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The Plight of the Philly Sports Fan.

Can Philly's sports fanatics handle a sports renaissance or will the go soft?

 

From the March 17, 2010 Philadelphia Weekly.

Brandy Halladay walks into the media room at Citizens Bank Park and looks around at the glaring lights and buzzing mass of reporters, TV cameramen, sound techs and still photographers.

Then she declares to no one in particular, "It's almost as many cameras as they had on us at breakfast."

She and her husband, Roy Halladay - one of the best pitchers in baseball, have been in town for about 24 hours. The media have tailed them everywhere even though it's mid-December, six weeks after the Phillies loss to the Yankees in the World Series. Despite the Sixers and Flyers being mid-season and the Eagles surging toward the playoffs, all the news outlets are leading with baseball stories - even before any deals have been made official.

The rabid Philly fans want more success, and the media are eager to feed them encouraging news.

A few moments later, the 6'6" right-hander strolls into the press conference. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. proudly drapes the red pinstripes on Halladay.

"It's a dream come true," says the 2003 American League Cy Young Award winner, with Brandy sitting in the front row.

It all seems so surreal - one of the game's brightest stars dreams of playing here, a sports town best known for cantankerous fans who pelted Santa Claus with snowballs at Franklin Field, booed Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, cheered when Michael Irvin was nearly paralyzed during a game at the Vet, and tossed batteries at J.D. Drew.

"If I had to sit down and pick, this is where I'd want to be," Halladay states.

After decades of coming up short in every major sport, all of the sudden Philadelphia is a destination - a town of, well, winners. It's strange to even say that. It's amazing the impact of two National League pennants and one World Championship title.


"I'm excited to play in the postseason and ultimately win a World Series," Halladay confidently says to the 100 people in the room. "Hopefully, we'll do it a few times."

If that actually happens, you have to wonder if Philadelphia sports fans will ever be the same again.

***

When people try to be nice about it, they say we're passionate fans.

But the reality is that we are irascible, caustic, cynical and temperamental. We are intensely knowledgeable about our teams, and we take every little slight personally - like when Lower Merion product Kobe Bryant showed up at a Dodgers playoff game against the Phillies in October, flashed "LA" gestures with his hands, and said on national television that he grew up rooting for the Mets.

As if we didn't hate him enough after the Lakers star muttered that he was "coming to Philly to cut out their hearts" during the 2001 NBA Finals ... against the Sixers.

He will be forever booed here.

We are impatient and loyal at the same time. We applauded Aaron Rowand's nose-to-the-wall doggedness and questioned Eric Lindros' effortless-appearing abilities.

As stereotypical as it may sound, we love our Rocky Balboa-type athletes. We see ourselves in that scrappy, fictional character.

"We take a perverse sort of pride in that," says retired, 33-year Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Bill Lyon. "It's not getting knocked down that matters. It's about getting back up. And we're really good at that."

A generation of disgruntled fans grew up watching our teams painfully and repeatedly get knocked down.

But the last decade quietly saw a turnaround in Philly's sporting fortunes. Our Sixers and Eagles made it to the ultimate playoff round before their seasons halted. Our beloved Flyers went to the playoffs every year but one. Our Phillies, after years of ignominy, put together seven consecutive winning seasons and won the first world championship for the city in 25 years.


Will success make us soft? Does the Philly sports renaissance only make us more demanding? Will we shed our reputation as the most insatiable band of malcontents ever to root for a home team?

"Does winning change anything here?" Lyon ponders. "Yes. But only marginally. And not for very long."

***

"My goal is not just to have this be a championship caliber club through 2010 or 2011 but for many years beyond that," says Ruben Amaro Jr. after the Halladay press conference.

He doesn't say the word but he's talking about a dynasty, something we've never experienced in Philadelphia. We've never been the Yankees, Jordan's Bulls or Gretzky's Oilers.

Instead, we boast the only professional franchise with more than 10,000 lifetime losses. We've suffered through seasons full of Travis Lee, Shawn Bradley and Mike Mamula. There's a reason we fans are the way we are.

"Success comes in cycles," says Phillies president and CEO David Montgomery. "There was a time in the late '90s when every other franchise was doing well and people said, 'When are the Phillies ever going to get their act together?' That's sort of the nature of sports."

Only once in the history of Philadelphia sports did we have all the teams consistently contending - the late 1970's and early 1980's. The Eagles made it to the Super Bowl in 1980, losing to Oakland. The Flyers lost to the Islanders in the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals. The Sixers lost to Los Angeles in the 1980 NBA Finals. And the Phillies beat the Royals to win the 1980 World Series.

After the Sixers won the NBA title in 1983, the Dark Ages began, casting a pall over the city that would mold our demeanor and exaggerate our reputations - possibly - forever.

***

"The city has seen a recent transformation, not unlike the Phillies of the past decade," says Viki Sand, executive director of the Atwater Kent Museum, the city's official documenter of history. "Philadelphia is in the midst of a renaissance of pride in our city."

Is it just a coincidence? Do we bitch less about the government and SEPTA and crime when our teams aren't embarrassing us? Can professional sports really impact society at-large, including people who don't know the difference between ERAs and RBIs?

Five days after Halladay becomes a Phillie in December, Sand presides over a room full of baseball fans and history buffs as she accepts Phillies memorabilia from the 2008 World Championship and 2009 National League title seasons. The items - champagne bottles, line-up cards, and several pieces of Jimmy Rollins' uniform - will become the centerpiece of the museum's sports gallery when the museum reopens in 2011 after a year of renovations.

"That jersey represents the heart of the city," Rollins says as he nods toward his uniform propped on a table. "I try to live up to that every day I'm on the field."

Again, the hoard of media record every word Rollins says even though the big story of the day is the Eagles clinching a playoff berth the day before. The media understand that their audiences want to hold on to those sweet, sweet memories of glory. Who knows when they may come again?

"Sports for us is not only about the great athleticism and recognizing the talent," says Mayor Michael Nutter after the presentation. "More than a few among us have historical fantasies about being great ballplayers. We think about what we did when we were kids. Of course, many of us exaggerate what those things were. But we see ourselves in our professionals and we expect greatness from them like we do of ourselves."

Our teams represent us, and not just because their uniforms bear the name or emblems of our city. That's why we care so much.

***

When the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974, they broke the city out of a major depression.

While it had only been a few years since the Wilt Chamberlain-led Sixers won the 1967 NBA Finals, the early '70s city teams stunk. The Eagles only won 16 games over four seasons between 1970 and 1973. The Phillies only won 59 games in 1972, and 27 of those victories belonged to Steve Carlton. The 1972-73 Sixers lost 73 of their 82 games, still an NBA record.

Philly fans had no escape from the awful realities of the era - continued fighting in an unpopular war in Vietnam, an oil crisis crushing the economy, racial tensions running high in the Rizzo era, and gangs dominating the streets of the city.

Things were bleak.

Then the Flyers, with a band of blue-collar goons, won the Stanley Cup in 1974. The Broad Street Bullies' parade was a jubilant affair, reportedly bigger than the massive celebration on Broad Street after World War II ended.

The Flyers won the Stanley Cup again the following year, and returned to the finals in 1976. Winning became infectious and all of the city teams started doing it. That sports renaissance culminated with all four pro sports teams playing in their respective championship games in 1980.

The Flyers of that era created a legion of die-hard hockey fans that have passed down their ardent adoration from generation to generation - win, lose or draw.           

A few days before New Years' Eve, fans pack the Skate Zone in Vorhees to watch the Flyboys practice. Even now, when the team has been average at best, hundreds of fans crowd the plexiglass, most dressed in orange and black. They snap pictures, wave signs, shoot video and cheer as though this might help the team win. And we're talking about practice.

"We always have our base of fans coming to the games," says left-winger Simon Gagne, a ten-year veteran with the club. "They're passionate about their sports. They know all the changes that are made and how the money is spent."

There have been times recently when the Flyers have played under the radar, he says, overshadowed by the successes of their South Philly neighbors.

"I think it's great that the Phillies won two years ago," Gagne says. "That takes a little pressure off of us."

Gagne watched the Phillies parade down Broad Street from his home and it inspired him.

"It was fun to watch that on TV and know that it could be us if we bring the Stanley Cup back to Philly," he says. "It gave us a great taste of what could be."

***

"We wait so long between drinks of champagne," says former columnist Bill Lyon. "The euphoria doesn't last very long and why should it?"

The Illinois native who arrived here in 1972 says there is no better sports town in the country. No other place has suffered as much, for as long, and yet remained so dedicated to their teams. Plus, no one has lived with the actions of long-ago fans more than we have.

"Reputations are like vaccination scars," Lyon says. "You'll always have the scar. But there has to be a shelf life for the story about throwing snowballs at Santa. That was 40 years ago."

This is a special time in Philly sports history that we're living in, he says. With the exception of the lowly Sixers, our teams are now annual favorites - or at least contenders - for championships. Star athletes want to be here and the up-and-coming teams want to knock us off the block.

Fans should appreciate this moment, Lyon says. But he knows it won't change them.

"I saw a kid at the Phillies championship parade carrying a sign that read, 'I promise never to boo again,'" recalls Lyon. "He probably kept that promise until opening day of the next season."

***

When Donovan McNabb dances with an air guitar in the tunnel at Cowboys Stadium before the NFC Wildcard game in January, the raucous fans at Chickie's & Pete's in South Philly scream wildly at the six-foot wide TV screens.

Neon signs light up the cavernous room and dance music reverberates off the wood panel walls. The place smells of Old Bay seasoning and stale beer. It's the natural habitat for anyone who hates the Cowboys, anyone who has ever been affiliated with the Cowboys, or anyone who roots for the Cowboys.

At the start of the game, fans move from table to table high-fiving each other, barking in each other's faces, occasionally chest bumping and generally pumping up the masses.

After a scoreless first quarter, the crowd is restless and tense but more subdued - the intense barking has become more like desperate pleading.

And by the end of the second quarter, many of the fans just stare at the screen as though it's displaying an educational video they're being forced to watch. Their arms are folded, the mouths droop open and their eyes glaze over.

The Eagles trail 27-7 going into halftime. When the Birds go three and out to start the second half, the booing begins.

"This is typical shit," says John Reilly, 24, of Mt. Airy. "It's better to lose now than in the NFC championships like they would have done anyway."

So much for any warm and fuzzy feelings carrying over from the past two successful Phillies seasons, or from the Eagles five appearances in the NFC championship game since 2001. Memories of the Eagles playing in Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005 are beyond distant.

These fans are pissed off.

"I think we're still those fans," says Walt Larsen, 30, of Lancaster. "We'll always be those guys. When each team wins a championship, maybe we'll change. But we've got years of pent up anger."

As the clock winds down on the Cowboys' 34-14 victory, the fans in the restaurant turn to drinking and socializing, almost ignoring the game altogether. Maybe the pain from this defeat is too fresh but the tension in the air is palpable.           

"I want 'em all to win, all the time," snaps Hugh Bristow, 38, from Northeast Philly. "And I want to fire that fat fuck Andy Reid."

His friend Joe Mac, 25, clad in a Mike Richards Flyers T-shirt, counters, "They could get rid of Reid and they're still going to suck. Donovan should just be doing soup commercials not throwing footballs."

When another person walks by wearing a Flyers jersey, all three high-five each other and chant, "Let's go Flyers! Let's go Flyers!"

***

By the time the Phillies begin spring training in Florida, fans have already purchased 2.8 million tickets to Phillies home games. The team is on pace to outsell the 2009 season when a record 3.6 million fans packed the stadium, including 73 sell outs.

"The only reason we're in this position is fan support," Phillies president David Montgomery says of the team's recent successes. "We're here because we've enjoyed tremendous fan support. We think we owe it to these fans to keep it going."

That's why the team sacrificed Cliff Lee to obtain Roy Halladay, a 32-year old workhorse who signed with the team through 2013. He arrived in Clearwater to begin preparing for the upcoming season within days after signing with the team.

The ace who dominated the American League from the hinterlands of Canada won 148 games in 12 seasons but he's never seen playoff action. He's hungry for the post-season.

"For me, that's the ultimate," Halladay says. "That's the driving force for me right now. It was never about changing teammates, changing environments, changing cities. It was about wanting to pitch in October. That's what I look forward to here the most."

We're pulling for you Roy. We really are. But don't be surprised if things don't start well and fans begin chanting for Cliff Lee. Or even worse: chanting E-A-G-L-E-S! EAGLES!

Welcome to Philadelphia.