14 September 2007

Surviving the Phils

One of the (few) reasons I was looking forward to moving to Philadelphia this year was the potential for a true, honest-to-goodness, down-to-the-wire pennant race between the local nine and my erstwhile hometown Mets. Neither team is good very often, and I can't remember both being good in the same season like, ever. When the schedules came out, I marked the Mets' impending visits to the CBP1 on my calendar and eagerly anticipated boos and beer showers from the notoriously dyspeptic Philadelphia fans.

My plan was to go to all nine games; once factors like weather, work schedule, band practice and mortgage payment due-dates had their say, I made it to three. Which is still plenty.2 And in hindsight, that was more than enough; the Mets lost all three.

The reputation of Philadelphia sports fans is based largely on observations of devotees of the Eagles, who have been known to engage in such sporting behavior as cheering gruesome injuries to opponents. The team's (and the Phillies') former home, crumbling Veterans Memorial Stadium, famously installed an ad hoc court in its lower level in order to deal with each game's inevitable slew of drunk-and-disorderly charges on site. Just the stuff of which legends3 are made.

Based on the mania of the local media coverage and a highly unscientific survey of neon signs in bar windows and decals on cars, I came to the conclusion that the Eagles own the hearts of Philadelphians, and their claim is uncontested. The Flyers rank a distant second, with the Phillies and Sixers sharing the role of afterthought. Phillies "fans", I figured, would just be Eagles fans killing time until training camp opened.

I was quite wrong. Phillies fans are devoted, passionate, knowledgeable and undyingly loyal. And they all harbour a seething hatred for the Mets. They seem to hate the Mets significantly more than, say, fellow National League East Division rivals the Atlanta Braves.

As a Mets fan, I hate the fuckin' Braves. I find them soulless and mechanical, utterly devoid of charm. I have a strong personal dislike for Larry "Chipper" Jones, a man I've never even met (and hopefully never will). I have never used any service from America Online simply because they own the Braves.4 I don't care about the Phillies, because the Phillies traditionally suck just as hard as the Mets. Why waste one's hate on the battle for second-to-last place? Focus on the frontrunners, I say.

I have a feeling there may be a sense of civic resentment behind this alarmingly unilateral rivalry. I don't think Phillies fans hate the Mets as much as they hate New York.5 New York gets all the headlines, all the glamour, all the money, and Philadelphia is a post-industrial wasteland with an outdated infrastructure and a rapidly declining population.

There's also the matter of geographic proximity and fans' willingness to travel. While there have always been scattered Phillies fans when I've seen the team visit Shea, the Mets draw crowds of fans to Philadelphia. Not enough to overwhelm the home team's fans by a long shot, but enough to get a few of their owns chants going. And the management of the Phillies, no doubt drawing fans with their picturesque new stadium, complete with more comfortable seats, better food options and a location more convenient to the local downtown than dear old Shea, does nothing to make their guests feel welcome.

Most baseball stadiums all run the same crap on their Jumbotrons between innings. The Zen, like many other parks, has a feature called "Kiss-Cam". Several camera operators roam the park, aim their lenses from afar at an unsuspecting couple, and crowd encourages them to smooch for the amusement of all. Harmless and heart-warming.

At the first Mets game I went to there, the familiar gimmick was run. Only this time, every fifth or sixth shot was of two men wearing Mets jerseys. Most were good-natured about it and the crowd had a good laugh. The final shot was of two players in the Mets dugout. None of the fans kissed, by the way, but Mets catcher Ramon Castro leaned in on shortstop Jose Reyes, who pulled away and laughed. A harmless stunt on the surface, but in poor taste, and one that no doubt plays on the social intolerances of many crowd members.

At the next game I attended, several months later, one of the Jumbotron bits was a scene from Animal House in which members of Delta House are watching a slide show of prospective pledges. When one particularly homely pledge is shown, the members boo and throw beer at the screen. When the pledge's picture appeared on the Jumbotron, it was accompanied by the caption "Mets Fan". The crowd laughed and booed accordingly. Again, harmless but tacky.

Later in the same game, the redoubtable Phillie Phanatic introduced about a dozen of his mascot friends. For several minutes, men in giant animal costumes frolicked on the infield. Big Red and Lil' Red, together at last. Oh yes, and Mr. Met was there The reason apparently had something to do with upcoming inductions for the Mascot Hall of Fame, but that's not really important to the story; suffice to say it was even dumber than it sounds.

At one point the mascots all gathered atop the home team's dugout and held a dance contest or something. Suddenly the P.A. went silent; where had the music gone? The culprit, wily Mr. Met, produced a giant cardboard boombox, "pressed" "play", and the stadium was suddenly awash in the velvet tones of the late Frank Sinatra, crooning "New York, New York". Needless to say, much booing ensued, Mr. Met was escorted from the park by security, and the dance party continued as planned.

The third game I attended was the following night. At one point during the game, "New York, New York"6 was once again greeted by lusty boos. The Phanatic teased the crowd by throwing a Mets batting helmet to the ground and walking around it. The boos turned to bloodthirsty cheers as the Phanatic violently destroyed the defenseless piece of plastic with a garden tamper.

Now, I certainly don't mean to suggest that this stunt was the direct cause of the two separate fistfights7 that broke out within spitting distance of our seats that night. Each of the above is, on its own, relatively harmless. Taken together, however, they represent part of a clear pattern.

I have been to about a half-dozen Major League Baseball parks in my life. I have been to Shea when the Yankees visited. I have also been to Fenway when the Yankees visited. I have been to Wrigley when the White Sox were, um, in town. And never, even while attending these rivalry games, have I seen between-inning entertainment encouraging the local fans to boo the visiting team. Except in Philadelphia. Not only that, but some of these skits at the Zen directed the fans to boo not the opposing team, but rather their fans, fans who had traveled to their city, bought tickets, beer and food, and perhaps spent money locally elsewhere as well (hotels, restaurants). All in good fun? Sort of. Obnoxious and uncalled for? I think so.

I don't want to overreact here. I attended all three games dressed in full Mets regalia expecting to be heckled, even looking forward to it. I'm not calling for an apology from the Phillies organisation, or a moratorium on this sort of behavior, or what have you. I'm simply saying that no other team I've gone to see has stooped to these sort of tactics to whip up energy from the crowd. In fact, other than professional wrestling, I've never been to a sporting event at which the hosts actively courted belligerence.

I certainly don't take it personally as a Mets fan; far from it. But as a resident of and home owner in Philadelphia, I think it reflects poorly on the community as a whole. I don't blame the management of the Phillies for their fans' history of ugly behavior; Philadelphia sports fans have earned their reputation on their own, through decades of drunken brawling. But does the team really need to encourage and perpetuate this behavior? Is it possible that the team's choice of between-innings entertainment actively contributes in some small way to the proliferation of unruly louts?

This has farther-reaching consequences for the city than may at first be apparent. For better or worse, the public in other parts of the country base their images of cities they have never visited mostly on what little of that city's culture seeps into the popular consciousness; images of its professional sports teams form a large part of that public image. This is why, fair or not (and it most assuredly is not), when people who don't live in the south think of, say, Atlanta, these days one of the first things that pops into their heads is dogfighting.

Before I ever set foot in Philadelphia, I had heard tell of its notorious sports fans. They are as much a part of the city's lore as kites and keys and the broken bell. But is this something of which to be proud? Is this something the teams themselves should be promoting?

The Phillies play in a beautiful new ballpark with a view of the city's growing skyline in the distance beyond the outfield. As with many sports stadiums, the cost was absorbed in no small part by the public. The (dubious) theory behind stadium deals like this one is that the team, while privately owned, is an intrinsic part of the fabric of local culture. In addition, the stadium is always predicted to contribute heavily to the local economy. I'm just not sure whether encouraging hostile behavior from fans, to be directed at visitors bringing outside money into into area, is really in the public interest.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. Which, by the way, needs a better nickname. The park's Wikipedia page cites "the Bank" and "the Vault"; iffy. Nearby Lincoln Financial Field is commonly referred to as "the Linc", which is nice. So... "the Cit"? Not quite. Look closer: Citizens Bank Park. I hereby nominate "the Zen". Carry on. [Return]

  2. Think about it: did you go and see the same two teams play as many as three times this year? It's kind of a lot, really. But I'm still gonna go to even more next year. [Return]

  3. Like the Governer of Pennsylvania openly admitting to throwing snowballs at the Dallas Cowboys. If you're interested in further reading, this history of the Vet is worth checking out. [Return]

  4. That and because AOL sucks and I hated the interface the first time I ever used it. But the principle's still there, and it's why I've been trying to convince my wife to drop her AOL mail account (which she like, never uses) since we got married. [Return]

  5. And I can't say I blame them. It's not worth getting into specifics here, but if you've lived in both you know that New York is vastly superior in almost all ways other than, off the top of my head, cheesesteaks, affordable real estate and number of public bike racks per capita. [Return]

  6. What really bothers me about the song selection here is the obvious lack of research. "New York, New York" is the Yankees theme song, and very closely identified with them. If you played that song at Shea it would get booed even louder than it did at the Zen, believe me. [Return]

  7. Hardly an uncommon occurence, by the way. Make sure you stick around and check out some of the related videos listed in the lower right after you watch this one. [Return]


Anonymous said...

so tell me why, if you're all pissed off about some unique team spirit moves and wildly off-beat game-humor, why are you so railed against the braves for being generic? i find this inconsistent. it's people like you who made the braves what they are! watch out MLB!!!!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bjorn Randolph said...

I'm commenting on this because I think it's unnecessary. Phillies fans will boo Mets fans without provocation. And because it's tasteless. I'm not blaming the Phillies organisation entirely for their fans' behavior, I'm simply saying that (a) as a homeowner in Philadelphia I find it embarrassing, and (b) a classless organisation breeds classless fans.
To further that point, I see that you, a Braves fan, have chosen to post anonymously. Which shows that a generic, faceless organisation breeds generic, faceless fans.