About baseball…and the Phillies

Philadelphia Citizens Bank Park, September 2019.

The Philadelphia Phillies just won Game 1 of the National League Division Series for Major League Baseball. A bowl of peanuts in their shells sat in my lap and a cool (not cold) Yuengling Traditional Lager beside me was refilled many times. This piece of writing appears to be too long for a comfortable read, so I will break it into three parts. (I think; it’s still in progress.) Even then this writing won’t get very close to touching the central mystery of why a non-sports fan wholeheartedly follows a sports team which plays 162 games each year hoping to qualify for a championship playoff season which can contain as many as 22 more games (in this year’s format). This piece of pieces can only address that topic in a roundabout way.

Being a baseball fan is a beautiful thing. Being a Phillies fan (or Phan as we say) is exquisite torture. Philadelphia is one of the oldest clubs in Major League Baseball, having entered MLB in 1883. People may claim various ages for the older teams based on the club’s creation versus when it joined what has become Major League Baseball. When it comes to heartbreak, “loveable losers”, and futility, Philadelphia stands shoulder to shoulder with the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, two kindred fanbases to the Phillies’. Philadelphia won its first World Series Championship in 1980, 97 years after it started competing. Though seven to nine years older (depending on how you count it), the Cubs won its first championship in 1907, a scant 33 years after club inception. Boston won a championship only two years after it was founded in 1901! By 1918 the club had won five championships, so we have to take all that crying about “a World Series drought” from 1918 to 2004 with a grain a salt. Sure, it was 86 years which is absolutely a long time, but let me again state: the Phillies went 97 years without EVER winning the championship! Fans who were children when the club was formed grew up, had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, and DIED without ever knowing the joy of watching their team win a championship! Additionally, the Phillies competed in the World Series only twice (1915 and 1950) before finally winning it. Between 1918 and 2004, Boston’s Red Sox competed four times (1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986). The Cubs, who won the World Series in 1908 and not again until 2016 (108 years, longer than the Phillies’ drought) nevertheless competed in the Series in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, and 1945, all after winning it, as noted, in 1907.

Countless writers have chronicled the beauties of baseball, and many others have extolled how wonderful it can be to follow the Phillies. Phillies fans are as knowledgeable about the sport as those in Cincinnati and St. Louis, as passionate as those in any city, as long-suffering more than any other fans, and at times as boorish as those in Boston and New York City. Unlike the latter two cities, however, Philly fans do not hate with impunity but for cause. The aged and now threadbare tale that Philly fans booed Santa Claus–which no doubt will be resurrected once again on Friday when the NLDS moves to Philadelphia–neglects to mention that the original actor hired to play Santa Claus got so drunk he couldn’t perform, so a fan in the stands was talked into playing the part. He was skinny, didn’t have a suitable beard and was given no padding to make him look appropriate. Just as they are savvy sports fans, Philadelphia fans also can evaluate a cheap substitute Santa when they see one: they booed. Booing Santa is a far cry from the Mets fans who hurled D-batteries at the Phillies one year. (This paragraph may have offended some fans from different cities. Kindly read the Rules of Engagement about unsuitable comments.)

Philadelphia’s Phillies passed 10,000 losses a few years ago. As of October 11, 2022, the team’s historical record in the regular season is 10,022 wins and 11,187 losses. A large chunk of those losses occurred in the first half of the 20th century when the team set a club record once with 111 losses for a season which held only 154 games. Most recently the team has struggled to be relevant despite fielding teams from 2018-2021 which promised more than they delivered. It couldn’t win more games than it lost until 2021 when it won one game that set its record at 82-80 instead of 81-81. This year (2022) it won only five more games than last year, 87-75, but with an expanded field for the postseason this qualified them to play in the wild card round. In the 11 years since the Phillies last appeared in the postseason, the club has jettisoned: five managers, two mid-season; two general managers; and one president of baseball operations, a position which didn’t exist when the 11 years started.

Losing is an integral component to being a Phillies fan. Despite that, let’s focus on winning. In a somewhat surprising showing, the Phillies won the best-of-three Wild Card round this year, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in two games. We use the word “somewhat” because the Phillies did beat the Cardinals four times in the six games matchups these teams had this year. Now they take on the Atlanta Braves and have just won the first game of that five-game division series. The Braves are last year’s World Series champions, look as good or better this year, stack up much better against the Phillies, and have the theoretical advantage that they didn’t have to compete last weekend. They are more rested and thus started the series with their two best pitchers lined up for the first two games. This means at least one of them will be able to come back in the fifth and final game should there be one in the best-of-five series. Philadelphia started its #3 pitcher, Ranger Suarez today. He was overmatched but somehow held things together.

And somehow…the Phillies won. Yet the feeling of futility lingers.

A quote I cannot find right now says this: “Most define the glass as being half full or half empty. In Philadelphia the glass is not only half empty, but it has a cigarette butt in it and a lipstick stain on the rim.” You who have lived in Philly appreciate the truthfulness of this. Victory not only never seems imminent, a six-run lead (as we had today) seemed to be not enough to my Philly-born wife. Was she right? The Phillies bled five runs and won the game 7-6, not what would be expected when the score was 7-1. Pessimists exist in every fanbase, but not all fanbases are built of pessimists. (Reference any team based in Seattle, the home of hopefulness.)

Being a Phillies fan brings certain pluses. No mascot in baseball or any sport rivals the Philly Phanatic. A civic pride, displaced for those who have relocated, invests in the Phanatic. We savor our relationship with the Phanatic as we savor the hometown band who “makes it”. (Don’t talk to me about Grunge from the ’90s. It obviously reflected the Pacific Northwest’s take on modern music.) To appreciate the Phanatic, one needs to see video of the Tommy Lasorda encounters, the multiple appearances of the Phanatic’s mother, the short-length feature of the Phanatic this year saving the Fourth of July, and singular encounters that are too specific to recount. Any club affectation which can take the fans’ minds off of the losing season deserves commendation.

To be a Phillies fan, however, means to accept all sorts of craziness. As the country approached the 2000’s, the Pennsylvania legislature granted both the Pirates and the Phillies a guarantee of matching funds to build a ballpark in the vein of the Oriole’s Camden Yards. The Pittsburgh Pirates accomplished their process in quick time, opening the current PNC Park for the 2001 season. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the city council carped about this and that, attempted to assuage all constituents and constituent ethnicities, and finally managed to locate a site–oh miraculous of coincidences!–near the old site in South Philly. Their ballpark opened only THREE years after Pittsburgh managed to open theirs.

In Philadelphia, loyalty means something. The Phillies’ organization values loyalty. It’s both commendable and stupid. From the Bill Giles era, starting 1984, the Phillies have done some things extraordinarily well and others things extraordinarily stupidly. If one uses the “loyalty” yardstick, some of these things become more easily understandable. From that time through 2020, the Phillies, though partly giving control to people like Matt Klentak, held the reins of loyalty close. GM’s and presidents were not fired, they were “reassigned” to advisory roles.

This has been a far more detailed dive into baseball and the Phillies than many readers would’ve wished. If you’re still here at his point, you might just be a baseball fan. Tomorrow the Phillies take on the Braves for the second game of the NLDS this year. If the Phillies win (it’s a coin toss), then there will be only one game (maybe) in Philly before they again hit the road for the NL Championship Series, likely in Los Angeles. It’s entirely conceivable that the Phillies, who are completing two weeks of road games on October 12th, could drop into Philadelphia for only one game in front of the fans, not to return until the third, fourth, and (maybe) fifth games for the seven-game National League Championship series. If the Phillies are swept in four, Phillies fans, who last saw their team on September 25th, will have seen their team only three times in the postseason before their team is washed out of it. Three games from a postseason, championship contender between September 25th and October 22nd–four weeks.

And they will say, “It figures.”

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