The Most Beloved Sports Team in Philadelphia’s History
THE SUITS (10%)
The phrase “front office” is usually pejorative, conjuring a line of demarcation between the cold bean-counters up high in their luxury suites and the fans. That dynamic came to life in May at the Sixers’ first home playoff game against the Celtics, when Michael Vick and a few other Eagles in attendance were shown on the arena screen. All received rousing ovations. Only one person was booed—Eagles owner Jeff Lurie. Despite being the franchise’s most successful owner by a mile, Lurie has never gained the city’s love. Chalk that up to a combination of factors: He’s a Boston native and lifelong Pats fan who’s had more success in Hollywood (one Oscar) than in football (zero Lombardi trophies). There’s also the sense that Lurie and ex-president Joe Banner wouldn’t have sat in the old 700 level at the Vet without police protection; they’re club-box guys most ticket-holders can’t relate to. Flyers owner Ed Snider isn’t exactly a Teamster either, but he gets a pass for one simple reason—fans feel he wants to win a Cup just as much as, if not more than, they do.
Ironically, Snider also knows the other side of an owner’s impact on a franchise. In 2001, his lone successful season running the Sixers was defined more by team president Pat Croce—a Philly guy if there ever was one—than by Snider’s vision for the club. Last year, Snider sold the team, and the fan base let out a collective sigh of relief. Across Pattison Avenue in the ’80s, Eagles owner Norman Braman, whom Daily News writer Stan Hochman nicknamed “Bottom Line Braman,” was vilified for letting Reggie White walk away without a contract offer, and was so distant from the team that Ryan, his coach, referred to him as “the guy in France.”
No team knows more about the public’s shifting opinion of ownership than the Phillies. In the years following ’93, the little-seen group led by Bill Giles kept the purse strings tight, and the results showed on the field. Everything changed when Citizens Bank Park opened its doors, not long after Jim Thome showed up for practice with a budget-busting $85 million contract. Since then, the team’s payroll has been among the highest in baseball, and there’s been a sense that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., much like Pat Gillick before him, has the green light to do whatever it takes to build a winner. Meanwhile, the Eagles, in this off-season alone, have promised more than $53 million in guaranteed money to impact players, including LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson—a significant amount, even by NFL standards. This could be the year that defines Lurie as either the owner who went all-in for a trophy, or the suit we can respect but will never love.
THE INTANGIBLES (15%)
For all the reasons Philadelphia views itself as the underdog—being caught between New York and Washington, a lack of championships, the fictional boxer running up the friggin’ Art Museum steps—we value that identity in our teams. That’s why the ’01 Sixers and the ’93 Phillies still resonate. The 1974 Flyers were the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup, doing so with a physical style that reflected this city and irritated the NHL. Even the ’08 Phillies had an underdog quality, especially in the post-season, when each game produced another unlikely hero, from Matt Stairs to Joe Blanton to Eric Bruntlett.
Familiarity breeds respect as well, especially in this town, where moving from Cottman Avenue to Camden County is like shipping off to Europe. We like our teams homegrown, to feel that there’s some Philly DNA in their makeup. That’s why we cringed when Vince Young compared last season’s Eagles to a “Dream Team” like the Miami Heat. That shallow build-a-winner approach doesn’t play here. This Phillies era benefits from Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard having spent their entire professional careers in town, and newer recruits, like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, who aren’t rentals. That sense of long-term attachment is partly why emotions are running so high over the prospect of losing Cole Hamels next season to free agency. The thought of seeing our star succeed elsewhere is almost more upsetting than the hole he’d leave in the rotation.
The arenas of old also feed into the rugged world-beater identity that fans embrace. “While we love Citizens Bank Park to death,” says WIP host and superfan Anthony Gargano, “a lot of people would give up the creature comforts to play back at the Vet because of what Hugh Douglas once said: The Vet is ghetto. It gave us this frightening place. We loved when other teams would fear coming to town—whether it was to the Vet for football or the Spectrum for hockey.” Shiny and new isn’t our style—give us cobblestone streets, the mom-and-pop store handed down through generations, the familiar that feels like home. When the Vet and the Spectrum crumbled, the teams that once stalked those rat-infested tunnels and turned ice into a gladiator’s pit achieved a new level of worship.