’08 MLB stories: Philly (and rain) reigns

Jeff Passan

This was a year of big personalities and big falls and big endings and an act of God so big it started a fight between Major League Baseball's commissioner and three weathermen.

For the leviathan theme, though, there wasn't a moment or a person so overwhelming that it floated to the forefront when considering the best story lines of the 2008 baseball season. No, this year was a lot like the American League Most Valuable Player race: a lot of good, not much great and won by something that, in the grand scheme, is pretty small.

So with all due respect to the notable accomplishments (Brad Ziegler's scoreless-innings streak, Jon Lester and Carlos Zambrano's no-hitters and Francisco Rodriguez's 62 saves) and narratives (Rocco Baldelli's comeback, Cliff Lee's resurrection and Dustin Pedroia, aforementioned Midget MVP), sorry, your parents can frame your honorable-mention certificates.

Top 10 stories of 2008

10. The exploding, razor-sharp projectiles hurtling into the stands, or: The Story of Maple Bats: What began as a little-known issue turned into a sport-wide debate on the safety of maple-wood bats after Susan Rhodes, the woman whose jaw was cracked by a barrel that flew into the stands at Dodger Stadium, told her story. MLB spent enormous amounts of time and money studying bats and emerged with a solution on specific wood specifications. Issue solved? Not necessarily. One maple-bat manufacturer says, cryptically, "This is not over." We're saving a spot for 2009.

9. The continued unemployment of man with enormous cranium, or: The Story of Barry Bonds: Eventually, there is going to be a collusion case alleging MLB's owners conspired against employing the all-time home run leader. And it's one the players' union will win, in all likelihood, because it usually does in such cases. And the owners will have to pay a monetary sum and issue a public apology, because that is usually their penance. And by then, when his perjury and obstruction-of-justice cases are over, when he's long gone from the sport, maybe we can forget about Bonds. At least until 2013, when he misses the Hall of Fame in his first attempt.

8. The good and the bad, or: The Story of CC Sabathia: The duality of 2008 for CC Sabathia is little items piled up against a monster. Reigning Cy Young winner can't win for a month. Straightens himself out. Gets traded to, of all places, Milwaukee. National League hitters can't touch him. Single-handedly carries the Brewers to their first postseason in nearly three decades. And with all that good will engendered, with every person who watches baseball finding it difficult not to root for Sabathia, because he is big and jolly and smiles and has a stellar strikeout-to-walk ratio – with everything in the world going for him – what does he do? Sign with the New York Yankees for $161 million. So, which way does that teeter-totter land?

7. Gag, or: The Story of the Chicago Cubs: They won 97 games during the regular season. They lost three straight to eject themselves from the playoffs. One hundred years without a championship and counting.

6. The savant of hitting and quitting, or: The Story of Manny Ramirez: Striped atop his official site, there is a picture of Manny Ramirez. He is thin. His hair is short. A Red Sox hat sits on top of his head. This is the Manny people in Boston want to remember, because the Red Sox weren't courageous enough to call the bluff of the Manny who wore his hair in knots and jogged to first base and took three dead-red strikes from Mariano Rivera and decided to stop trying in July, so they traded him. Yet if you ask Los Angeles Dodgers fans about Manny, they will talk about his dreadlocks, his smile, the joyous nature with which he plays baseball. In two months with Los Angeles, Manny hit .396, slugged .743, thrust himself into the MVP discussion and had everyone wondering: Is this really the same guy? Of course it was. Which makes it that much sadder.


Josh Hamilton dazzled fans at Yankee Stadium during the All-Star home-run derby.

(Getty Images)

5. The breathing corpus, or: The Story of Yankee Stadium: The final year of Yankee Stadium did not see postseason baseball, which is unfair. If ever a stadium deserved a proper sendoff, it was this hunk of concrete made special neither because of its design nor aesthetics but by the ghosts who lived on and will continue to forever, even when the stadium itself is only a memory.

4. The most awesome thing I have ever seen, or: The Story of Josh Hamilton: I was sitting high in right field at Yankee Stadium. Home plate looked like a speck of white paint. The thought of a hitter launching a baseball near me was unfathomable. Then the first one flew by. Josh Hamilton, the former drug addict whose tattooed body told his story, was writing a new one. Clean, sober, reborn, he kept taking enormous hacks at batting-practice pitches thrown by an old man named Claybon Counsil and kept sending them high (502 feet), higher (504 feet), highest (518 feet). Yankee Stadium had its final indelible moment and everyone in right field – and scattered around the ballpark, for that matter – one they'll never forget.

3. The bottle of Patron tequila, or: The Story of the Tampa Bay Rays: Words cannot do proper justice for the first decade of baseball in Tampa Bay. Only the face of a child can properly explain it, and it's one of those faces that curls up to express the rawest, most pure form of disgust. The Rays had a bad owner, bad management, bad players, a bad stadium – even their ballpark food stunk. So to see them walking around in May with an attitude, brawling with Boston a month later, beating the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East meatgrinder, vanquishing the Red Sox again in a classic ALCS punctuated by a gnarly, boozy celebration worthy of Ibiza before ultimately losing to Philadelphia in the World Series – well, that's the kind of year that can only be expressed by a kid, too, with a big, toothy smile.

2. It is what it is, or: The Story of Roger Clemens: This is like the excellent movie that comes out at the beginning of the year and, by the time Oscar season rolls around, is long forgotten. Think about it: The greatest pitcher of his generation was hauled in front of Congress and publicly humiliated for his alleged use of human growth hormone. He caused a visible bipartisan rift, sold out his wife, got sold out by his friend Andy Pettitte and skulked back home to live a hermit's life. The Clemens embarrassment permeated far beyond the baseball world, and with good reason: As much as we love stories where a boy raised by a single mother earns hundreds of millions of dollars playing a sport he genuinely loves, nothing titillates quite like the same man's downfall.

And the No. 1 story line in 2008:

1. The game that lasted almost 48 hours, or: The Story of the World Series Rain Delay: That the prevailing image of the 2008 season is Bud Selig walking around, rulebook in hand, prepared to flout a rule in that very book, illustrates two things: this wasn't all that eventful a year in baseball, and the commissioner is Mr. Magoo. Mother Nature decided to cry on Game 5 of the World Series, and Selig blamed the weathermen for having to postpone the game. It kept raining for nearly two days, birthing a fun moment, certainly, baseball's first sudden-death game: three innings for the Rays to stay alive and Philadelphia to give the city its first championship in 25 years. And it was an eventful third of a game, packed with big hits, superlative defense and the unhittable slider of Brad Lidge, who set off a celebration of toppled cars and fires and ribaldry purely Philadelphian. The sky had cleared. It was perfect.