Philly: After the Fall

a perpetual also-ran finds itself in an unfamiliar role

by by Katie Delaney

illustration by by John Fisher

When the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series a little less than a year ago, my father called me and yelled over the roar of 40,000 people that he would have Brad Lidge’s baby. An out-of-towner might wonder why one World Series caused near-riots on Broad Street, or how baseball could cause ordinarily reserved businessmen to shout biologically impossible statements over the phone, but Philly sports fans know that this wasn’t just any win. This championship came to a city steeped in 25 years of losing, a city obsessed with its second-rate status. Philadelphia had gotten so used to its loser-hood that disappointment and defeat had become part of its identity. Alongside its famous craft beers, the city I grew up in has long brewed a dialectic blend of hometown pride and self-loathing.

Almost a year later, the Phils look stronger than ever. But does Philadelphia? With one swing of a bat, the city’s entire identity was called into question. What happens to a winless city after it wins?
Christina’s World? Enh. Philadelphia has long played the role of neglected younger sibling in the family of Eastern Seaboard cities, and not just in the realm of sports. You want arts, culture, or finance? Head to New York. Politics? Hop the train down to D.C. All we’ve got is this sort-of-cool-but-mostly-just-old cracked bell, and a surprising number of pedophiliac-looking Ben Franklin impersonators. We are consistently passed over by businesses and tourists, and after a 40-year population plunge costing us a quarter of our peak population we have been eclipsed in size by embarrassingly younger cities. (Phoenix? Really?) After years of being told that our only contribution to the country is our 1776 glory days, we have become decidedly cynical about our national importance, athletic or otherwise.

Just ask Philly native Andrew Wyeth, the great American painter. It took his hometown museum 90 years to hold an exhibition of his work, while museums worldwide had done so decades earlier. As Philadelphia Magazine put it, “Philadelphia being Philadelphia, [it’s] fraught with the endemic sense of inferiority: if it’s local, it can’t be that good.” But while Philadelphians are more than willing to criticize ourselves, god forbid a nonnative point out any of our flaws: they’ll have a mob at their door quicker than a Cole Hamels fastball, ready to defend their city, and probably not in a brotherly-loving way.

Protect ya St. Neck
Our sports Phans embody most fully this contradictory mindset; we are the first to doubt that any of our teams will win, and for good reason. A short recap of the heart-wrenching saga that is professional sports history in Philadelphia: since the Sixers’ championship in ’83, we’ve been sans-hardware in all of the big four (baseball, basketball, hockey, and football). In case you weren’t counting, that’s 100 combined seasons of not winning. No other city with teams in as many leagues as Philadelphia has gone so long without winning any of them. The Fightin’ Phillies are especially good at sustaining a drought; one of the oldest teams in all of baseball, they had only one World Series under their belt before 2008—28 years between titles and an excruciating 97 years in the major leagues before becoming champions at all. 

And it’s not just the drought that makes us doubtful—any Phan will tell you that the real hallmark of Philly sports is our ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Take, for example, the Phold of ’64—one of the biggest collapses in sports history. With 10 games left in the season, the Phils had a six-and-a-half game lead in the National League, all but guaranteeing a spot in the World Series. They had even printed up their tickets to the championship, only to nosedive into a 10-game losing streak, costing them
their spot in the Series. (Those tickets are now embarrassing collectors items.) Other notable blunders: the last time the Phillies appeared in the World Series was in 1993, when they lost to a Canadian team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Ouch.

And yet, the flip side of Philly’s split personality is that we’re still a fervently passionate sports town. We’ve made a name for ourselves as the kind of fans that will pay an arm, a leg, and occasionally a firstborn child for Eagles tickets; the kind of fans who boo and throw snowballs at Santa Claus. (It was in 1968, at an Eagles game. If you heard about it, it was probably grossly exaggerated, and if not, well, it’s better that way. Supposedly he seemed drunk.) We love to lament our curse, go on about how hard life is as a Philly sports fan, and we’re the first to criticize (and sometimes harass) our underperforming athletes. But don’t you dare tell us that Donovan McNabb has already peaked unless you too would like to be promptly pelted with snowballs. And be forewarned: if there’s no snow on the ground, we’ll probably resort to those newfangled plastic beer bottles, a change instituted for fans like us. Lacking any alcohol-related projectiles, don’t rule out batteries. Eight fans were arrested in 1999 when a few D-cells were tossed at J.D. Drew in the outfield during his first game against the Phillies after refusing to sign with us the year before.

The thing is that our always-a-bridesmaid athletic status parallels our historical past so closely that it’s almost impossible to separate the two. Being a Philly sports fan is part of what it means to be a Philadelphian. We know we’re no New York or DC, or even (cringe) Phoenix, but goddamnit, we love this city, in spite of—or maybe because of—the losing streak.

Partly sunny in Philadelphia
So, naturally, when game five of the ’08 World Series was suspended in the sixth inning due to rain, the city let out a collective, knowing, exasperated sigh. Of course this would happen to us, we said. We’ll come so close only to lose the series because of the goddamn rain, and because this is Philadelphia. Conditioned by years of almost-theres and not-quites, we knew not to expect to win; we were ready to throw up our hands and walk
away, just as we rounded third base. But then, a final Lidge strikeout simultaneously handed us everything we’d been waiting for and robbed us of our whole schtick. We can no longer say that we’re losers and we love it, because we won. Does this mean that we’ve got nothing left to fight for, nothing left to prove, and therefore what it means to be a Philly fan (and a
Philadelphian) is null and void? Was the salient piece of our character stripped down and hung up in the form of a 2008 World Series flag at Citizens Bank Park?

Well, no. Of course not. While last year’s Series may have won us a piece of that ever-evasive spotlight, it turns out that we seem to be just as good at being defending champs as underdogs. Judging by this year’s season, Philly fans are still rowdy, still passionate, and attending more games than ever. (Citizens Bank Park has even overtaken Boston’s perennially sold-out Fenway Park as the leader in average home game attendance.) What about the hope that the champagne-soaked euphoria of last fall might help us quench the cultural/historical drought that gets Philly passed over time and time again? That’s more complicated. Like everywhere else, Philly’s been hit hard by economic troubles. Until last week, when a vote from Harrisburg helped the city narrowly escape financial ruin (by approving sales tax increases that will amount to $700 million over five years), Philadelphia was facing a shutdown of all libraries, parks and pools, and layoffs of some 3,000 city workers, including trash collectors, police officers, and firemen. 

But there are bright spots. The Mural Arts Program has been a huge success, making Philadelphia home to more murals than any other city in the country (over 2,800) while providing jobs for painters and offering a legal, creative outlet for inner-city kids and graffiti artists. The Broadway at the Academy series brings Philadelphians shows that they would ordinarily travel to New York to see, and a drop in crime has allowed us to exchange our #6 spot on the list of America’s most dangerous cities for a far-more-respectable #22. There are even whispers that 2010 could be the first census since 1940 with an increase in population.

Admittedly, none of these can be traced directly to a World Series, but the boost in pride and the glimpse of something other than second-best that came with the Phils’ win last fall certainly didn’t hurt. Trophy in hand, and with their hallmark prideful pessimism, Philadelphians seem to be harboring a little more hope than usual that their city (and the dreadful 2009 version of Brad Lidge, but that’s a whole different ball game) can turn it around. Phinally.

KATIE DELANEY B’11 wouldn’t mind having Brad Lidge for a stepdad.