PHILADELPHIA – Just short of that miracle they'd all believed in, a few yards from that party they were sure would be thrown for them, the Tampa Bay Rays packed up and caught that 11 o'clock bus instead.
They'd come from a decade of bad baseball. They'd risen from grim seasons and hopeless winters, on and on, end to end.
For the players, it wasn't all someone else's history, either. Most of the men they lockered beside, they played beside, they hugged and cried with, had contributed to significant parts of that bad baseball.
The Rays won 66 games a year ago. They'd dutifully gotten their rear ends whipped, dutifully left October to the legitimate franchises, dutifully went out and spent almost no money to get better. Their fans, such as they were, dutifully stayed away.
And yet the Rays sat in their clubhouse late Wednesday night shocked they hadn't won. They could hear the commotion out there, hear the fireworks, hear the guy bellowing for the Philadelphia Phillies on the public-address system. They could hear the people screaming, and feel them dancing overhead, getting nearly three decades of futility out of their systems.
"It's difficult," rookie third baseman, Evan Longoria said. "It hasn't really sunk in yet. I feel like we're going back home to play some more baseball."
They'd won the AL East. They'd beaten the Chicago White Sox, and then – in a make-men-out-of-them seven games – the Boston Red Sox. And they'd rushed the World Series on the moxie of a manager who believed in them first, on a starting rotation that seemed to age 10 years in an offseason, on a ball-hungry bullpen, and on the young legs and fresh minds of men who learned to win.
Then they batted .212 in five games, the last game spread over three days, ending in a 4-3 loss. Then their relievers couldn't kill rallies. They made some errors, wore a couple of bad calls.
Anybody waiting on when the games would get too big for the Rays, 178½ was the number. Wednesday night, Oct. 29, the sixth inning, Citizens Bank Park.
Ninety minutes later, Rays reliever J.P. Howell, the spindly left-hander who'd tried to spin a curveball away from Pat Burrell leading off the seventh, was drained of tears. Burrell leaned over the plate and knocked that ball 400-and-some feet for a double. Burrell's pinch-runner, Eric Bruntlett, scored the run that ultimately stood between the Rays and their miracle.
Howell sat at his locker, his elbows at his knees, his face in his hands. It wouldn't go away.
When Howell finally rose, a teammate, James Shields, told him, "Seriously, go take a shower, please."
"Go take a shower?" Howell said.
"Yeah," Shields said.
When he returned, Howell was more composed, but no less devastated.
"This is the worst way to go out," he said. "We were going to get a ring, enjoy life in the offseason. Now …"
He couldn't bring himself to say it. Now they go home with all the almosts. Now they let all they'd done take it up with regret. Now they smile thinly and shrug and hold their fingers an inch apart, as close as they'd come. Now Grant Balfour leaves the clubhouse to a pretty young woman waiting, and she tries to smile, but can't quite, and her eyes are sad, and he holds her close.
"We didn't get it," Howell said. "It's crazy that we didn't get it."
David Price, the phenom left-hander who'd so brilliantly pitched them past the last of the Red Sox, thought for a moment. He'd pitched well again Wednesday night, as well as he had in a Game 2 victory, the Rays' only of the series. Manager Joe Maddon had saved him for the eighth inning, too late for zeroes.
"We went from first," Price said, "to, like, second best."
Lacks ring, doesn't it? It's not what they had in mind. Doesn't look so hot on a parade float.
"It's tough to realize our season is over," starter Scott Kazmir said.
“ This is the worst way to go out. We were going to get a ring, enjoy life in the offseason. Now … ”
– Rays reliever J.P. Howell on losing the World Series.
They'll carry that around for a few days, maybe longer. The Rays didn't play great baseball here. The Phillies didn't, either, and still it was good enough to win three in a row at home after splitting the first two games in St. Petersburg.
Mixed in there, the Rays' future was held in their expressive eye contact with each other. They hated the loss, the way the Phillies found pitches to hit and didn't miss them. They played too often from behind, negating the regular-season strength of their bullpen. Longoria was 1-for-20. Carlos Pena was 2-for-17. Akinori Iwamura, their leadoff hitter, scored one run.
The battle was gone, with the miracle. The future, though, that's still out there.
"It made me feel like a kid again," said Carl Crawford, technically still very close at 27. "It's not all bad. We won't be a joke to everybody anymore. We established ourselves as a real franchise now."
And that's it, isn't it? Well, it'll have to do.
"They kept believing in themselves," team owner Stu Sternberg said, "to the point they couldn't believe they didn't win this thing."
He had a thought about this team, his team. He recalled how, as a boy, he would identify certain players as being larger than just themselves.
Julius Erving, he said, was the face of a league, the ABA.
Pele, he said, was the face of an entire sport, soccer.
"These guys," he said, gesturing toward a glum clubhouse, "have created baseball in Tampa Bay, I believe. It's a huge amount to bite off and chew."
It's what they have. That, and out there somewhere, another season. And another. More baseball. Legitimate baseball. And through all that they've gained, there is one thing they lost, one thing they'll perhaps never get back.
"The fear," Howell said. "All the fear is gone."