THE JOKE WAS not what was alarming. Alarming, for a fan in Philadelphia, is that no one needed an explanation - not a Met, not a Cardinal, not any of the baseball personnel or media who witnessed it at Shea Stadium last month.

When former Phillie Billy Wagner tossed a ball at former Phillie Scott Rolen with the words, "Going back to Philly?" during the National League Championship Series, everyone got it. Hah-hah. Go back to Philly? As another former Phillie, Curt Schilling, had said just days before in an interview for this column, "It comes down to two viewpoints. You're either asking someone to come back to prison, or come back to the Garden of Eden. "

Actually, the Garden-of-Eden viewpoint is shared by roughly the same number of exiled superstars as the number of those who lived in the very first garden:

Two: Curt Schilling and Mark Recchi.

Schilling has said repeatedly that he wanted to come back after winning a championship in Arizona. He still blames the Phillies front office for not making it happen. Traded to the Flyers after winning one Stanley Cup, Mark Recchi left, came back and left again before winning his second Stanley Cup last year in Carolina.

Reggie White found his slice of heaven in Green Bay. Seth Joyner won his Super Bowl in Denver. Keith Byars reached a Super Bowl with the Patriots.

Darren Daulton went to Miami for his World Series ring. So did Jim Eisenreich.

Most recently, it was favorite son-turned-whipping-boy Rolen who found his ultimate prize in St. Louis.

Numerous theories have been floated over why nirvana is always found elsewhere. More blue collar than most major cities, we turn too quickly on our stars once their income does not match their output. An overzealous media leads or reflects that. Rather than as an expensive hobby, our owners often have run their teams with the frugality of grocery-store owners.

"I'm trying to be as diplomatic as I can,'' Rolen said shortly before winning his first World Series championship. "There seems to be a unity in St. Louis between ownership, management, players and fans, even media. Everybody wants to win. The media wants the team to win, the ownership wants the team to win, the fans want the team to win, players want to win . . .

"Players want to win for the fans. Fans want to win for the players. There's just a cohesiveness there that no black sheep or no black mark is going to tear a lot of this away. This is a celebration in St. Louis. "

And in Philadelphia? We want to win, don't we? We want to celebrate, right? We want our heroes to become mythic, we want to bond with our team . . .

We are desperate for it.

Too desperate perhaps.

"There's only two experiences in Philadelphia,'' Schilling said. "There's no neutral experience like in Arizona. I loved Arizona. It was a phenomenal experience there, because I grew up there. But I don't think the fans were crushed when I left. When we won in 2001, it wasn't a life-altering experience for those people. Now in 2004, in Boston, that was life-altering. And it would be that way in Philly. "

Schilling, Rolen, Wagner - they are part of a much larger constellation of stars who departed Philadelphia to seek that experience elsewhere. Some, like White, left as favorite sons and remain so. Some, like Rolen and Eric Lindros, started as favorite sons and fell into disfavor. Others, like Randall Cunningham, became less popular as their performance and that of their team failed to live up to expectations.

Some, like Schilling and Charles Barkley, mouthed their way into exile, frustrated by mismanagement and mediocrity.

Schilling once imagined a day in Philadelphia like the one he had in Boston, millions lining the streets as the team that broke the curse rode through. Back then, he was one of the young arms of a 1993 Phillies team that won the National League pennant.

Less than 2 years later that team was in shambles, done in by injuries and bad personnel moves, including ill-advised long-term contracts. Increasingly outspoken, Schilling pleaded with ownership and management to make major deals rather than minor ones, to spend beyond its self-imposed budget to make the team a pennant contender again.

"Part of the issue when I was there was the apathy," Schilling said. "Fans were just tired. Tired of the group that was running the franchise. For me, the origin of apathy was the first comment by ownership that it was a small-market town.

"I think fans basically said, 'We have an ownership team that settles for excuses for not winning. ' The fan base is exactly opposite. They want everybody to be 100 percent accountable. "

For Barkley, it was an ownership problem as well - not us.

"You're not in control of the championship thing," Barkley said before his Hall of Fame induction in September. "When I was in Philly, we had the No. 1 pick in the draft [in 1986] and traded it. That's why I like [Phoenix Suns chairman Jerry] Colangelo. He gave me a chance. He put enough players around me. We had three legit chances to win the championship. They didn't do that in Philly. "

Not while he was here. But anyone over 45 will tell you of a time when every Philadelphia team had more than a chance. Whether it was adding Julius Erving and Moses Malone to the Sixers, Pete Rose coming to the Phillies, the Flyers grabbing Bernie Parent or the Eagles trading for Ron Jaworski, Philly teams not only made big moves - they made the right big moves.

"At that time, the attitude here was very positive,'' said Jaworski, who led the 1980 Eagles to the Super Bowl. "Back then everyone saw the glass half-full. It wasn't, 'When will we win?' but, 'How many will we win? '

"Now the losses have devastated the fan base. It's always half-empty around here now. And they're angry a lot. "

Not as much at the people who paid Pat Burrell all that money, but at Pat Burrell. Not at the people who were outraged at Rolen's request for a payroll commitment, but at Rolen for asking for it and, in the view of some, pouting.

Not at the people who mortgaged a young

Peter Forsberg and a slew of players to get The Next, but at Lindros for not being The Next.

And so on . . .

Is Jaws right? Is our attitude simply the result of a 23-year championship famine? Do we cannibalize our stars, as Rolen suggests?

Or are we a municipality of moaners? What has Sacramento won lately? Charlotte? San Diego? Portland? Seattle? Cincinnati?

Why aren't they itching and moaning?

Consider that Jaworski and Dick Vermeil delivered exactly what Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid have delivered thus far: a trip to the Super Bowl, and a notable falloff afterward.

And yet would anyone here argue which dynamic duo is thought of more fondly?

"It is amazing, because I remember the good times," said Jaworski, who has remained here all these years. "But now there's definitely a negative feeling here. What's going to happen next? Who's going to get injured? Lose a game and you're a bum.

"I know you've heard the expression, 'What have you done for me lately?' . . . Well, this is to a new level. "

A level that many who have come through here on their way to a championship have found too oppressive. In an age in which players are as likely to choose their teams as the other way around, Philadelphia fans may, indeed, have become our own worst enemies.

"In St. Louis it isn't about the next shoe to fall,'' Rolen said. "It's a very positive environment. I mean the game is a business. There's no doubt about that. And there is some tension between player personnel and ownership over contract issues and things like that. And that happens everywhere. But for the good of the whole situation: Let's go win. Let's go leave our dirty laundry in the bag or somewhere else and let's go out on the field and get this thing done. We play on the field. Not everywhere else. We don't play on the radio shows. We don't play on the TV shows. We don't play in print. We don't play for sponsorship or in the season ticket sales. That all stems from performance on the field. Let's put the best product on the field and then everything follows.

"And I'm sure you've heard all that . . . " *