Thursday, October 16, 2008

The City of Brotherly Optimism


When the Philadelphia Phillies prepared to take on the mighty Yankees in the 1950 World Series, ace reliever (and surprise Game One starter) Jim Konstanty spoke about his team’s character and drive.

“Maybe it’s corny or foolish, but I don’t think the Yankees can match our spirit and will to win,” he said. No word on whether he was waving pom-poms (the 1950s version of rally towels) at the time.

Konstanty was right. Those ’50 “Whiz Kids” (a reprise of the nickname given to the 1942-43 University of Illinois men’s hoops team) had plenty of spunk and verve. At a time when the country went for that kind of stuff, Konstanty couldn’t be criticized for his rah-rah attitude. Of course, when South Korea invaded North Korea on the first day of the Series, a little of that innocence was gone. Still, the Happy Days didn’t evaporate completely, despite the “Police Action” over in Asia. It wasn’t until the mid-‘60s that Howdy Doody was cold-cocked by the Black Panthers – for damn good reason.

So, the ’50 Phillies had spirit. Yes, they did. Unfortunately, the Yankees had DiMaggio and Berra and Vic Raschi, who two-hit the Phils in the opener, even as his hotel room was being looted. The Fizz Kids went down in four, and it was 30 long years (thank you, Gene Mauch, for 1964 and beyond) before Philadelphia would see another World Series game.

Twenty-eight seasons after that seminal moment – the franchise’s only world title – we have another group of gung-ho, feisty World Series-bound Phillies, who thrive on their resilience and teamwork and camaraderie. They’re managed by a back-slapping type who can talk hitting with the best of them yet turns a simple declarative sentence about why he made a pitching change into a four-adverb pile-up. They specialize in come-from-behind victories, shrug off adversity and make the improbable possible. The Phillies never think a deficit is too big or a situation too dire. They keep the faith. They believe. In other words, they are the perfect team for Philadelphia.

That’s right. This optimistic bunch is Philly all the way. You may think every person in town is a grouchy pessimist, waiting for the worst to happen – and then reveling in the opportunity to curse the fates. If you listen to the idiots who come to Philadelphia for a day and leave spewing stereotypes and hackneyed characterizations, you believe every Philadelphian revs up for the holiday season by putting lye in the coffee of Salvation Army Santas and celebrates spring by spraying DDT on the Easter Bunny’s garden.

Yeah, Philly is tough. You had better believe that. The whole Northeast corridor is. Just try ordering a pastrami-on-white in a New York deli. Or wait patiently for a Boston driver to allow you to enter one of those NASCAR-style traffic circles. By the time you’d get in, the Bruins would be good again. You have to want it and then take it. Southern hospitality? Bah. Corn-pone Midwest cheerfulness? Stick it in your tractor, pal. Philadelphians are hard-core, rugged survivors. But they are, at heart, optimists. Why else would they keep getting out bed every morning? The city’s industrial base is drier than a Bible Belt county. The murder rate is one of the highest in the country. The City Council’s behavior often resembles what you would find in a pre-school sandbox. Still, Philadelphians come back, day after day.

They return to the stadiums and arenas, too. Every season, hope abounds. Hammerheads like LA Times columnist T.J. Simers may elicit chuckles from his soft-skulled readers by calling Philly “Angryville” and dusting off the usual criticisms. But even a dolt like Simers couldn’t have missed the hysteria at the Phillies’ park last week when the NLCS began. Had he taken a minute to do a little research, he would have noticed that the team set an attendance record this year. And the fans in Philadelphia show up early, stay late and don’t have time to stargaze at B-list celebrities like Mary Hart and Pat Sajak.

Are they going to boo when things go wrong? Damn right they are. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The booing’s genesis is not anger or nastiness. It comes from a sense of betrayal. That the teams the fans support so loyally and generously would actually turn on them by playing poorly, giving inadequate effort or making boneheaded plays or decisions. The reaction comes not from a crop of inherently bad people; rather a fan base that has seen its dreams dashed so many times and can’t believe it keeps coming back for more. You saw the beginnings of it in Chicago this October, when the Cubbies went out in three to the Dodgers. This time, there were real expectations, real hopes. And when the end came so quickly and maddeningly, there was anger. And (gasp!) even some boos. See, it can happen even in the bucolic Midwest, or the Left Coast, where cries of “Hit him in the head!” resounded every time Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino came to the plate in the NLCS. Of course, they were not reported nearly as vigorously as the incidents documented and rehashed – for decades – in Philadelphia.

So, these Phillies are a bunch of never-say-die idealists who refuse to quit, are they? Sounds like a perfect match between team and city. And if you have a problem with that, screw you.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: So, Shaq is upset about the Spurs’ use of the Hack-a-Shaq “strategy” during last year’s playoffs when San Antonio was comfortably ahead in games. Calls it “cowardly” and vows revenge. Has anybody asked Shaq what word he would use to describe an out-of-shape pivotman who continues to soak teams for $20 million a year while refusing to condition himself well enough to play a full season at a high level? Didn’t think so…Don’t be surprised if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t care a bit about Shaq’s whining. Have you seen him lately? That beard makes him look like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” Looks like he knows the Spurs’ dynasty is on its way out and is preparing to spend a couple years eating grubs and reading subversive literature with Phil Jackson in Montana…Strong showing by Michigan against Toledo in the program’s most embarrassing loss ever. Fortunately, coach Rich Rodriguez has narrowed the team’s troubles down to three areas: offense, defense and special teams. Other than that, things are good. Go ahead and job-search Rich. Don’t think Michigan will hold you to that buyout…Great news for America’s sporting youth: Generalissimo Knight wants to coach again. The world-class boor “has nothing else to do,” so he might as well return to college and commence berating players and officials, slinging profanity around and losing NC2A tournament games. Any AD who hires him should be institutionalized…The college football coaching carousel has begun its annual whirl, now that Tommy Bowden is finally out at Clemson, after a nine-plus-year tenure that made Houdini look like an amateur. As the inevitable grousing begins about “loyalty,” remember that job security for college coaches is non-existent and that it’s hard to be devoted to an entity that would fire you just because a rich booster didn’t like you. With few exceptions, coaches should be able to come and go as they please.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Good thing the Eagles have a bye week coming up, because their wounded players need time to heal, and their coach needs time to figure out how to “dial up” better plays. We all know Andy Reid is largely overmatched in the personnel selection department and should be removed from all GM aspects, but his play-calling has been shaky at best this season, and even QB Donovan McNabb has been gently questioning some of Reid’s decisions. The Eagles caught a break last week when they whipped San Francisco to move to 3-3, while every other NFC East team lost. They’re not out of the race yet, but if Reid doesn’t improve his performance, the Eagles will not make the playoffs, and B-movie mogul Jeffrey Lurie will have no choice but to fire Reid.

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AND ANOTHER THING: There should be zero sympathy throughout the NFL for the Cowboys, who took a gigantic risk in signing Space Invaders Jones during the off-season. The serial miscreant majored in trouble at West Virginia and has pursued a graduate degree in the subject since joining the NFL. If owner Jerry “False Face” Jones welcomes the criminal cornerback back after his suspension, then it’s obvious that character has no place in the Cowboys’ organization. Though talented (and his play this year didn’t exactly reinforce that statement), Jones refuses to act like a productive member of society and deserves to be excluded from the NFL for a sustained period. If commissioner Roger Goodell can’t find reason to suspend him for the rest of the season, the league’s owners should refrain from signing him. You might call that collusion. El Hombre calls it responsible behavior.


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