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Top story of ’08? Easy. Look under the Trop

I watched Eli Manning escape the pass rush and throw downfield, and I was wowed, like everyone else, when David Tyree pinned the football to his helmet to create a moment most of us won’t soon forget.

I was amazed when Tiger Woods, playing on one leg, won a 19-hole playoff for the U.S. Open championship.

I saw Michael Phelps win his seventh and eighth gold medals and thrilled for the opportunity to watch Olympic history.

But I found nothing to be more stunning, more amazing, more feel-good, more “wow” than when Akinori Iwamura grabbed that ground ball and stepped on second base to end Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and send the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series.

The Rays going to the World Series. Well, I’ll be darned.

That wasn’t just the sports story of the 2008, that was a sports story for the ages, right up there with the 1969 New York Mets, the 1980 U.S.A. Olympic hockey team and maybe Buster Douglas.

Last year has been labeled by some as the greatest year in sports, and it is hard to argue. But what puzzles me is how the Rays don’t rank across the board as the top story of 2008.

The New York Giants provided a historic upset in the Super Bowl, but they almost beat the New England Patriots in the last week of the regular season. And isn’t the NFL the “on any given Sunday” league? Also, the Giants in January were a pretty good team.

Tiger is Tiger. Nothing he does, on two legs or one, should surprise us.

We knew Phelps was going to win an arm full of gold medals. That he won all eight was amazing. Still, it wasn’t as if he were the worst swimmer in the world the year before.

Now the Rays: who saw that coming?

They were the worst team in baseball in 2007. They were the worst team in baseball in 2006.

Heck, they were the worst team in baseball for 10 years.

Their biggest offseason signing before last season was Troy Percival, and he would make three trips to the disabled list.

Their payroll was a pittance compared to what the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees spent on chasing the 2008 pennant.

And yet the Rays managed to outlast both division rivals during the regular season to win the AL East and hold off the Red Sox in the ALCS.

They didn’t have an MVP or a Cy Young candidate.

Their best player was a rookie.

This was “Rocky” meets “Hoosiers” meets “Ben Zobrist in the Outfield.”

This was not supposed to happen, given the economics that define baseball and given the Rays’ sorry past.

But the 2008 Rays did happen, and the reason they did is why we follow sports.

Because fairy tales can come true.

Herb Brooks, who coached the U.S. hockey team to the miracle on ice, said you don’t need the best players, just the right players.

Turns out Rays had the right players, and those players produced the best story of 2008.

Roger Mooney, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.

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