With Our Sports Teams Afire, Can Philadelphians Be Graceful Winners?
Like most Philadelphians, I grew up, if not obsessed with sports, at least deeply familiar with them, in the same way I was with Wildwood and soft pretzels from Sears. My brothers played floor hockey in the basement; my father bought a billiard table for the house before he bought air conditioning. My mother had an informed opinion, and still does, about who the Eagles should be starting at inside linebacker.
Also like most Philadelphians, after our many droughts I have enjoyed—deeply—this “golden age” of fandom that the Inquirer‘s Bob Ford wrote about recently. Has there been a better time to root collectively for the Phils, the Eagles, and the Flyers? (Those Sixers? Well, you can’t have everything, people.) An embarrassment of riches, as they say, and so long overdue, so tangy and sweet after all of the years of blood-pressure-raising frustration and wanting to punch Richie Kotite.
So now we have a conundrum that we never thought we’d face: Acting like champions. I’m not talking about trampling down our general boorishness at live events (I mowed that field already), but rather in enjoying what we have, in relishing it, in exhaling and saying, “Wow, this is a great moment in sports here.” In actually taking the time to really, really savor the moment. Because sports is a fickle mistress, charming and seductive one season, leaving you sobbing in your cups the next. Cubs fans embrace this mantle of tortured suitor with proprietary relish, which is to be expected, I suppose, given their infinite wait for a return to glory. But ask anyone who rooted for the Florida Marlins (if you can find them), or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, teams that swooped in, seemingly out of nowhere, won it all, and then vanished again just as quickly. There are a lot of fans who would argue that not winning is better than winning as a tease, only to return to perennial mediocrity.
We are luckier. The Eagles almost always make the playoffs anymore, and we expect them to. The Flyers came out of nowhere last year to make the finals, and made another run this year. And those Phils! A few years ago this very magazine posed the question, “Dare we think… dynasty?,” which at the time I thought may have bordered on the ludicrous. (Don’t jinx it!) And yet here we are, drunk on Cliff and Roy and Cole and Chase and Shane and Ryan (and now Hunter), rubbing our hands together and waiting for our next NLCS.
Here’s the problem: We, the perennial losers, now risk become something that only a few years ago would have been considered unthinkable: the entitled winners. I was listening to Angelo Cataldi’s show on WIP a few weeks ago, before the Pence deal, and the callers all echoed the same thing: We need Pence, or we need Beltran, or we need the ghost of Willie Mays to come back and get us another world championship. People are passionate about their teams, and that’s good; it’s one of the few ways we bond civically anymore. But having spent seven years living in New York, a strange sensation washed over me in the car: God, I feel I’ve heard all of this before. And then it hit me that I had.
I had listened for years, in bars and on radio broadcasts, in offices and bleachers, to Yankee fans saying the exact same things. All variations of, “Joe Smith, the leading pitcher/hitter/golden glove candidate/whatever HAS to become a Yankee.” And more often than not, Joe did, much to the delight of Michael “See ya!” Kay, who has to be the most obnoxious play-by-play announcer in the nation. There was just this growing, insolent belief from Yankee nation that seemed very Animal Farm. Its acolytes feel steadfastly that the rest of professional baseball is just there to window-dress the annual coronation of the team, the Washington Generals to the Yanks’ Globetrotters.
I can’t recall what exactly Angelo said in reply—his growling Ralph Kramden delivery is often indecipherable to me—but I know what I’d do: Calm down. Enjoy the view. Store up the memories of these glorious sunny days for the rainy ones that will surely come when Chase Utley is spending his summers signing autographs at auto shows. And for God’s sake, Philadelphia, don’t become Yankee nation. Because I really don’t want to have to move again.