The Ingratitude of Fair-Weather Phillies Fans

There's no shame in just one World Championship.

I think we can all agree that it’s not a very good time to be a Phillies fan.

The team has been under .500 for just about the entire year, they’re playing ugly, uninspired baseball, and it’s clear that the core players are aging, overpriced, and well past their prime. Even worse, it’s looking a lot like the team’s nearly decade-long run as contenders is over, and it doesn’t appear another run like it is on the way anytime soon.

Disappointment in our local sports teams is certainly nothing new, and whether the disappointment comes from the city’s legendary negativity or whether the negativity can be blamed on the teams is Philly’s version of the chicken-and-egg dilemma.

But with the Phillies, there’s one crucial difference: Unlike every other local team, they’ve won a championship in the recent past. The Eagles have never won a Super Bowl. The Sixers’ drought goes back to 1983, and the Flyers’ to 1975. But the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, with a team led by several players who are still on the team and playing major roles.

That counts for something, right?

Not everyone thinks so. I’m starting to hear the argument more and more that the Phillies have actually underachieved in the last decade, and in fact should be ashamed of themselves for winning only a single championship during this recent run. This used to be something of a fringe talking point, but the further away we get from 2008, the more often I hear fans around here say it.

I’ve also heard that Charlie Manuel’s questionable managerial moves have cost the Phils multiple championships, that a trade for one superstar or another in a particular year would have “guaranteed” another title, and or that pitching Roy Halladay on short rest in one playoff series or another would have changed things completely and given us one or two more parades.

All of this is wrong, for a couple of reasons. First, that 2008 championship was pretty damned important to this city, and shouldn’t be minimized. And secondly, winning a sports championship is pretty damned hard, and a lot more dependent on luck and good fortune than the sports talk brigade likely realizes. There’s no trade that guarantees a championship. Dynasties, meanwhile, are vanishingly rare in baseball, and will only get more rare more playoff rounds are added.

The comparison is often made to the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s, who made the playoffs every year starting in ’91, got to the World Series five times, but came away with just one title, in 1995. But where’s the shame in that? In that decade, after all, the Phillies made the playoffs just once and won no titles. That the Phillies won only one World Series in the entire 20th century, if you ask me, is more worthy of outrage than their winning only one in the last six years.

I also reject the implication that sports fandom, in the absence of a championship, is somehow a waste of time. Being a fan of a team is more about the journey than the destination, and rooting for a team over many years creates memories, good or bad, that make an eventual championship all the sweeter. Besides, the atmosphere at Phillies games was electric for those few years, in a way it hadn’t been before and hasn’t been since.

That 2008 Phillies win ended a 25-year championship drought in Philadelphia. During those 25 years, a pattern emerged in which a superstar player arrived in town, made a splash, and stayed around for years without winning a championship, which in turn led fans to get sick of his “act” and turn on him — all of which ended with the player’s departure, usually on unhappy terms. This happened with Charles Barkley, Eric Lindros, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, Allen Iverson, and, of course, Donovan McNabb.

The pattern doesn’t apply to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels simply because they did win that World Series. Of course, fans are sick of their “acts” too and complain about their salaries and/or lack of effort. Therefore, the frame has adjusted from “They haven’t won a championship!” to “They’ve won only one championship!,” or perhaps “They haven’t won a championship in five years!”

Had Donovan McNabb pulled through in the clutch and won that Super Bowl in 2005 while the rest of his career played out the same, would the conventional wisdom about him now be that he had tragically failed to win more than one title and sucks because he blew all those conference title games? There’s a good chance he would have been.

Yes, those 2009, 2010 and 2011 playoff exits hurt a lot. Even though they went out in the first round, the 2011 team — the “Four Aces” team that won 102 games — was probably the best Phillies team of the Manuel era. But does having lost those playoff rounds, and not making it last year or this year, minimize what happened in 2008? Absolutely not.