I have always been and probably will always be a Phillies fan. In light of the fact that I am only 28-years old, this may not seem like much of a statement. But the fact of the matter is, being a Phillies fan is as much a part of my self-identity as the fact that I am a proud Rutgers University alumni, that I write with my left hand and that I was born in New Jersey. To give you a concept of the depth of this passion, in my early childhood, I would often cry when the Phillies lost a game. I wish I was making this up, but I not only remember those temper tantrums, I also know that my mom actually considered taking me to a children's therapist when the tantrums got especially bad during the 1979 season, the only season in a six-year stretch where they didn't make the postseason.
Luckily for me, that period of my life coincided with what are inarguably the Phillies glory years. From 1976 though 1983, the Phillies were one of baseball's elite. Counting the maligned, strike-shortened 1981 season, the Phillies made the postseason six years, won 2 National League championships, and, of course, made their only triumph thus far in World Series history. At the time of these events, I didn't truly comprehend what a special time it was. Despite the fact that I don't remember much of those years, I do think it's for the better that I wasn't born any earlier. I would've really had something to cry about.
The years immediately preceding and following the glory have provided little in the memorable moments. Since the 1986 season, the Phillies have had one winning season, the 1993 season which nearly every knowledgeable baseball fan recognizes as a fluke. The pre-1976 seasons weren't much better. The only notable accomplishment during the Phillies early years at the Vet is Steve Carlton's 1972 season, in which he won 27 of the Phillies 59 games. That these seasons accurately represent nearly all of the Phillies futile history only makes the glory years stand out that much more.
Just to give a taste of the futile history, here is a sample of the more ignoble facts about the franchise hold: most years in last place, most years with more than 100 losses, longest losing streak, and most consecutive seasons before winning a World Series championship. Of the 16 franchises in existence at the beginning of baseball's modern era (1901), the Phillies have the worst winning percentage of all time. To add insult to injury, back in 1998 two mathematicians came up with what they called the "Futility Index." This index measured allowed sports fans to rank the comparative haplessness of teams that have endured lengthy dry spells without winning a the championship title, even teams from different eras or from different sports. While the Phillies futility mark was only the third "best" since the introduction of the World Series in 1903, the fact that they didn't win any National League championships in the 20 previous seasons — thus 97 years without being crowned as the major league champions, gave them the worst futility score of any team, any sport in history.
But that is not why I am writing all this down. What I'm really writing about is what it has meant for me to be a Phillies fan during this time. Maintaining this allegiance has not always been easy. When I was eight-years old, my Mom moved from Mt. Holly, NJ to Mt. Airy, MD. One of the first questions I asked when entering a local grocery store was, "How come they don't sell Phillies Franks here?" I followed the team as best I could, but at that time, coverage of professional teams from other cities meant little more than a two-paragraph blurb written by the Associated Press in a daily baseball wrap-up in the Washington Post. Of course, that was the year that the Phillies won the Series, so I really didn't have anyone to celebrate the victory with. Three years later, I was privileged to endure what was quite possibly the worst teasing of my life when the Phils lost the 1983 World Series to the Orioles in five games. Still heartbroken by the images of Joe Morgan tripping on the third base cutout when trying to tag-up and of Pete Rose crying in the dugout, I had to come to school the next day only to find all my classmates wearing all their Orioles shirts and caps and taunting me for very vocally routing for the wrong team. I never wanted to stay home sick more acutely before or since.
However, it's not like I was living in Siberia. Baseball Digest, a monthly magazine, often carried in-depth articles featuring the Phillies or members of the team. Furthermore, my Dad still lived in South Jersey and had partial custody. So when I was with him for the summer, I watched as many games as I could on TV and when they weren't televised, I listened to as many games as I could on 1210 WCAU (before they became WPHT). My step-father gave me his childhood Phillies uniform and I wore it for Halloween when I was the right size. Also, like many boys at that age, I collected baseball cards and maintained a link to the team through the pictures and stats on those 3½" by 2½" pieces of cardboard.
The rise of ESPN and cable news while I was in high school made maintaining the long-distance link a little easier. Every morning before going to school, I would watch Headline News hoping for a glimpse of a Phillies highlight (this was before ESPN starting broadcasting morning repeats of the previous night's Sportscenter). One of my most vivid high school memories came the morning after Mike Schmidt suddenly announced his retirement. Just before tears came to my eyes, I nearly choked on my morning cereal.
As I moved on to college, I initially attended Drexel University. The school was my first choice for the right list of reasons, but it didn't hurt that it was also located in Philadelphia and allowed me the opportunity to attend more Phillies games. Unfortunately, due to a paper-work snafu, I lost my financial aid for my sophomore year and ending up leaving. Undeterred in my quest for a college education, I transferred to Rutgers University. Thankfully, the university had a campus right across the river from Philadelphia in Camden, just below the Ben Franklin Bridge.
My first year at Rutgers coincided with the beginning of the memorable 1993 season. You can find many things written about that wonderful season, so I won't give an overview of that season. However, three of my most memorable in-person Phillies moments occurred at games I attended that year. It started when I saw Terry Mulholland pitch a 10 inning complete game in a 2-1 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals. The next day, also against the Cardinals, I saw Mariano Duncan blast a gland slam off of Lee Smith in the 8th inning of the Mother's Day game to help the Phillies overcome a 3-run deficit and give them a 5-4 win. Finally, I was at the Vet when John Kruk knocked a home run in the 14th inning against the Padres. That the Phillies bullpen shut out the Padres in all five extra innings when the middle of their lineup — Tony Gwynn, Fred McGriff and Greg Sheffield — was one of the most feared in baseball only made the moment more special.
Unfortunately, the joy I experienced in those moments, as well the moments when the Phillies first clinched the division against the Pittsburgh Pirates then shock the baseball world by taking down the Atlanta Braves in six games, paled against the horror I felt as I watched the final innings of Game 4 of the World Series. Even today, the notion that the visiting team could come back from 5 runs down in the eighth inning of a World Series game seems absurd. Yet, I watched the Toronto Blue Jays achieve that and can still clearly see it happen in my mind. With each run that crossed the plate, my despair grew and the wretched sinking feeling in my gut grew till the point where I was both nauseous and on the verge of tears. I was so stunned, in such a state of shock, that I actually had problems falling asleep that evening. I slept fitfully and when I woke up, I initially wanted to believe that what I saw on television was only a bad dream, but the Philadelphia newspapers wouldn't let me prolong my wishful delusion. Even today, remembering back on that moment seven years later, I still manage to re-experience some of that horror.
Yet, somehow it seemed appropriate that I experienced such a feeling of despair. It seems that the Phillies find a special way to break the hearts of each generation of fans and leave an emotional scar that never seems to fade. As a kid, my father told me numerous times about the Chinese Water Torture that was the end of the 1964 season. Any true Phillies fan, whether alive at the time or not, can repeat the numbers like a mantra: 6½ games ahead of second with 12 games to play, they embarked on a 10-game losing streak to end the season in a tie for second place, one game behind the Cardinals. Although my birth was years later, I can just imagine Chico Ruiz stealing home plate in the ninth inning, Jim Bunning and Chris Short each pitching on two days rest, the botched fly balls and the mishandled grounders that should have been double plays. At least the torture I experienced was brief, much like the one inflicted upon those who remember 1977's Black Friday, when Greg Luzinski, still playing left field while Jerry Martin, his usual late-inning defensive replacement, sat on the bench, mishandled a flyball that allowed the Los Angeles Dodgers to come back to win in the 9th inning of Game 3 of the N.L.C.S. and effectively end the season for the Phillies.
Oddly enough, the sting I felt when Joe Carter blasted the series-ending home run in Game 6 did not inflict the damage upon me that the Game 4 meltdown did. Maybe I was still somewhat numb from the events from a few evenings before or maybe it's because the Phillies only led Game 6 for an inning before the Blue Jays came back to win. I think what helped more than anything was an attempt by the woman I just started dating at the time to try to remove my attention from what just happened. She had never followed baseball before and was unaware of even the basic concepts of the game. I had just turned the television off (Carter was just finishing rounding the bases at this point) when she turned to me, looked me straight in the eye and asked me when the next game was. It took everything in me to maintain my composure as I answered, "April."
As with every other year before or since, I waited out the winter and watched the Phillies begin Spring Training with an optimistic eye. The Phillies didn't repeat the magic of that season, but nothing in my approach to rooting for them has changed. Even though the hobby has changed immensely since I was a boy, I still try to collect as many of the new Phillies baseball cards as possible while working slowly, but diligently, to complete my team sets from the 1950s, having now completed all the major 1960s team sets. Before leaving college, I managed to work my love of the team into a course on language by writing a paper on how the non-sports-oriented media presented the 1993 postseason and how the sports-oriented media may have influenced that presentation. And like any fan who never abandons the object of his affection, I've experienced other magical moments while at Veterans Stadium, such as watching Gregg Jefferies become the first Phillie to hit for the cycle since Johnny Callison 31 years earlier and seeing Curt Schilling strikeout 16 in the first non-spring training game against the Yankees since they swept the Phillies in the 1950 World Series.
Even though I haven't lived in the Philadelphia area since July, 1996, I still manage to attend at least five games a year. In order to manage this, I've supplemented my less frequent trips to the Vet with visits initially to Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium, and now to Camden Yards. In a way, I've gained an appreciation for those who root for the visitors when going to the Vet. I still may not like the fact that they cheer inappropriately at the wrong times, but I understand why it is they do so.
As I finish writing this, this has been written over a period of months, the 2000 season has just finished. The Phillies lost 97 games, which tied the 1972 season for the most losses for the franchise since the beginning of divisional play, and for the first time in my life I am starting to question my loyalty to the team. Oddly, this loyalty was never in doubt during many of the work strikes, lockouts and stoppages that have plagued baseball over the last 20 years. There are two things that I believe are causing this despair: first, all the losing I've experienced is finally getting to be too much — no one can follow a team that has losing seasons 13 out of 14 years without some ill effect; second, the high expectations surrounding the team before the season started have made this year's debacle all the harder to swallow. Somehow, watching the team lose consistently is easier when you expect it.
This season is also causing the biggest lesson I've learned from baseball's labor wars to finally sink in: that despite what we want to believe, baseball is nothing more than a form of entertainment; a commodity that is sold just like movies, books, music and video games. It's a lesson that I've ignored because I've chosen, like many other fervent sports fans, to wrap part of my self-identity around the trials and tribulations of a team. Yet, for most people, when the entertainment is no longer appealing, they move on and spend their money in ways that bring enjoyment. While the amount of passion I have spent on the team over the years makes it highly unlikely that I will abandon the Phillies anytime soon, I do wonder how many more seasons of this I can take.
Yet, I have somehow managed to paradoxically look forward to next season. The Phillies do have a strong nucleus of young players and starting pitching. If everything goes right for them the upcoming season, the club could surprise and contend for a playoff spot. Admittedly, this is a mantra Phillies have heard all too often before, but that seems to be one of the many joys of baseball: the almost eternal optimism that next year will be better.
But I cannot deny that needing to repeat it so often is starting to hurt.