For most of my life, I’ve been led to believe that I and all Philadelphia sporting fans- Eagles, Flyers, Sixers, and Phillies- were nothing more than uncivil and discourteous hooligans. Whether watching ESPN, or reading an article in Sports Illustrated, or traveling to another city and talking to their fans, I’ve learned that the average national perception of Philadelphia’s fan base is known far more for its disgruntled nature than its passionate attitude. At least three times a year a national sports’ commentator will make reference to The Eagles fans throwing snowballs at Santa Claus, which occurred in 1968 by the way, or the cheering when Michael Irvin was injured at The Vet. There was national coverage of the death of David Sales at a Phillies game two years ago, and there have been plenty more imbalanced, inaccurate stories of Philadelphia’s supposed classless, hostile fans.
That’s why I feel so indebted to Gary Smith’s third installment recently published in Sports Illustrated. Smith decided to follow the Phillies after the acquisition of Cliff Lee last year. His first two pieces, the first on the Philadelphia Phillies pitching aces and the second on Carlos Ruiz, the man behind the plate who manages these same aces, were wonderfully written, insightful portrayals of some of the most talented players in the game today. Smith managed in both pieces to capture the subtle personalities of these players, conveying the nuances and habits that make them so dominant and portraying their determination and passion to be the best as a team rather than as individuals. However, for Smith’s latest part, he decided not to focus on another player, but rather the most essential variable in their superstardom- the fans that love them.
Smith takes the readers on a ride through Philadelphia. Starting from Cliff Lee’s condo in Rittenhouse and heading down Broad Street past some of the incredibly diverse neighborhoods that make Philadelphia so unique, Smith highlights the fanaticism for all things Phillies that has swooned over this city. The reader sees the city streets come to life through the sounds, smells, clothing, and words of its residents and fans all through the eyes of Cliff Lee as the driver. The drive functions as a perfect metaphor for Philadelphia’s reawakened obsession for the team known primarily for losing throughout its history. The drive is just one of Cliff Lee’s routines, just as routine as the daily conversations of fans throughout the region talking about last night’s box score and tonight’s lineup and starting pitcher, or as routine as waking up and putting their Phillies’ hat, shirt, tie, or socks. This routine sense of pride and confidence is as habitual to Phiadelphians as the drive down Broad is to Lee. Smith goes beyond the mere surface though, leaving the car and burrowing deep into the dynamic psyche of the city, wounded from years of disappointment and failure, and actually speaks to the reinvigorated fans of the past six years, letting them tell their stories of their love for the Phillies.
Here, from the voices of the fans themselves, the very people that justify the signing of multimillion dollar contracts and $8 beers and $20 parking, here is where Smith deserves Philadelphia’s genuine appreciation. Because the fans the reader meets are not the babbling, rowdy hoard, bent on intimidation and debauchery as so many outside the city would like to believe them to be. Rather, they are the adoring masses, zealously and civilly supporting their team and all its greatness. They are the prideful army of red, marching through their days with heads high, believing once again that things can change for the better and life is not all disaster and heartache. Smith, in his time spent covering the Phillies, seems to have realized that although this team is undoubtedly special and unique, it is not their superstar pitchers or managements’ willingness to buy championships that makes Philadelphia the greatest place to play, it is their fans.
…And for that, we say, Thank You!