Rooting for a legitimately great ball team isn’t nearly as interesting.
The Phillies enter this season as 3-to-1 favorites to win—still seems odd to say it—their third consecutive pennant. They have a dream infield, an outfield of all-stars, the best starting pitcher in the game. The manager is beloved. The ballpark is gorgeous. Business is booming.
By nearly every metric, this is the best of times for the ball club. Yet despite the team’s success—the winning, the awards, the commemorative DVDs—my fervency has waned. I look forward to the season, of course, but the intensity has left me. The hunger has given way to contented ennui.
To admit this in Philadelphia—“a city that breaks windows to express happiness when the Phillies win,” according to a recent Inquirer piece—feels almost heretical. We’re taught to be passionate to the point of hysteria; anything less is a WIP-issued “violation.” After all, aren’t our teams supposed to win? Isn’t that the point?
Ostensibly, it is. But now that October baseball has become the rule, something true has been lost. “It is one thing to surprise and delight fans with an up-and- coming team,” wrote Phil Sheridan. “It is quite another to meet ever higher expectations and ever lower tolerance levels.” Sheridan’s “surprise and delight” have gone the way of Rowand and Coste, replaced by group membership in a zero-sum arms race.
The Phillies, no longer capable of surprise, now give us satisfied certainty, as Sandy Hingston writes in this month’s Philadelphia magazine:
“Who gives a damn about the Yankees, that Madonna-humping, steroid-slurping, $2,500-a-seat bunch of droids? We’ve still got Jimmy and Ryan and Chase and Raul and Carlos and Cole and Charlie, and now we’ve got Roy, too … that’s right. That’s Philadelphia talkin’.”
The final italicization lends a touch of comedy: This is Philly mag talking, doing its ersatz “addy-tood” bit between the facelift ads and society pics. It’s an imitation of aggrieved Phillies fanship—but now that the team is a power, the act seems particularly hollow.
A recent Bill Lyon editorial in the Inquirer was similarly revealing: “To be a Philadelphia fan is to be conditioned to heartbreak, to fear success because to acknowledge it is to invite hexes and jinxes, to bring down the wrath of Billy Penn’s hat, and do-do-that-voo-doo-that-you-do-so-well.”
Yet a few paragraphs later, he tells us to “Put [the 2010 team] at somewhere between 90 and 100 wins.” So much for fearing success—and for that matter, hexes, jinxes and Billy Penn’s hat. So much for the things that, however “painful” they might have been, were (whisper it softly) kind of part of the fun. At the very least, those things were long earned, and it doesn’t matter if Danny Ozark and Nick Leyva were doing the earning. The identity carved from our collective disappointment has been rendered irrelevant—and it’s telling that Lyon isn’t ready to let it go. Because in its place has come something less sharp, less unique. Like Red Sox fans after their own Series win, we no longer have a story to tell. Our passion, once so raw, is now used to funnel us toward the Majestic Clubhouse Store, a surefire way to get 23 bucks for a two-dollar T-shirt.
In the spring of 1989, as the Phils of Steve Jeltz and Don Carman prepared for a wretched sixth-place finish, Calvin and Hobbes spent two weeks on the saga of Calvin’s beanie. He sends away six Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs box tops for the hat, complete with battery-operated propeller. He imagines the dramatic life changes it will bring: it’ll give him a permanent smile; send him soaring through the clouds. The six-week wait is unbearable; sounding like a pre-’08 Phillies fan, he morosely tells Hobbes, “Every day I get my hopes up, thinking my beanie will come … and then it doesn’t.” Yet when it finally does arrive, the hat doesn’t change him at all. The propeller just spins. “I don’t seem to be lifting off. This is very peculiar,” he says.
I suppose I feel the same way. Whether it’s a red-felt beanie or a World Series title, the things we want so desperately turn out to be, far from salvation, just another item off the list. All along, the hoping was the point. ■