SportsProf

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Monday, January 24, 2005

Enjoying the Moment

I remember talking to my father about the end of the 1980 World Series. Game 6 took place in Philadelphia, and he had two tickets. I had three midterms the next day, and we both decided it would be better for me to stay at school in New Jersey than venture down to Vet Stadium for what proved to be one of the biggest days in Philadelphia sports history. (Historical note: I studied hard all day and then went back to my dorm room and watched Game 6, by myself, as my roommates were New Yorkers and the Philadelphia folks at my college were more a diaspora than a union -- but so much for studying that night!). Anyway, it all boiled down to Tug McGraw facing Willie Wilson in the top of the ninth, and, as everyone remembers, Wilson swung and missed for strike three, and the Phillies won the World Series. It was the first time the Phillies had won the World Series.

What I remember vividly about that was my dad's description of getting to the game and then what happened immediately after McGraw struck out Wilson. My father told me that when he got to the game, people had to pinch themselves, saying, "Hey, can this really be happening? After all, this is the World Series. What the heck are the Phillies doing here? Where are the Yankees and the Dodgers?" And then, at the end of the game, he told me that there was a pregnant pause, a caesura, right after McGraw struck out Wilson. The roar of the crowd wasn't absolutely immediate, there was a split-second pause, as if all Philadelphia fans had to register in their brains that this actually was happening, that the Phillies actually won the World Series. They still were haunted by the collapse of 1964, when the Phillies were 6 up with 12 to play and then the playoff fiasco against the Dodgers in 1977 in the NLCS. If you watch a video of that Series-winning strikeout, you'll see what my father meant.

It's against this backdrop, and many others in the other major local professional sports' teams history, that the Eagles' victory must be viewed, at least in the eyes of the Philadelphia sports fan. Nothing, seemingly, comes easily to Philadelphia, perhaps a legacy of being the birthplace of democracy and the at-times frustrating discussions that went along with it. During the time of the meetings regarding Independence, Ben Franklin said to his fellow patriots, "We must all hang together, for, if we do not, then surely we will all hang. Separately." That, too, perhaps, is the credo of the Philadelphia sports fan.

Many readers of this blog probably aren't Philadelphia sports fans. Most probably view Philadelphia as this huge city between New York and Washington which neither has the big money of Manhattan or the big power of the nation's capital to make the city that interesting. Of course, Philadelphia was where America all began, and if it weren't for a compromise between the northern and southern states well before the Civil War that took the nation's capital to the District of Columbia, that area would still be a swamp.

Philadelphia used to be called "The Workshop to the World," and in the late 1800's much of what was put to use in the U.S. had some origin in Philadelphia -- locomotives, ships, clothing, cigars, hats, furniture. Drive down Broad Street from the northern suburbs or Fifth Street from the same direction, take the Amtrak through the city or the commuter railroads from the north, and you'll see what I mean. Except today what you see is the paleontology, the fossils of old buildings that in prouder days actually made something. Ultimately, the industries fell victim to cheaper labor down South and then overseas (and to aggressive unionism and municipal taxation that didn't help matters that much either).

The shells of the buildings remain. Decaying, stripped of their metal, weeds overgrowing anywhere concrete or brick is not, windows gone or cracked, with only faded signs as the indicators that Phillies Cigars were once made in one of the buildings, or wool products, or shoes. Sad reminders of the swift evolution of the international consumer goods and the unfortunate lesson that it's perhaps incompatible for a society to require a decent standard of living for factory workers and have a plethora of factory jobs at the same time. No, those jobs are now in Asia and Latin America (where work-related laws are fewer and easier on the employer), with these dilapidated structures a reminder that the real estate and employment landscape do not change as quickly as the currents of the world economy.

In the 1950's, Philadelphia was still the men's clothing capital of the world, and there were 50,000 jobs in the men's clothing industry before overseas competition reduced that number to perhaps a couple thousand today. Back then, Stanley Blacker, Botany 500, Chips 'n Twigs, H. Freeman and Hickey Freeman (among others whose names I have forgotten) were made in Philadelphia. There were breweries, too, like Schmidt's and Ortlieb's, and while few mourn the loss of those brews, the companies behind them had lots of jobs. There were also national banks, and powerful ones at that -- First Pennsylvania, Philadelphia National Bank, Girard Bank, Central Penn National Bank, Continental Bank, PSFS, Industrial Valley Bank, Provident Bank -- and they also were an employer of choice. First Pennsylvania and PNB were among the ten largest banks in the country, and PSFS was the second largest savings society in the country after The Bowery in NYC.

Today, many of the clothiers are gone, and all of the banks are. Oh, there are successor banks, but none of them are headquartered in Philadelphia, and while there are jobs at some of the successors, there aren't nearly as many as there used to be. Philadelphia law firms remain on the national scene, but even they confess that the bulk of their business comes from outside the city, precisely because a city that boasted 2,000,000 residents in 1960 when the country's population might have been 150 million now boasts 1,500,000 residents in 2004 when the country's population is 280 million and counting. And about a third of those residents are at or below the poverty line. A city that once had 5 U.S. House seats now only has 2.

That's not to say, of course, that the city is on life support (although there is a nasty scandal enveloping City Hall now which could touch Mayor John Street but seems unlikely to at the moment), and that those who remain resemble the population of Detroit in the first Robocop movie or, better yet, the first Mad Max flick, but that's just not the case.

The city has had its down moments, to be sure, but it's blessed with a lot of great aspects. It is the city where America began, and it has a bunch of wonderful historical sights, including the new Constitution Center. It boasts many major universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, which was founded by the first American, Ben Franklin. It is a haven for college students, and it has Penn, Temple, Jefferson and Drexel medical schools. It once was said that 20% of the doctors in the U.S. came to Philadelphia for part of their training, and I think that's still true. It still hosts some major companies, such as Comcast, and it has absolutely gorgeous suburbs with affordable houses and outstanding school districts. It has the biggest intracity park in Fairmount Park, a great (read: safe and clean) Center City business district and some wonderful neighborhoods of its own right. Its Amtrak station is terrific, and its airport is excellent, notwithstanding the USAir baggage fiasco over Christmas which caught that wounded carrier flatfooted.

Sure, it has a tough reputation, but sometimes you can't always believe what you see in the national media. When I got married, friends from all over the country made their way to a beautiful part of central New Jersey. The beauty of the region (and they drove through Philadelphia suburbs as well) captivated them, and they asked an interesting question: "Why haven't they told us about this?" As if all of the beauty were a well-kept secret.

It's because nice stories and pretty scenery just don't always sell when, at the same time, politicians are inducing the hrowing snowballs at the Dallas Cowboys during a nationally televised game.

But, by and large, this is a region that gets bypassed because New York has the skyscrapers and the financial houses and because Washington has the Senators and Congressmen (not to mention the Nationals). New Yorkers would as much acknowledge Philadelphia as they would that the Boston Red Sox are a good baseball team, and Washingtonians probably would say "oh, that's nice" if you told them you were from Philadelphia but could otherwise care less. And, at some point, they'd probably ask if it was true that the fans booed Santa Claus or threw the snowballs I just referenced.

And the thing of it is that Philadelphians could care less what New Yorkers think. Sure, they'd acknowledge that New York is a nice place to visit, but they'd argue that Philadelphia is a nicer place to live. If jeered that the sidewalks of Philadelphia close up at half past eight on a week night, Philadelphians would respond that's because they don't live in undersized apartments which compel people to be on the street so that they don't hit their family members or roommates with crockery because of the enforced proximity that high real estate prices causes. They also don't care if the national media chides them or if rather ignorant sports talk show hosts in other cities criticize them, because, well, those talk show hosts are known to talk too much and knowing the facts is never a prerequisite to getting the job (even in Philadelphia). Moreover, those Philadelphia fans would say, "it's great that they say this on TV or the radio, but would they have the guts to come to Broad and Snyder, Cottman and Frankford and many neighborhoods in between to say that bad stuff?

Of course not.

This is a city that has taken its lumps. It's the only U.S. city ever to be bombed (albeit by its own police force in the misguided and tragic attempt to force a militant group out of their houses in West Philadelphia in 1985), it was at the heart of the Abscam bribery scandal that saw three members of the Philadelphia delegation to the U.S. Congress (all Congressmen) and one U.S. Senator (from NJ) lose their jobs, it's lost a ton of jobs, more so than perhaps any other region in the country, and it's seen many of its old institutions vanish. John Wanamaker's? Gone. Strawbridge & Clothier? Gone. Places your folks used to take you to -- many of them gone.

So what does the Eagles' victory over Atlanta and first trip to the Super Bowl in 24 years (and only second overall) mean to them?

They were outside at Cottman and Frankford last night until the wee hours, braving wind-chill factors that were about -10. They were outside at Broad and Snyder last night, doing the same thing. They wore their Eagles jerseys to work last week, and they wore them outside over four sweatshirts and long underwear yesterday afternoon. They talked to people who they hadn't seen for a while, talking about where they were in 1981 and what they've been up to since then. They've laughed with neighbors who they don't get to see often because they work different shifts or, because, well, people don't get to know their neighbors the way they used to -- everyone's too busy.

Go to the supermarket? Talk Eagles with the produce guy. Take the bus? Talk Eagles with th driver, talk Eagles with your teachers, your students, with the shoe shine guys. As Governor Ed Rendell said last night, the Eagles make everyone equals, because the executive and the shoeshine guy, when they're talking football, are equal -- as Eagles fans. Everywhere you look, they're talking Eagles.

Some would say that a city's pro sports teams are the opiate of the masses, that cities love to keep teams around because without them, cities won't have much of an identity or that the population won't have that many other constructive things to do. Others say that the teams are an important part of the cultural landscape, that they have their place the way the orchestra does, the way the jazz clubs do, the way the museums do. Today, though, is not the day to have that discussion.

Because, whatever you believe, in Philadelphia today there is a happiness that the region hasn't seen for quite a while. What the Philadelphia Eagles did yesterday was, at least for a while, to lift that fog that bad things will happen to the region as a matter of course. Had the Eagles lost, the rest of the country would have said, "what can you expect, it's a Philadelphia team, and they've gone the longest of any city with pro teams in baseball, basketball, football and hockey to win a title. They choked, just like they always do."

They would have painted the region as a loser once again.

But now they can't. Now, of course, that doesn't mean that the season is over, that either the Eagles or the fans will be content with a Super Bowl loss. If you listened yesterday to Donovan McNabb and Brian Dawkins after the game, while they were happy, they were reserved. Because they won't be happy until they win the ultimate game.

There is a great parallel between the Philadelphia Eagles and the City of Philadelphia and the surrounding region. All year long, everyone has underestimated the Eagles. They underestimated them because they lost 3 NFC title games in a row, the last two at home. They underestimated them because they let 2 veteran defensive backs go after last season, Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. They wondered how the Eagles would replace those two. They underestimated them because they let Duce Staley go, and they wondered aloud whether the Eagles' defense could stop the run. Put simply, despite many improvements the Eagles made, the expectation was that somehow they were destined not to win the game yesterday.

The region too gets underestimated, precisely because it's not New York and it's not Washington and it's not Boston. And, anyone who says that, is right. But what the place is is Philadelphia, a place with outstanding opportunities, a place that affords someone a reasonable commute and close proximity to mountains, beach and country. A place where you get to know your neighbors, a place where 80% of the people are from the region, a place with outstanding culture. Yet, people forget about it. Because it's not Boston, New York or Washington.

Going into the Super Bowl, the Eagles are 6-point underdogs, and that's about right. After all, New England has won 2 out of the last 3 Super Bowls, Bill Belichick is the best coach since Vince Lombardi, his two coordinators will have plum jobs after the season (Charlie Weis at Notre Dame and Romeo Crennel most likely in Cleveland), and their QB has ice water in his veins. Read all that, and you're surprised it's only a 6-point spread.

Once again, Boston is compared favorably to Philadelphia, with the city's epitaph, one of being underestimated, at the forefront again.

And this year the underestimators have been wrong.

Every time.

Let the underestimators beware!

And let all the Eagles' fans enjoy a "snow" day today, hang out, finish off their leftovers, have a few beers at noon, sing "Fly Eagles Fly" at their local bar, on the shop floor, at the job site, at the water cooler, anywhere they deem suitable. Because those fans stayed with this team when it was plum awful, when it was perpetually 10-6 with a so-so offense, when it made huge gaffes in the draft. They wore their jerseys, bought their tickets and showed up every week.

Enjoy the moment, guys, because you, too, deserve it.

As underestimated as you are.

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