Though the Phillies haven’t been above the .500 mark since they won their first game of the season, there’s something in the air at Ponzio’s in Cherry Hill on this sunny spring afternoon. A young boy clutches his Little League baseball, hoping for an autograph. A grandmother wearing a Phillies scarf holds a headshot, and a 30-something guy shows off his “Class of 2008” photo of the World Series champions in tuxedos and red bow ties. They’ve gathered for a chance to meet Charlie Manuel. Judging by the genuflection when the skipper shuffles in around noon for his radio show on WIP, you’d think the Pope had just stopped by for a chicken potpie. At one point, Manuel is asked about the reaction he gets from the public. “I love people,” he says. “I’d say I’m a people person.” The applause meter goes from loud to Chooch-just-hit-a-grand-slam lusty.
The electricity in the room is Philadelphia sports passion at its purest. But Manuel knows the ride will end eventually, that our infatuations with our teams rise and fall like stocks on the Dow. Taking the current pulse of our Big Four franchises offers proof: The Eagles are climbing, thanks to a strong draft and key signings. Playoff frustration marked a downturn for the Flyers, but the outlook for the future is bullish. The Sixers are likeable but not yet title contenders. And the Phillies, plagued by injuries, age, and defects in their lineup and bullpen, are on a decline.
Winning is the reason that teams like the 1980 Phillies, the 1983 Sixers and the 1974 and ’75 Flyers hold a vaunted place in our memories. But our affection for certain squads is a deeper, more complex equation than simply adding up championships or even wins. Consider our love for the 2001 Sixers, who lost in the finals but united the city in a way few teams ever have. By contrast, while the Eagles have more playoff appearances under Andy Reid than in all the years between 1960 and 1999, his teams still haven’t connected with fans the way Buddy Ryan and his 0-and-3 playoff record did.
So what gives with our fickleness? And which modern-era team ranks as our favorite? After much thought and a few beers, I’ve deconstructed the weighted formula that determines when our sports crushes blossom into enduring love. With input from some Philadelphia athletes across the generations and a few experts on our fandom, here’s how this city decides which teams are keepers and which are dogs.