Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Where I'm Booing From
I love New York. I've lived here for all but two years since college, when I went to grad school in DC, and I hated those two years away in large part because DC was just so freakin' lame compared to New York. Brooklyn in particular is a wonderful place; I've been here for most of the last eight years, and the last five have easily been the best period of my life.

(I hate New York too--everyone who lives here sort of does--but we'll leave that for another time. The two emotions are not contradictory, even on a moment-by-moment basis. If you're here, you understand; if you don't, just trust me and let's move on.)

But I'm from Philadelphia, and that definitely shapes certain things. I can't really claim to "know" Philadelphia anymore, not having lived in the area full-time in nearly 20 years now, and my main attachments to the place are family still residing there, and the Phillies and Eagles. That said, those are serious attachments. Especially, with no disrespect to my family (with whom, after all, I'd presumably remain close with wherever they went), the Phillies.

Being from Philadelphia, and particularly having made an unhealthy, excessive and evidently irrevocable emotional investment in the Phillies at a young age, does certain things to a person. It inculcates a degree of fatalism tinged with inferiority. The team fails, you boo and jeer and otherwise act boorish, and the two things seem (some would say are) connected--though whether it's that non-supportive fans drag down the performance, or that poor performance is a just reward for the lack of faith, none can say.

So I read this article in Tuesday's Philadelphia Inquirer with both dread and recognition:

[Mitch] Nathanson, an associate professor of legal writing at Villanova's School of Law, set out to chronicle his own baseball pain, using his darkest memory - "Black Friday" - as a reflector.

"Black Friday," as all scarred Phillies fans recall, refers to Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on the sparkling afternoon of Oct. 7, 1977. The Phillies and Dodgers were tied, one game apiece, in the series, and Games 4 and 5 were set for Veterans Stadium. But with two outs and no one on base in the ninth inning, the Phils blew the game and eventually the series.

Somewhere in the research, however, the academic in Nathanson surfaced. He recognized that it wasn't just his mental state that had been negatively affected by this baseball tragedy, it was the entire city's psyche.

The result is a book that, though in carefully footnoted terms, perceptively dissects the always stormy three-sided relationship involving Philadelphia, its fans and its teams, particularly the Phillies.

"Philadelphia has seen its reflection in the Phillies more than in any other team or institution," Nathanson wrote, "finding in them support, or blame, for its opinion of itself. . . . While Philadelphians may love the Eagles, they identify with the Phillies."
The 1977 Phils were likely the best in franchise history. They won 101 games. They had power, speed, Steve Carlton, and a remarkably deep bullpen. That's what made Black Friday so maddeningly difficult to fathom. And when that optimistic bubble burst, it affected how Philadelphians felt about their city as well.

"We like to think we're rational decision-makers, that we reach conclusions like judges do, issuing a verdict after weighing all the evidence," Nathanson said. "But research shows that's not the case. We usually develop a gut feeling first, and then we rationalize it later. We pick and choose facts that support that.
"[The negativity] manifests itself, however, through sports and particularly baseball," he said. "In this way, we retain a link to our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. In short, it's in our blood, passed down from one generation to the next. . . . It's what makes us uniquely Philadelphian.

I was four and not yet a fan when "Black Friday" struck, but I get it. Nathanson must have been 12 or so; I can't imagine what a bummer that must have been. By the time I was that age, the Phillies had fallen from their late '70s/early '80s peak and were beginning a 15-year stretch of awful play interrupted only by the improbable 1993 pennant... and, of course, the agonizing World Series loss that followed it.

Meanwhile, the rot has spread to the town's other teams as surely as the soul-corrosion of Philly fandom spreads within those families the author describes. Not only has it been 28 years since the Phillies' first and only championship; no Philadelphia team in any sport has won the big prize since the NBA's 76ers did it in May 1983. I was 10 then. In a few weeks I'll turn 35. Given how depressing a prospect that is to start with, perhaps I'll get Nathanson's book for my birthday.

No comments: