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Sunday, October 26, 2008
Phils win wild Game 3. Anybody awake to see it?

Associated Press

EDS: SUBS 7th graf to INCLUDE score.

By JIM LITKE

AP Sports Columnist

PHILADELPHIA -- What do the World Series, John McCain and Joe Biden have in common?

All three got pummeled by "Saturday Night Live."

And it might have been worse -- for the Series, anyway -- if Tina Fey hadn't taken the weekend off.

Baseball just can't catch a break.

Delayed an hour and 31 minutes by a steady downpour, Game 3 between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia was in the top of the fifth inning and just beginning to get interesting when a big chunk of its audience changed channels -- at least if recent viewing patterns were any indication.

This World Series is only three games old, already flirting with all-time lows in TV ratings, and "Saturday Night Live" couldn't be hotter. MLB officials knew even if the game started on time, at 8:35 p.m., EDT, that they'd be running up against SNL's wildly popular, pitch-perfect imitations of the presidential contenders and their running mates. They just hoped it would come near the end of a thrilling game, with much of the late-night college football schedule finished and that audience already in tow. The game delivered, the audience, not so much.

Too bad. What those people missed was a finish as zany as any you'll see for a long time, one that gave Philadelphia a 5-4 victory.

Ageless Phillies starter Jamie Moyer -- actually, he turns 46 next month -- pitched 6 1-3 innings of crafty, off-speed baseball, keeping the Rays at bay long enough for his teammates' bats to thaw and left with a lead. Then maddening Tampa Bay countered with its small-ball routine, tying the game in the eighth after B.J. Upton beat out a single, stole second and third and scored on a throwing error by catcher Carlos Ruiz.

Fittingly, it got even crazier in the bottom of the ninth. Phils leadoff hitter Eric Bruntlett was hit by a pitch and wound up at third thanks to a wild pitch and a misguided attempt by catcher Dioner Navarro to get him at second. Navarro's throw -- the only ball that left the infield the whole inning -- was wide of second, and Tampa manager Joe Maddon elected to give intentional walks to the next two Phils, Shane Victorino and Greg Dobbs, then bring outfielder Ben Zobrist in from right to become a fifth infielder.

"If we choose to play a more safe game," Maddon said afterward, defending his moves, "we wouldn't be here tonight."

Commissioner Bud Selig could say the same. Earlier in the evening, defending his decision to wait out the showers as the start time neared, Selig said, "The ratings get better and better as the night goes on."

Even as the commissioner spoke, the concourses were packed with fans seeking shelter. Just about every stool at the bars on the club-seat level was taken and adjoining hallways were lined on both sides with fans sitting on blankets or their coats, eating and watching the Penn State-Ohio State football game almost 500 miles away. Philadelphia fans aren't known for being agreeable or patient, but watching the Nittany Lions hold their own in a game that could lead to a spot in the national championship game come January took some of the sting out of waiting.

When Penn State wrapped up a 13-6 win over the Buckeyes, a ripple went through the crowd inside Citizens Bank Park and more than a few remote controls in Pennsylvania clicked over to baseball. We won't know how many until the overnight ratings come in, but too few, in any case, to get Selig out of a tough spot.

The last time the World Series was played during the day was 1987. Baseball took a hit for shifting those games into later and later time slots, largely because the kids who are supposed to be its future fan base rarely stay up long enough to catch an entire game. It didn't help things that with a first pitch at 10:06 p.m., this one didn't end until 1:47.

"We had some afternoon games during the league championship and division series," Selig said. "The ratings were brutal."

MLB's TV partners make convenient villains. But when Selig was asked whether his decision to go ahead and wait out the rainstorm was influenced by the FOX network, he said simply, "Not much."

If you think back to the few recent World Series games that might have been called because of weather -- Florida at Cleveland for Game 4 in 1997, when snow flurries made pre-game warmups a challenge; Houston at Chicago for Game 2 in 2005, when a 46-degree temperatures and a steady rain left a few spots at the back of the infield slick as a skating rink -- Selig has always opted to play. He's old school that way, old enough to believe that when someone hands you lemons, you make lemonade.

"I ran a team for 25 years where weather is always a problem, even in July and August," he said, recalling his days in charge of the Milwaukee Brewers. "So I've made myself into an amateur meteorologist. Even on days when there were no games, I'd watch The Weather Channel."

All that study of weather patterns has convinced Selig that postponing a game every time it rains would extend his season until February. He's said in the past the one thing that would convince him to postpone a series game is if conditions become so bad that it would make playing "farcical."

But if he'd cast a glance away from the field and seen fans huddled beneath the overhanging decks for several hours trying to stay dry and amuse themselves, Selig would have arrived at that very same conclusion.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org