Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Series Digest: Phever Pitch and Dropped Devils

Ladies and Gentlemen, the cavalry have landed....

Last Thursday morning, hours after our Red-Clad Heroes clinched the pennant, a local sports fan called into a satellite-radio sports show and uttered what've since become immortal words...
"Boston did it. The White Sox did it. Why can't us? Why can't us?!"
And on this Series Eve -- a quarter-century since this town's last major sports championship (that is, if you don't count Foley's elevation) -- from Wildwood to Wyoming and everywhere in-between, the cry's spread like wildfire across this vast, thirsty Phils Nation... the t-shirts have even been printed and are sellin' like hotcakes.

Even though the first championship run in a decade and a half is, by far, the worst possible thing for a heavier-than-usual workload, thank God your narrator didn't make the half-planned trip over for the Synod... because if I did, I would've had to come home early.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the place where the Fall Classic begins tomorrow night -- which the Pharaohtown press, in its finest hour, promptly began beating up on minutes after the ALCS wrapped up -- by the looks of it, the Tampa Bay Rays owe their banner year to a pre-season exorcism.

No joke -- founded in 1998 as the Devil Rays, the franchise "dropped the Devil" from its name going into Opening Day... and ended up with the best regular-season record in baseball and their first invite to the Big Dance.

Not bad for any team... especially one that's wound up in the basement of the AL East for nine of its eleven years on the field.

Sure, their "fight song" might be God-awful at best... but leading the prayers in the Trop Field stands is a transplant -- a St Pete priest who grew up in Trenton:
Tom Anastasia looks like any other Rays season ticket holder. He's got the cowbell, the jersey, and the lungs to shout encouraging words to his team.

But there's no beer in his hand, and no date on his arm. Something's up.

"Father John Gerth sits here," Anastasia said, gesturing toward one of the spots in the row. "I'm in this seat here, and Father Bob Morris" is in the next seat over.

Tom Anastasia -- Father Tom Anastasia -- sits in a row of Roman Catholic priests. The two others couldn't make it to Monday night's game, but typically there are three father fans sitting side by side.

"We try not to talk about work, but sometimes we do," he admitted.

Anastasia says 10 years as a devoted "Devil" Rays fan wasn't easy.

"It was sometimes tough. And it's not because of the name -- but because of all the losing! That was what made it tough," he said.

You can be sure this subject has come up -- has the decision to drop the "Devil" from the "Rays" played a role in this year's astounding success? Anastasia first danced around the question. Then, after a moment to think, he said he "has faith."

"I love the way they play as one team, and, you know, I'm just buying into it," he added.

And his boss (on earth) agrees. Bishop Robert Lynch, leader of the Catholic church in five Bay area counties through the Diocese of St. Petersburg, is also a huge fan of the don't-call-them-Devil Rays.

"It took the new management to exorcize the 'Devil.' And how can Devils ever win when they're playing Angels?" Bishop Lynch asked with a grin.

"So, now, at least, it's the Rays playing the Angels. So it's not one of these massive heavenly battles between good and evil. It's between the Rays and the Angels and the rest of the leagues."
For the record, however, all's not lost -- in a nod to his boyhood club, Anastasia keeps front-row seats for Phils season training at Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater.

PHOTOS: AP/David J. Philip(1); Reuters(2)