Can Philly's sports fanatics handle an athletic renaissance or will they go soft?
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-foot-6-inch right-hander strolls into the news 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. The impact of two National League pennants and one World Championship title is amazing.
“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 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 news 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.”