OCTOBER 30, 2009
Something wonderful, or terrible, is taking place in Philadelphia. The city's sports fans, whose only consistent love has been for an inanimate object--the statue of Rocky--are becoming warm and fuzzy.
Sort of. Kind of. Well, about as nice as they are ever going to get in Philly, where fans have made their national mark with nastiness, boos, and a perverse fondness for losing. But now the city is confronted with a success story greater than any since the signing of the Constitution (which wasn't so pretty, either). It's the Philadelphia Phillies, of course. By winning the World Series last year and defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) this year, the team has the opportunity to become the first National League team to win back-to-back World Series since the Cincinnati Reds did it in 1975 and 1976.
But finding comfort and peace in that, as most cities instantaneously would, is not so easy here. Philadelphians, particularly the hard-core indigenous ones living near Pat's Steaks in the south end of town and traversing such onomatopoetic avenues as Passyunk, actually enjoy wearing a chip on their shoulder. They like venting and feeling lousy and fatalistic, life a Sisyphean struggle. It was no accident that one of the Three Stooges, Larry Fine, was born in a South Philly rowhouse in 1902. Subsequent to Fine's death in 1975, an avid Three Stooges memorabilia collector and grocery-shelver named Frank E. Reighter assisted in fund-raising efforts to honor Larry with a mural. "He is a perfect typical type of Philadelphian," said Reighter, "always fighting the next level of people above him."
The World Series is symbolic of that, the Phillies against the New York Yankees. Ever since the Erie Canal opened in 1825 and the flow of trade shifted north to the Hudson River, Philadelphia has been knocked senseless into inferiority by New York. Residents there barely concede that Philadelphia exists, except as some vague bog somewhere along the East Coast. They think that Frank Rizzo, probably the most racist Northern politician of the past 50 years and the originator of such bon mots as "I'm gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot," is still our mayor. They think the city still has blue laws. If they visit at all, it's a hurried trip to the Museum of Art and then a hurried trip back, as if the city is riddled with an epidemic of swine flu. Similarly, the baseball version of the rivalry has been no rivalry at all in the eyes of New Yorkers. The last time the two teams met in the World Series was 1950. The Phillies carried the wonderful moniker of the “Whiz Kids,” and the result was still a four-game sweep by the Yankees. Depending on how this year's version goes, the newfound calm of Philadelphia fans could quickly evaporate. History is not on the side of the doves.
The list of offenses that Philadelphia sports fans have committed over the years is endless, some funny, some just petulant, some shocking. The loyalists can literally drive people out of town, as was the case with Phillies' manager Eddie Sawyer in 1960. The team had finished last the year before, and Sawyer quit one game into the season on the grounds that "I'm forty-nine years old, and I'd like to live to be fifty."
No city reacted worse to the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson in his debut season of 1947 than Philadelphia. According to historian William Kashatus, pitchers aimed for his head. Runners went out of their way to spike him. And, in one instance, players stood at the top of the dugout aiming their bats at him while making the sounds of gunshots. Even before Robinson came, the Phillies' front office phoned Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey and warned him "not to bring that nigger here." The Phillies were the last team in the National League to integrate, in 1957, and had segregated spring-training facilities through 1961.
Mike Schmidt was arguably the best third baseman ever to play in the major leagues. But his Hall of Fame career did not stop Philadelphia fans from mercilessly booing him at times. He exuded to fans an unpardonable sin--arrogance. Unable to take it, Schmidt publicly struck back. He told a newspaper reporter that the fans here were "beyond help" and "uncontrollable," setting himself up for even more evisceration, until he showed up at the next game wearing a wig and sunglasses (it may have gotten him the loudest ovation of his career).
Fans threw batteries at J.D. Drew from the outfield bleachers because of his refusal to sign with the Phillies after they drafted him in the first round out of college. They traveled to New York for the pro draft just so they could boo quarterback Donovan McNabb when the Philadelphia Eagles made him the second pick. They cheered when Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin lay motionless on the field with a neck injury, and some even continued to cheer when paramedics brought a stretcher onto the field.
During the home opener this season, when the 2008 World Series flag was hoisted, a fight between two fans took place about 100 yards away. In July, three men right outside Citizens Bank Park beat to death a 22-year-old man. According to police, the fight started over a spilled beer, and the victim, David Sale, was punched and kicked so badly that his face was unrecognizable.
And yet--and yet--Phillies fever was far kinder and gentler this year than it ever has been in the past. Fans, instead of waiting for the wheels to come off in some spectacular and freakish way, expressed a confidence in equal measure to the team's. In early July, starting shortstop and MVP winner Jimmy Rollins faced total batter breakdown, hitting just .212 for the season. But fans resisted insurrection, and, by the end of the season, he was up to .250 with 21 homers and 100 runs scored. Similar leniency was shown to pitcher Cole Hamels. After an all-star caliber season last year in which he was also named the World Series MVP, he lurched to a 10-11 record in 2009. There have been a few boos, but the prevailing sentiment has been sympathy and support, since Hamels is still tender at 25.
The team is eminently likeable, with the heroics spread around--no single player uniquely dominant, Rollins one night, Chase Utley one night, Ryan Howard one night. It also has more than its share of hard-working lunch-pail pluggers, the kind of guys this city goes for. There's the ageless pitcher Jamie Moyer, the come-out-of-nowhere catcher Carlos Ruiz, and, most of all, manager Charlie Manuel with that Appalachian twang of his. When Manuel first got here, he was mercilessly mocked, but not anymore. In game two of the NLCS, Manuel lifted Pedro Martinez even though he was tossing a two-hit 1-0 shutout and had only thrown 87 pitches in seven innings. The Phils' bullpen could not hold the lead, and the Dodgers came back for a 2-1 win. The radio talk shows went crazy, but the team moved on and so did the fans.
Nor has the city been infected by any kind of the insufferable strut-your-stuff swagger that accompanied the Boston Red Sox's first World Series victory in 86 years and that has made its fans the most despicable in the major leagues. After the Sox won in 2004, documentaries flooded the market like summer mosquitoes. The reverse of the Curse of the Bambino was invoked as if on a par with the historical ramifications of D-Day. Ben Affleck appeared on camera in Fenway so many times that it was hard to believe he still had an acting career, which he sort of doesn't anyway. And Fenway came to be seen as a cathedral, even though anyone who has been there and is remotely honest knows it's a dump, sacred only because writer after writer seems unable to differentiate between stinking bathrooms and cozy charm.
I went to the NLCS-winning game over the Dodgers. The Phillies crowd was raucous but not overly so. There was a sense of placidity in the sweet night air, the win just another step in the steady march toward another World Championship. Because of the new ballpark and an ownership that uncharacteristically decided to open its wallets, "Philadelphians are showing qualities not often ascribed to our city: appreciation and thankfulness," said Larry Ceisler, a diehard Phillies fan and owner of one of the top p.r. firms in Pennsylvania.
It all seems oddly graceful, this metamorphosis from a city of losers into a city of classy winners, or at least less belligerent ones. At the end of the sixth on the night that the Phils reached the Series, a kindly-looking man in a Dodgers hat stood in line in the men's room. Los Angeles has never been popular with Philadelphians because of its gloss and glitter. Actually, no other city has ever been popular with Philadelphians, except those that truly don't cause inferiority: St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Detroit, Dubuque. The Phillies had the game in hand at that point, and bathrooms are usually the place where fans here do their best trash-talking, particularly later in games when the beer has had time to take its hold. But only one person took up the challenge, saying over and over to the Dodgers fan that he would have urinated all over him if he had been within better striking distance.
In the Old Philadelphia, there would have been plenty of supportive laughter, the piling on that has given sports fans here their infamy. But there was nary a sound. The Phillies fan, clearly drunk with those eyes like elevators, one going up and one going down, simply petered out. He mumbled something under his breath, stunned by what had just happened in the New Philadelphia, and then, he carefully washed his hands before stumbling away.
Buzz Bissinger is the author of Friday Night Lights, A Prayer for the City, and, most recently, Shooting Stars, co-written with LeBron James.