These Are NOT the Best of Times

Why the old days were better for Philly sports

Since we live in a time when exciting regular-season games are deemed “classics” and anyone who dares mention a player who competed before 1980 is considered hopelessly anachronistic, it would make sense that Philadelphia fans would consider this the “greatest period” in the city’s long sports history. The Phillies, Flyers and Sixers are all successful, and Cliff Lee actually chose to play here, rather than accept more money from the Evil Empire. It is, without question, a thrilling time to be a Philadelphia sports fan. [SIGNUP]

It is not, however, the best time.

That designation belongs to the period from 1974-1983, which featured an unparalleled run of success for city teams and was certainly more prosperous than the decade from 2001-10. During the stretch that straddled the disco ’70s and greed mongering ’80s, all four of Philadelphia’s professional teams reached the championship round, and three of them earned titles. Throw in significant amateur success, such as Penn State’s 1982 national title and Penn’s 1979 Final Four appearance, and you have a knockout victory.

This is bound to be an unpopular argument, since we have morphed into a society that must be experiencing the best of the best at all times. Perhaps we can blame that delusional outlook on the Internet machine and its ability to provide us with constant, high-speed gratification. Maybe it’s the result of a couple decades of fawning over our children that has allowed their myopic, short-run outlook to rule the day. Whatever the reason, we are lacking perspective, and that’s just what I aim to provide.

To make this as orderly a lesson as possible, I will begin by breaking down the individual sports and comparing their successes. I will then address an extraneous factor — financial commitment — to enhance my argument.

Start with the Sixers, whom one can most easily dismiss from this discussion. Although they went to the 2001 Finals and earned a few other playoff appearances, the more recent version of the franchise can’t touch its ’70s and ’80s ancestors, who played in four Finals series from ’77-83 and won it all in 1983. The Sixers made the playoffs every year from 1976-83 and won four division titles. It’s not even close.

We’ll move next to the Flyers, whose fans are giddy after last year’s improbable (thank you for losing early, Pittsburgh and Washington) run to the Cup Finals and this year’s fast start. It is indeed a good time to be sporting the orange-and-black, and it’s possible last year’s disappointing loss to the Blackhawks could be forgotten next June with a Cup triumph.

Although that is great stuff and true reason for excitement, no Flyers fan worth his “Only the Lord saves more than Bernie Parent” bumper sticker would argue that this is a better time to be a fan than from ’74-83, when the Flyers won two Cups, played in two other Finals series and saved the free hockey world from Communist domination by beating the Soviet Red Army team to a pulp in 1976. When compared with the Flyers’ relatively modest resume from ’01-10, which includes two division titles and a pair of trips to the conference finals, in addition to last year’s success, it’s another big win for the Olden Days.

The Eagles score the sole victory for the Modern Age, thanks to their five NFC title game appearances from 2001-10 and their Super Bowl appearance after the ’04 season. Say what you want about Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb, but their time with the franchise is its Golden Era, especially since yesterday we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the team’s last NFL title. Not that the ’74-83 edition of the Eagles was worthless and weak. The Birds qualified for the playoffs four times and reached the Super Bowl after the ’80 season. But that’s not enough to beat the current-day edition. Advantage, New Jack Eagles.

Then come the Phillies, who have delighted the city since 2007 and are clearly enjoying a remarkable run of prosperity. In fact, the franchise has done the best job of improving the city’s reputation on the national stage by succeeding on the field and by aggregating talent off it. The Phils have won four division titles, played in two World Series and won it all in ’08. Good times, indeed.

But when compared with the run of prosperity from 1976-83, the current Phils come up a little short. The teams of yesterday won five-and-a-half division titles (the Phillies won the first-half Eastern Division crown in ’81, a season divided by a strike) also played in two Series and won it all in 1980. They won 101 games twice in a season and were generally the scourge of the East for eight years. Today’s version may well reach the heights attained by its ancestor, but it’s not there yet. Advantage: Old School.

Now for what some consider a compelling argument in favor of the current climate: the willingness to spend money. The Phillies’ ability to stretch their payroll to new heights by adding players like Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and the aforementioned Mr. Lee is seen as a metaphor for the good times and prosperity that prevail today. But one of the hallmarks of the 1974-83 period was free spending, also. Don’t believe it? Well, consider the contract bestowed upon Pete Rose in 1979. The free agent received the largest deal in pro sports history when he signed for four years and $3.2 million. Sure, that’s cab fare for today’s top players, but back then it was the final salvo in a furious competition for Rose’s services.

The Sixers’ ownership opened its checkbook wide, too, spending $3 million to buy Julius Erving from the Nets and signed Moses Malone to a fat restricted free agent contract in 1982, forcing the Rockets to deal the center to Philadelphia. Since there wasn’t free agency in football or hockey at the time, neither the Eagles nor Flyers were players on the open market, although the Birds did trade three draft picks (including two first-rounders) to Cincinnati for Bill Bergey in ’74 and espoused a “win now” philosophy under coach Mike McCormack. Though shortsighted, it was aggressive.

So, there you have it, kids. The old days were better. Things are great now, but try to remember that organized sports have been played in this country for nearly 150 years, and that just because ESPN tells you something is great doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Oh, and if you want to pick one year and compare it to 2010-11, check out 1980-81, when the Phils won the World Series, the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, the Sixers played in the NBA Finals, and the Flyers reached the Cup finals. That’s the undisputed heavyweight champ.

SUCKER PUNCHES
* We’ll learn all we need to know about the Sixers over the next week or so, when they embark on their annual Disney on Ice road trip. One win out of four will be nice. Two will be worth a parade — sort of.

* If you’re looking for something sporting to do over the next week, check out one or two of the high school basketball tourneys being played around the area. It’s good ball and a fun way to spend your time. Beats the heck out of the Pinstripe Bowl, too.

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