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The Curious Case of the Philadelphia Sports Fan
The early exit of the Philadelphia Phillies from the 2011 playoffs, along with the dismal 1-4 start of a Philadelphia Eagles team that everyone in the sports media had pegged as a Super Bowl contender, has got me feeling a little bit down. Things had been going uncharacteristically well for a while. In the past five years, we've seen the Phillies win 5 straight NL East titles and a World Series, we've seen the Eagles win two NFC East titles and make it to an NFC Championship game from the wild card slot, and we've seen the Flyers make the Stanley Cup Finals. On paper, it's been a pretty good time to be a Philadelphia sports fan in the past couple of years.
Still, if my own personal feelings and those being overwhelmingly expressed on the sports talk radio stations in the Philadelphia market are anything to go by, it's been an extremely disappointing Fall. The frustrating sentiment was best expressed in a visual medium in the last game of the NLDS, in which Ryan Howard came up to bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and hit a sharp grounder to the right side of the infield, only to collapse on the field as he was getting himself out of the batter's box thanks to a ruptured Achilles tendon. The image captured perfectly the crumpled spirit of the Philly faithful who had been so pumped throughout the season watching the best team in baseball make mincemeat out of everyone they came across, only to completely collapse in the last month of the season as the bulk of the position players on the team simply ran out of gas. And yes, the fans in attendance and many watching at home made that sense of disappointment loud and clear.
Couple that with the Philadelphia Eagles, who made a blitzkrieg of personnel moves after the NFL lockout ended to shore up what is arguably the best offense in football and address the many holes that were present in their defense last year, leading to their first round exit from the playoffs after a year that began 10-4 and had all the promise in the world. Unfortunately, many of the new defensive pickups have been considerably less than stellar, leading to three weeks in a row in which the Eagles took leads into the 4th quarter, only to lose the game in the end. The atmosphere of disappointment in the two major sports teams among the fandom is palatable, and harkens back to an era of sports with which most of the fans are infinitely more familiar.
I was born in 1982. When I was just under a year old, the Philadelphia 76ers won the NBA Title. I had no conscious memory of it. In fact, up until 2008, when the Phillies finally won a World Series, I and anyone else who was born after me had no conscious memory of anything but disappointment in our sports teams. We had a 25-year drought in championships among the four major sports, the longest of any city that had been consistently represented by teams in all four for that amount of time. Sure, we had a lot of good sports to watch during that drought. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with the early 2000s, the Philadelphia Eagles were a consistently good football team. The Flyers dominated the mid-1980s and mid-1990s in the Wales (and later Eastern) Conference. The 76ers did fairly well during the Larry Brown/Allen Iverson years. But all of those teams fell short of that elusive World Title, and as a result, the Philadelphia fandom began to adopt the concept of perennially falling short into their own unique culture.
Philadelphia sports fans (and really, Philadelphia anything fans) have gotten a terrible rap from the national media for as long as I’ve been alive. Bring up a conversation about the culture here with anyone who isn’t from here and you’ll hear the same thing. We booed Santa Claus. We cheered Michael Irvin’s career-ending injury. We get down on our own teams when they underperform. We’re loud, vulgar, rude, demanding, unforgiving louts with incredibly high standards who don’t appreciate the effort that athletes or performers make to perform for us, especially when they’re our hometown people
Let me, as a lifelong resident of the Philly sports nation and fan of all things Philadelphia, call immediate B.S. on most of the above. Are we loud, vulgar, demanding, and occasionally asses? You bet! We are passionate fans of our sports and entertainment. I defy you to find anywhere in the United States (outside Texas) that has a greater love for and pride in the people and things that it identifies with as part of the cultural identity.
Yes, we boo, loudly and often, and many times directed more at our own team than the opponents. But what should that tell you about us? That we’re unappreciative? Or that we care? Go to any college or pro football game where a normally good team does more poorly than expected and you’ll hear boos. Go to any game where a normally bad team plays poorly and you’ll hear dead silence. The faithful crowd’s probably been beaten down all season and sees no reason to give voice to any kind of sensation unless something good happens. They just don’t care.
Not the case in Philadelphia. You can be atop your division or in dead last place and this city and its people will come out to the games and get behind your effort. We’re the home of Rocky Fragging Balboa, for crying out loud. You will never find a louder crowd when a home team needs to come from behind, or a more celebratory crowd when said comeback actually succeeds. But the other side of that is that, because we invest so much of our passion and emotional energy (not to mention money) in our sports and entertainment, we do indeed boo when people that we support and that we give that special Philly flavor of love to don’t seem to care.
Case in point, when Guns N’ Roses comes to the First Union Center for their infamous concert in 2002 and cancels TWO HOURS AFTER THE OPENING ACT HAS LEFT THE STAGE, yeah, we’re going to hit the roof a little bit. And we’re going to get even more ticked off when every national media outlet (along with the band, the management, and the label) characterize what happened as a “riot” when there were no arrests made and no major injuries!
We get this treatment every single time there’s an incident of bad behavior at one of our events. “Well, there go those Philadelphia fans again. Worst fans in the world, they are. Heh, did you know they’re the only city in the country that keeps a JAIL in its stadium?” Heh, did you know that the rest of you need one?
People, there are badly behaved fans in every single city. We certainly don’t hold Disco Demolition Night against Chicago fans. Or the fan who threw a helmet at Reggie Smith against San Francisco. Or the fan who attacked Billy Spiers against Milwaukee. Or the fan who took a swing at Gary Sheffield against Boston. Or the fans who bombarded Dodger Stadium with promotional giveaway baseballs against Los Angeles. Or the fans who destroyed an entire section of Cleveland Municipal Stadium during the last home game of the original Cleveland Browns against Cleveland.
Or, for that matter, the Rangers fans who attacked players on the Boston Bruins bench against New York. Or the Rangers fans who doused the Canucks bench with beer against New York. Or the Islanders fans who showered the ice with beer and garbage during the Game 6 of the 1993 Patrick Division semifinals against New York. Or the fan who threw a FRAGGING HUNTING KNIFE at Wally Joyner against New York. Or the 200 Giants fans who pelted the San Diego Chargers bench with chunks of ice against New York. Or the fans who poured beer and spit on the visitors families’ section at Yankees Stadium during the 2010 ALCS against New York.
A casual observer might observe the decades-old national media fixation on the character of Philadelphia spectators and wonder if maybe it might have something to do with almost every national media outlet being headquartered in and populated by people from New York. Or maybe that’s just my paranoia running a little high lately.
Yes, our passion is very noticeable when it turns ugly. But no one seems to report the other side of the coin, and that is our unparalleled respect, admiration, and love for the people who come here and excel, and show us the same love we show them.
I was at Jim Thome’s first game back in Philadelphia after he left for Chicago. He was the White Sox’s regular DH, but for some reason, they gave him that game off. The game was a blowout; I think the Phillies were up 9-2 or something like that in the top of the 9th, when the entire stadium starts chanting “We want Thome”. Now that the game was pretty much a foregone conclusion, all of Philly wanted to see the guy who spent so many great years in a Phillies uniform come up to bat against them. When he came back to town to face us with the Twins in 2010, the crowd gave him a standing ovation when he hit a two-run home run off of a Phillies reliever.
The people like Thome, Brian Dawkins, Randall Cunningham, and Cliff Lee, who come to Philadelphia, give us their best, and leave the city on good terms, will ALWAYS have a home here no matter where they wind up. Just the same, people like Axl Rose, J.D. Drew, and Terrell Owens will always have major heat here, either because of what their relationship was with the city while they were here or the manner in which they crapped all over it after they left.
Philadelphia is unique among American metropolitan areas. It takes a special kind of mentality to live here your entire life. It takes a very special kind of athlete or entertainer to ply their craft here. Disappointment is so ingrained into our collective consciousness that we are simultaneously steeled against it and very sensitive to the expectation of more of it. Show the fans who plopped down their money love and respect and you will be showered with it in return. Disrespect the fans with a half-assed attempt at a performance and you're going to quickly find yourself in the doghouse. That's the Philadelphia way: equally demanding and rewarding.