The Art of Failure in Philadelphia: How I Became a True Fan

On October 29th, 2008, I was not in the stands of Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia.  I watched the Phillies and the Rays play the last two innings of the World Series on the old, static-prone television my father had insisted on giving me when I first moved to New York.  I only needed to look out my window at the Brooklyn Bridge to remind myself how far away from home I was.  I imagined that I could still hear the “fuck yous” and the boos from the fans, the guttural calls of the beer vendors, and the whirling blades of news helicopters above.  When Brad Lidge struck out Eric Linske, winning the game, and Lidge fell to his knees on the pitcher’s mound, arms raised high, either to touch heaven or to catch the wave of team members about to fall on top of him, I forgot, at least for a moment, about the Brooklyn Bridge, the dirty studio floor, even the two-decade-old television.

I was not a Phillies fan in the traditional sense—or any type of sports fan to be honest.  I attend games only if my tickets were free, and I watched them on television only when I need some sort of white noise while I was working.  What made that day in October so important to me wasn’t my pride for a sports team.  Rather, Philadelphia’s victory reminded me that long, painful patience is sometimes rewarded.  In the case of the Phillies, their reward was the relief that nothing remains cursed forever.

Before 1987 there was a “gentleman’s agreement” among the board members of the Philadelphia Art Commission that no building could be higher than the statue of William Penn on top of city hall.  It was their way of showing respect to our founder, by giving him a clear view of the city.  This changed in March 1987—the month and year that I was born—with the construction of One Liberty Place, a skyscraper that loomed almost four hundred feet higher than Penn’s statue.  Two months after Liberty Place opened, the Flyers lost the Stanley Cup to the Oilers by one measly game.  “I’m not a superstitious guy by nature,” said Sports Radio 950 talker Jody McDonald, “but spitting in the eye of one of the founders of our city is a bad move.”

Over twenty years have passed since then, bringing more skyscrapers and more nerve-wracking, barely missed championships.  In 1993, the Phillies made it to the World Series only to lose to the Blue Jays in the last inning when Joe Carter hit a home-run.  I was too young to remember that game, or even register its significance.  Coloring books and caterpillars are much more interesting to a six-year-old than a barely lost baseball game.  Even when I became old enough to understand the basics of sports, the subject still didn’t interest me.  I wasn’t particularly athletic and I didn’t see the point of enjoying a game vicariously through the players.

I knew that I was in the minority with my indifference, especially during my last year of middle school.  In lieu of the 2001 NBA finals, everyone was talking about the 76ers.  Even the groups of girls usually preoccupied with using fruity perfumes and finding ways to show off their developing breasts came into school wearing basketball jerseys over trim white tops, their bleached hair pulled up into pony tails.  What I found even more interesting were the contrarians, the small group of kids who wore Lakers jerseys to school just to see how many people they could piss off to the point of violence. The spectacle soon ended, though.  The 76ers won the first game but ultimately lost the next four in a series of “if-only-we-had-a-few-more-baskets” disappointments.

I watched all of the games, but none of them made any sense—the scoring, how penalties worked, even the overall purpose of the game was unclear to me.  It seemed simpler than football at least—it wasn’t until I joined the high school marching band that I watched a football game in its entirety.  I blame this partially on my father—for him, Sundays meant going to church and eating a large Italian meal afterward, certainly not drinking beer and watching men fight each other for an oddly shaped ball.  In 2005, when the Eagles finally made it to the Super Bowl, I watched it at a friend’s house.  I sat in his basement with a few other friends, and all of them were wearing green—except for me of course.  I wore black.

We lost by a mere three point—one stupid field goal.  Even today most Philadelphians blame this loss on our injured wide receiver and our flu-sick quarterback, despite the unfair logic of these verdicts.  I knew something like this would happen, yet for some reason I found myself screaming at the television with everyone else. This would not be the only time that I would lose myself to the energy of the crowd.  Two years ago when I attended one of the Flyers playoff games, I found myself jumping up out of my seat.  I was no longer in control of myself—I had been possessed by the spirit of the fans.  I shouted phrases not meant for polite conversation, participated in sophomoric chants, and found myself getting angry for absolutely no reason—isn’t it just a game?

It’s hard to be around Philly “Phans” and not pick up their angry energy.  Every city boasts a “crazy” fan base—the Packers’ fans wear cheese hats—but nothing compares to Philadelphia’s extensive and controversial list of antics.  Sure, every stadium has seen an angry fan riot, but how many have seen fans throw batteries at a player they don’t like or cheer when one is seriously injured?  It’s natural yell at the other team, but only in Philadelphia can we boast about berating Santa, Sarah Palin, and even our own players when they’ve let us down.   There’s something delightfully subversive about it, an addictive sense of acting out and getting away with it.  Losing gives us an excuse to be outrageous curmudgeons, to relive the barbaric days when sports were expected to end with blood.

It’s only in the stands that I became a fan.  As soon as the game was over and I was driving back home through the traffic, the true fans still screaming about winning—or losing—I wasn’t thinking about football or hockey or baseball anymore.  The ephemeral rage that I felt an hour before was gone and I no longer cared about just-missed championships. I couldn’t be upset about something that I knew the bleak outcome of already.  All my life, Philadelphia was teaching me how to fail.

Watching the Flyers and the Phillies was like watching my high school football team desperately try to break its losing streak every week, to no avail.  As a member of the marching band, I was forced to watch each weak attempt and each resulting failure.  It’s not as painful to lose vicariously when you’re sitting in the stands—when the action on the field becomes too depressing to watch, you can always get up and buy a hot dog or chat with a friend.  Losing by association isn’t so bad, even if your the team breaks the record for most games lost by any professional franchise.

What is difficult is to be the loser, the one on the field trying to resist the inevitable outcome.  On my high school tennis team, I was one of the better players.  It didn’t mean much, though, considering that our team was known for losing.  Our league was mostly comprised of nearby, well-to-do towns with families who had been forcing their daughters to take tennis lessons since the age of five.  It was from these girls that I learned that a winner’s view of failing is much more extreme than that of a consistent loser.  I remember playing one girl in particular, knowing fully well that I had no chance—her serves were faster and her hits were more precise.  However, if I won so much as one point, she became hysterical.  She would hit the ball harder and aim it more cruelly.  She placed one ball in a far corner, and I dove for it, knowing that I would miss it.  When I picked myself up from the ground, my knee was bleeding.  The cut wasn’t too bad, but it had left a small stain of red on the new, very expensive court.  I looked over at the girl and smiled, vindicated by my small victory of sullying her court.

Nothing is really at stake during a sports game.  It hurts to see the other side walk away with a trophy while you’re left with nothing, but this rarely affects the rest of your life.  A fumbled football doesn’t make your credit score worse and a championship title doesn’t mean that you’ll get your dream job the next day.  The outcome of any type of game only temporarily affected me—there was no lasting epiphany.

In the fall of 2008, though, a strange reversal of fortunes occurred throughout the nation.  While the once-thriving economy was plummeting to depression levels, the two most-unexpected teams had made it to the World Series: the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies.  For the first time, I started watching baseball games because I wanted to, not because I was being forced.  Like the rest of the nation, I was having my own problems.   My father worked for one of the struggling banks, and I read the newspapers every day to see if he still had a job.  A part of me was glad that I had decided to graduate from NYU a semester early—at least my father wouldn’t have to worry about paying another $20,000 tuition bill.  The extra work that this decision created, though—writing my senior thesis along with finishing my last classes and applying to five grad schools—was overwhelming.  I stayed up late every night, drinking caffeinated beverages and waiting for the sun to rise over the Brooklyn Bridge outside.  During that same month my boyfriend of four years, the best friend that I had in New York, broke up with me.  He was preparing for med school and had little time to see me, let alone comfort me.  Sitting in my room, spending long, work-filled nights by myself, I felt like I was beginning to crack and the world was coming down with me.

Watching Phillies games became one of the few things that still made me happy.  I yelled, cheered, and cursed at the television even though I was by myself without the influence of other fans.  After each win I was happy and hopeful, but the jaded Philly loser in my head would whisper, Yes, they won this time, but you know that they’ll choke in the end. It was difficult for me to believe that the Phillies would miraculously break the bleak precedent set by the Flyers, the 76ers, and the Eagles.  As Jere Longman, a New York Times writer, said, “Here [in Philadelphia], victory is fleeting and ephemeral, not an encouraging sign that further success is ahead but a taunting hint that disaster is just around the corner in a city where defeat has become the natural order.”  Even now, this cutting proclaimation holds true—since our euphoric World Series win, we have always come close to a second, only to see ourselves slip once more.

At the time,  I saw that it was hopeless, yet for the first time in over twenty years I wanted to see victory. I needed the Phillies to show me that “loser” isn’t a permanent label but one I could overcome despite the jeers of both my enemies and my loved ones.  In October when Lidge threw the final pitch, giving Philadelphia its first win in over twenty years, my life didn’t instantly change.  All my problems were still there, but as I watched the pile of players on the field, the once-losers jumping on each other, laughing, I was comforted.

I think one reason we won that day is because we remembered where we came from.  Back in June 2007, a miniature replica of Penn’s statue was put on top of the final beam of the Comcast Center, the new tallest building in the city.  When the replica was stolen, Comcast’s vice president replaced it with a smaller four-inch figure.  As fans celebrated in Citizen’s Bank Park, one could imagine Penn listening while taking in the view from his new post, satisfied.  From my own far-off post in New York, I pretended that instead of a glowing Brooklyn Bridge I could see a parade of fans wearing red and white pinstripes.  They were celebrating with me, but also warning me, urging me to remember.  We know what winning feels like, but we should never forget the passion of losing.  Failing hurts, but we know that it won’t stop us from trying again.  In fact, it’s what going to make us even stronger the next time.