Along comes the World Series, which had hinted at Manny Ramirez batting in the middle of a lineup at Fenway Park again, which had trumpeted Joe Torre's wry smile toward the Yankees, which had foretold the end of a 100-year curse.
Yet, on the eve of the 104th World Series, two unfamiliar franchises manned opposing clubhouses at The Trop, a crooked building 20 miles from downtown Tampa hardly befitting a county rodeo, never mind baseball's premier event.
On one side, the team that beat the Red Sox.
On the other, the team that isn't the Cubs.
For a sporting public obsessed with New York, Chicago and L.A., for a baseball nation charmed by line drives off the Green Monster, or crisp nights under the iconic frieze, or the familiar October faces of Big Papi and Jeter and Manny and even Phat Albert, this might take some getting used to, if it tunes in at all.
The Philadelphia Phillies, holders of a single World Series title in a history that dates more than a century, play the Tampa Bay Rays, an expansion club that finished in last place for all but one season in a decade-long stab at relevance.
This wasn't supposed to happen. In its hopes to retake its standing as the national pastime, the game was going to grant us Torre and Tito, not Joe and Ol' Cholly. It was going to give us a ballclub and a town living down a snubbed billy goat and a reclusive Bartman, and players straining under the heft of it all. It was going to give us the Manny-less Sawx, coeds with pigtails and pink ball caps praying through mittens on the first-base side, Papelbon dancing in sliding shorts.
The Cubs were crazier, sexier, more intriguing, and we get the Phillies.
The Red Sox were acquaintances, bigger than life, Yankee-killers, and we get the Rays.
And how great is that?
What we get instead is baseball. No, make that hardball. A little back story, a heart-warming worst-to-first tale, the promise of a series played in all the little corners where games are won and lost, and then a whole new set of standards and heroes.
What we get is the best possible baseball, not the best-selling posters and jerseys. Maybe America turns away, and Fox suits cringe.
But there are reasons to watch.
"You want to see two of the teams that played the best down the stretch play each other," Phillies reliever Chad Durbin said.
He waved his hand in the direction of his teammates, among them one-time MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. He raised his eyes beyond them, into the other clubhouse, which held so many young Rays, all but a few sprung from the Rays' farm system, boyish men such as B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford.
"These will be the guys maybe 10 years from now who will be the superstars in this league," Durbin said. "Give them two or three years, maybe they're playing for the Yankees or Red Sox. Or, having made themselves, these teams, into the Yankees and Red Sox."
In the Rays clubhouse, run by an old-time baseball guy/stat head named Joe Maddon, two quotes are prominently displayed.
The first: "Integrity has no need of rules."
The second: "Rules cannot take the place of character."
Albert Camus and Alan Greenspan, side by side.
In the Phillies clubhouse, run by an old-time baseball guy/gut man named Charlie Manuel, there are rubber ducks, dozens of them, prominently displayed.
They're about remembering the game is hard enough when it's just the game.
So, broad perspective and narrow-mindedness, side by side.
They are the philosophies that have wrought this World Series, the one nobody saw coming, but should be pleased came along.
Yes, there are reasons to watch.
The Rays are power arms and a National League-style offensive attack. They are defense all over and, on a given night, the fastest outfield in the game. They are mostly twenty-somethings, some barely so, in a game that adores the veteran hand, the veteran mind. They are Evan Longoria, the rookie third baseman who hit two home runs against the White Sox in the division series and four more against the Red Sox in the ALCS, and center fielder B.J. Upton, who hit nine home runs in the regular season and – numbingly – seven since. They are a starting rotation whose oldest member – Game 2 starter James Shields – is 26. They are a bullpen that rides the hot hand at whatever moment that is, the most recent moment being David Price, who began the season in Class A, over the final four outs of Game 7 of the ALCS. They're a catcher – Dioner Navarro – who rose through the minors with the Yankees and Dodgers and now goes to the World Series with, of all teams, the Rays.
"We weren't destined to be in the playoffs," Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "We weren't destined to be leading the division in September. But, what's so great, you walk through those doors and everybody believes."
Look where it got them.
"In baseball," part-time designated-hitter Cliff Floyd said, "you don't grow up overnight. This team did."
The Phillies have taken longer. But, they are an MVP at shortstop (Rollins), another at first base (Howard), and a second baseman – Chase Utley – who has those kinds of abilities. They are a reworked pitching staff that was abused a year ago, in a season that concluded ingloriously in the division series. They are a bullpen that winds eventually to Brad Lidge, who hasn't blown a save in their uniform. They are power in the usual places – Howard, Pat Burrell, Utley, Jayson Werth – and, as the Dodgers discovered, in unlikely places, such as Shane Victorino. They are a team that was supposed to drown in the Mets' acquisition of Johan Santana, but answered with their own developing left-handed ace, Cole Hamels. They were supposed to be the foils for Manny's journey back to Boston. Instead, they were the 40-year-old guy (Matt Stairs) who came off the bench and hit a ball to Hollywood, and they beat back the Dodgers in five games in the NLCS. And they are the 45-year-old guy (Jamie Moyer) who will take the ball in Game 3 of the World Series, without apology.
"The feeling in the room is, we're here as a team," Moyer said. "Let's make an impact."
The Rays took batting practice mid-day Tuesday, 30 hours before they'd become a World Series team for real. Off to the left, in foul territory, red-clad Phillies stretched and laughed.
A Rays official bounced on his toes.
"I can't wait," he said. "This is going to be a great series, terrific baseball. I couldn't care less if nobody watches."
Either way, they're going to play it.