Sports Nut

Philadelphia vs. the Phillies

Philly fans finally have a winning baseball team. Now they just need to stop hating themselves.

Jimmy Rollins. Click image to expand.
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins

Of the many dubious achievements that Philadelphia sports fans have notched over the years—throwing snowballs at Santa Claus, batteries at J.D. Drew, etc., etc.—perhaps the most telling is that they once forced Mike Schmidt to trot onto the field wearing sunglasses and a wig. Schmidt was one of the many Philadelphia athletes who never forged a good working relationship with the city’s fans. His frustration culminated in 1985 when he described the Philly crowd to the Montreal Gazette as “a mob scene” that was “beyond help.” Only the stunt with the wig—which Schmidt borrowed from Larry Andersen, who apparently kept a wig on hand in the clubhouse for such occasions—could save him from the torrential booing that awaited in Veterans Stadium. It’s to the credit of the Philly faithful that they saw the humor in the wig stunt, cheering the third baseman for his ingenuity.

Like many Phillies fans, I have a certain regard for the fans’ eagerness to boo their own guys—it’s a visceral response to a team that has disappointed the city for more than 100 years. While other teams obsess over curses and rivalries, Philly fans know they have only their own guys to blame. For years, I dismissed Red Sox fans the way a lot of Democrats dismiss Republicans—as a group that requires a villain to define itself. The GOP has welfare queens, teachers’ unions, and the media elite. The Red Sox have the Yankees. But now, as the Phils enter the World Series after posting their sixth straight winning season, I’m realizing that a genuine rivalry isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that, after decades of futility, you’ve finally stopped losing.

For most of the franchise’s history, the Phillies have lacked a go-to villain. The few rivalries the Phils have managed to incite have been as much characterized by geography and mutual badness as by genuine competition. “Long ago, the Dodgers, when they were in Brooklyn, were a pretty good rival,” notes Rich Westcott, a baseball writer who has penned six books about the Phillies. The teams became competitive around the same time, and the antagonism peaked in 1950, when Philadelphia’s “Whiz Kids” edged out Brooklyn for the pennant on the last day of the season. But the Phillies petered out shortly afterward while the Dodgers won four World Series and another four league titles over the next 15 years. (Many argue that Philadelphia’s reluctance to bring in black players was central to the dissolution of that promising 1950 team.)

The Phillies and the Pittsburgh Pirates had a decent rivalry in the 1970s, including a stretch from 1974-1980 during which they traded division titles and split their games against each other 63-63. Both teams soon sunk into their typical irrelevance, though, and whatever vestiges of enmity that remained were quashed when the Pirates moved to the NL Central in 1994. By then, Atlanta seemed poised to become a rival, particularly after joining the NL East that same year. But the Phillies just couldn’t keep up as Atlanta lorded it over the division for the next decade.

I submit that in the last 50 years, the Philadelphia Phillies’ only bona fide rival has been the Philadelphia Phillies. Philadelphia’s brand of sports navel-gazing—or rather, navel-scowling—is punishing to players across all the city’s franchises. (See Donovan McNabb.) Nothing is more frustrating than watching a promising young player fail to click with the fans, get all dyspeptic about it, and leave the team—only to launch a phenomenal career elsewhere. Scott Rolen comes to mind. The third baseman was drafted by the Phillies in 1993 and won the Rookie of the Year award four years later. As his numbers flagged over four losing seasons in the majors, his once enthusiastic fans soured, and after the 2001 season, he declined to sign a long-term contract with the team. He was traded to the Cardinals in 2002, where he won a championship ring in 2006. For the duration of his time with the Cards, he was enthusiastically booed in Philadelphia.

Every team has these disappointments. The Phillies seem to breed them.

It’s a sign of the franchise’s growth over the last several years, however, that this kind of self-hatred has come to a halt (at least temporarily). I give most of the credit for this phenomenon to Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies’ transcendent shortstop. Rollins is the anti-Rolen. Like his one-time teammate, Rollins was a high draft pick who hit the ground running when he came to the big leagues, coming in third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2001. But unlike Rolen, he has figured out how to survive in Philadelphia. Even better, he’s figured out how to save Phillies fans from themselves.

Rollins’ quest began at the beginning of last season, when he was quoted as saying, “I think we are the team to beat in the NL East—finally. But that’s only on paper.” Rollins’ comment was widely ridiculed; the New York Mets had won the division by 12 games in 2006. The shortstop was prophetic, though, as a Phillies surge and Mets meltdown delivered the division title to Philadelphia on the last day of the season. Rollins backed up his words with a career year, winning the National League MVP. Just as important, he slammed six home runs against the Mets, his most against any opponent in 2007.

Beyond what happened on the field, Rollins’ statement had a huge psychological impact. Finally, the team and its fans felt good enough about themselves to instigate fights with actual opponents rather than just amongst themselves.

For a time this season, though, Philly seemed on the precipice of returning to its old ways. In August, as the team was struggling, Rollins indicted Phillies fans on the Best Damn Sports Show Period. “When you’re doing good, they’re on your side,” he said. “When you’re doing bad, they’re completely against you.” In the short term, Rollins earned the usual helping of abuse, more or less confirming his sentiments. But in the long run, though, the comment was as strategically wise as the “team to beat” quote, both for Rollins and the franchise. Philly fans “like someone who occasionally speaks his mind,” Westcott says. “They like to see a guy stick his neck out.” They also like to see a guy who wins: Rollins played his best baseball of the season in September, and the Phils once again passed the Mets to make the playoffs.

Regardless of whether the Phillies beat Tampa Bay in the World Series, the team’s relationship with its fans and the city depends the most on keeping alive what Rollins started in 2007. Given how evenly matched the Phillies and Mets have been over the past two seasons, conditions are ripe for the Phils to finally cement long-term hatred for an opponent. The players don’t like each other, the fans don’t like each other, and the teams play 18 times a year. The new ballpark in New York should also attract more Philadelphia fans to Mets home games, the same way Citizens Bank Park has drawn the New York faithful to Philly. “For the last couple years, a lot of Mets fans have been coming down here,” says Fred McKie, another amateur Phillies historian. “We didn’t like that.”

Given his role as the resident neck-sticker-outer, it’s up to Rollins to continue fanning the flames. If he’s successful, it is my fervent hope that he’ll permanently redirect the religious intensity of Philadelphia sports fans into more constructive avenues, like tearing down the Mets. And if, in the process, Rollins needs to occasionally remind the fans that they’re unrepentant jerks most of the time, so be it. He’s right.