ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – So here's where the World Series footprints led the Philadelphia Phillies, to the goofiest ballpark in the big leagues, to a clubhouse where the ceiling is a little too low, the lockers a little too narrow, the lights a little too dim, the walls a little too cinder-blocky.
One of the Phillies shrugged.
"We could be in Boston," he said, meaning the smallest, dankest clubhouse in baseball.
Besides, they'd spruced up the place.
On the top shelf of nearly every locker in the clubhouse sat a single rubber ducky, each one squat and cute.
In their first workout since learning of their World Series opponent, the Phillies had gone out and tested the ratty Tropicana Field turf and picked pop-ups from the tangle of beams and cables that passes for the sky.
Then they met their duckies.
Some were red and others were pink and others were black and others were multi-colored, miniatures decorated and placed like the cows on the streets of Kansas City, or the tiny Statues of Liberty sold in Times Square.
Two days from the opener of the 104th World Series, the clubbies were still wringing champagne from the curtains at The Trop, and the Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays would play the series no one saw coming.
Which led to one very obvious question:
Uh, what's with the bath toys?
"I'm not commenting on that," Jayson Werth said.
"Oh, yeah, I'll tell you," Jimmy Rollins said.
Reporters leaned in.
"But not today."
For the moment, it would be their secret. The Rays had their Ed Hardy wear, their Mohawks, the Phillies have their water fowl.
It's that time of year. They've roomed together for eight months. They've lost together, won a few more, survived injury and doubt and another September deficit in the NL East. They didn't last even a week last October, then added a closer and started all over, and here they are. The Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers were hardly challenges – the benefits of membership in the National League – and now the Phillies will have six days off by the time they see another pitch designed to get them out.
The Rays, about the worst franchise in professional sports over the past decade, are favored to win the World Series, and you can go ahead and read that again if you must.
Whether they care or not, the Phillies lost all chance to play for America's hearts when Aki Iwamura launched himself from second base the night before. Rollins' team and Ryan Howard's team and Chase Utley's team is endearing in its way, and has its own miserable history to live down, but their story can't compete with the Rays'.
Again, not that the Phillies care.
They have their own plans for the next 10 days.
Rollins, in fact, talked about that very thing, about playing ball, just ball, no more than that.
"It's a baseball game," he said. "That's it. What changes? The balls don't get bigger. The bats don't get harder. Nobody turns to Superman. Nothing changes. It really doesn't. Baseball is baseball, you know?"
But, he admitted, something does change. By the end, by next week, something will change.
"You wanna be a winner," he said.
You put on the spikes, you put on the uniform, especially this time of year, somebody gets to be the winner. Forever.
"You're second place if you don't win the World Series," he said. "Nobody ever remembers who finishes in second place."
Nobody but the guy who finishes there.
"Ultimately," he said, "it's about being a champion. You can be a role player. You can play a key role and win a championship. The next season, you go out and hit .250. Or you average 10 points a game. But when a team needed you the most, you stepped up. Big Shot Bob [Horry]. Perfect example."
Asked if he'd ever met Horry, who has six NBA championship rings, Rollins shook his head.
"No," he said. "I know his work, though. It may not make you a Hall of Famer. But, it makes you a winner."
Pretty soon, it was time for the Phillies to board their buses and head to their hotel, leaving the ducks in the darkness. Charlie Manuel, the folksy manager of the Phillies, closed the door to his office behind him.
"Oh yeah," he said. "They gave me a duck."
He cocked his head toward his office.
"That's in case you get a tight [behind]," he said.
Yeah, the ducks are about letting go, releasing the pressure inherent to a World Series, pressure that, in Philly, has been 15 years coming. That one didn't end too well. This time, when the moments get big, there'll be a constant reminder to, as the bath toy says, get the rubber ducky out of your rear end.
Well into Monday night, after they'd flown in from Philly and took their shots navigating the ballpark, Howard and Manuel found each other in a corridor on the way to the bus. Manuel slung his left arm over Howard's shoulder.
"At the end of this, somebody's going home," Manuel said.
Howard looked up with a smile.
"Everybody's going home," Howard said.
You know, eventually.
"That's right, Howie," Manuel said. "But somebody's going home with a trophy. And somebody's going home cryin'."
And, then, somebody's going home quacking.
- World Series