Jimmy Rollins and Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels, the fans in Philly seem to have breezed through the pessimistic stage of postseason fandom and roared ahead to planning the victory parade. By the middle innings, the folks behind me start strategizing about how to run on the field to celebrate the title without getting arrested. "I think I could run around the field for a while before anyone could catch me," says one of the fans. "Those guys are pretty out of shape."
You can't blame Phils fans for feeling self-confident. The team is 6-0 at home in the playoffs, Rollins and Howard are hitting, Lidge hasn't blown a save all season, and Hamels—the starter in Monday night's potentially championship-clinching Game 5—has looked unbeatable in four postseason starts. Or, as former Phillies first baseman John Kruk, previewing Monday's game on SportsCenter, put it: "Hamels is a Southern California kid. What comes out of Southern California? Scripts. The Phillies couldn't have scripted this any better." (What comes out of John Kruk's mouth? Poetry.)
Meanwhile, the Rays are playing like they have "OPPONENT" written across their chests—less a rival for a championship than an obstacle that will necessarily be overcome. Despite the fact that Tampa Bay's probably the better team—consider the 97-win regular season and a playoff victory over the defending champion Red Sox—there's still a sense in the stands that the visitors from the American League aren't deserving and aren't even quite real, a feeling that's natural when confronted by a squad that long decorated itself with fluorescent marine life. I'm guessing the Rays would also feel more authentic if they had a few fans: I count only three Tampa supporters all night, and it's possible that it's just the same person in several different sweatshirts.
It takes Tampa Bay about five minutes to live down to expectations. In the first inning, pitcher Andy Sonnanstine and third baseman Evan Longoria botch a rundown between third and home, costing the Rays a run. In the third, second baseman Akinori Iwamura can't coax an easy grounder into his glove, leading to another run. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon also seems to be trying out for the part of bumbling out-of-town rube (complete with an earflap-bedecked baseball cap that looks straight out of Mayberry). Going into the bottom of the fourth, the Rays trail just 2-1 despite Sonnanstine's remarkable inability to throw the ball in the vicinity of the catcher's glove. Rather than see this as an auspicious opportunity to go to the Rays' deep, well-rested bullpen, the usually sensible Maddon sticks with his starter. "Left Sonnanstine in too long?" I write in my notebook. A few seconds later, Ryan Howard hits a three-run, opposite-field homer to put the Phils up four. My response to myself: "Yeah, they left him in too long." (In defense of Joe Maddon, both guys the Rays had warming up in the bullpen at the start of the fourth inning eventually come in, and both eventually give up home runs—taking out Sonnanstine probably wouldn't have worked either.)
With the Rays looking lovably inept—they also seem to have lost the ability to hit, by the way—the one thing that's missing from this World Series is real antagonism. Of course, not every championship is contested between arch-enemies—I don't recall there being much of a blood feud between the White Sox and Astros or even between the Red Sox and Rockies last year. Still, it's telling that there are almost as many signs in the stands dedicated to dissing the Mets as there are to mocking Tampa Bay's cowbells and mohawks. (The lone dementedly Philly-style banner: "Do it for Steve Irwin, beat the Rays.") The only real hostility that the perpetually hostile Philadelphia faithful can muster is chanting "Eva, Eva" whenever Evan Longoria comes to bat—and who could resist that? (The Phils fans are getting positive affirmation on this front: Longoria has yet to get a hit in the World Series.)
At the start of the game, the fans stood and cheered and waved their complimentary white towels when the public-address announcer said they were about to show the crowd on television. After Howard's fourth-inning homer, nobody needs prodding. The rest of the night is a slow celebration. The rotund Joe Blanton—the pitcher!—homers on a line drive and takes the slowest home run trot I've ever seen. As he nears second base, he looks willing to sacrifice the run in order to get a reprieve from running the bases. In the eighth inning, Jayson Werth hits another liner over the left-field wall, and Howard skies one out of the park to right for his second of the night. Even the Phillie Phanatic nearly hits for the cycle, coming within a few inches of clipping both Rays base coaches with his undersized ATV.
With the Phillies on the verge of winning a title, you'd never think this town has a sad baseball history. Everyone's wearing burgundy, the buses all say, "Go Phillies!" where the destination should be, and the lead story on the local news is about someone who's fashioned his garden into a topiary Phils extravaganza. Just one more win, and the Phillies will have symmetrical championships: '80 and '08. Of course, it'll take just one more loss for baseball to be done in Philly for the year; if the Rays' Scott Kazmir can somehow beat Cole Hamels on Monday, they get to go back home and line up their best two starters—James Shields and Matt Garza—for Games 6 and 7. The Rays are certainly no joke, and the Phillies are no sure thing. On this night, though, they both could've fooled me.