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The day Philly stopped being a joke

Philadelphia's been a punchline for as long as I can remember -- long before most of us were around, even. After all, it was way back in 1940, in a movie with Mae West called "My Little Chickadee," that W.C. Fields famously stood on the gallows and told his executioner, ""I'd like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do." Back in Fields' day, the knock on the City of Brotherly Love was just that it was so dull -- closing up at 10 o' clock, second prize is two weeks in Philadelphia, yada yada yada. Over the next seven decades, as pro sports increasingly became the city's remaining portal into the nation's consciousness, you could add the epithet "boorish" to "boring" -- there were snowballs at Santa Claus (sort of) and catcalls for just about anyone.

Oh, and did I mention that we're fat?

Everyone said the real problem was that Philadelphia -- the nation's sixth largest city and fourth largest TV market, birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution -- was a victim of a strange condition: low civic self-esteem. And what brought that on? A lot of things, some of them self-inflicted like our "corrupt and content" political culture -- but there was also a severe case of sibling jealousy, the sibling being our colonial cousin of New York City.

Even at the start of the 19th Century, Philadelphia was still the center of the nation's culture and higher learning -- and then the Industrial Revolution hit. Philly plunged right in, manufacturing everything under the sun, from steam locomotives to Stetson hats. New York decided instead to manage -- and occasionally gamble -- the profits. You know how that worked out (when was the last time you wore a Stetson hat -- or were transported by a steam locomotive?) Just 100 miles to the northeast, New York became a black-hole-like force, sucking the energy from Philadelphia, stealing everything from our talented college grads to foreign tourists who never even saw the nation's founding city as they whizzed down the New Jersey Turnpike from the Statue of Liberty to the Washington Monument. New York got Broadway, the UN, the World's Fair...and baseball. The Yankees won more World Series' than any other team, while the Phillies lost more games than any other franchise in America -- in any sport. Even the Mets, who didn't exist until 1962, won a World Series before the Phillies finally did in 1980.

Bad behavior became the mask for a city's collective anxiety. It wasn't just the notorious 700 Level at the dank,  concrete Veterans Stadium, where wearing an opponent's jersey meant maybe sparing your life...maybe. Here at the Philadelphia Daily News, back when the Eagles became title contenders (but nothing more, of course) in the 2000s, we had a regular feature that inside the newsroom was officially known as "hater's guides" to the cities that the Eagles were playing that week, even if the "city" was actually a Wisconsin Nice burg like Green Bay. You didn't need Sigmund Freud to diagnose the pathology of Philly's "haters guides."

Then there was a day when everything seemed to change.

It was July 8, 2007. The Phillies, out of the playoffs for nearly 14 long years, having lost an epic 9,999 games, were playing an afternoon game at Coors Field in Denver, when a wind-whipped thunderstorm raced down the Rocky Mountains to stop play in the 7th inning. The grounds crew was struggling so much with the winds that a couple of workers were trapped under the heavy tarp. The Rockies had already retreated to the clubhouse, but a posse of Phillies -- led by centerfielder Shane Victorino -- dashed out into the downpour, pulling back the tarp and freeing the trapped workers. "When it draped over the guys, I was worried that somebody might suffocate," the head groundskeeper said later. "It was really cool the Phillies came out and gave us a hand."

When the game resumed, Victorino hit a home run and the Phillies went on to win. A few days later, they lost their 10,000th game, as expected, but it was no big deal, not to the players and suddenly not to the city. This incarnation of a once-woeful baseball franchise seemed to carry none of the old baggage of the 21st Century. Philadelphia began to take a closer look at itself.

In 2007, it was becoming increasingly clear that America's prosperity was a house of cards, built up on easy credit and something called mortgage-backed securities, illusory dollars that flowed down to Wall Street, in the crooked heart of that long-envied New York City. The Phillies seemed to epitomize their home city, where the core values of our once-mocked blue-collar culture -- honest hard work and, as shown that afternoon in Denver, pitching in to help a stranger in need -- were now a source of pride. Philadelphia looked around and realized that maybe its low self-esteem was misplaced. In fact, often now it was New Yorkers -- lured by a walkable and more affordable city with a restaurant scene that W.C. Fields could never have dreamed of -- who showed up to look at our refurbished lofts and rowhouses near Center City.

Good karma moved to the baseball field. By the end of the 2007 season, the Phillies passed the fast-collapsing New York Mets to win the National League East on the season's final day, and in 2008 they did roughly the same thing, only this time the confident yet likable bunch led by Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Victorino and the rest went on to win the World Series. But there was still one hurdle up I-95. That would be Yankees, with their 26 rings and their 4-game sweep the only time they'd met the Phillies in the World Series, way back in 1950. And in 2009, Philadelphia and New York were on the ultimate collision course. Would the old self-esteem bugaboo come back, to curse the Cradle of Liberty just when it was back on its feet?

We braced ourselves. Yet here at the Philadelphia newspapers, there was never a second's thought about a "haters' guide" -- for us that just seemed soooo 2002. The focus was on the field, on the Phillies and their amazing professionalism and self-confidence. In the Big Apple, it was a different story. On the eve of the World Series showdown, the New York Post launched a broadside at its cousin, the one with the insecurity complex in remission. "GOTHAM TREMBLES," the New York Post dripped with sarcasm. "The Frillies are coming to town!" Illustrating the front page: Shane a red skirt?


"PITY THEM PHILLY PHOOLS," said the inside headline (I guess, uh, because "Rocky" fought Mr. T in one of the movies?). "Their fans are second-rate and so is their city." The story went with predictable and not very funny lambasting of cheesesteaks and hoagies and fans who are animals, relying heavily on cliches from the 1970s and 1980s. And Victorino in a skirt just wasn't based on anything -- it was all so pathetic and sad. Now it was New York doing the "haters' guide." There was no push here in Philly to respond in kind. Why should we? On the playing field, we're already the defending world champs. Philadelphia had once been the most joked-about city in America. Now? They got nothin' on us!

This year, the Yankees moved into the House that Madoff Built, a $1.5 billion sterile replica of the legendary old ballpark across the street, lined with luxury boxes for the inside traders and associated con artists who can afford them, with huge blocks of overpriced seats sitting empty behind home plate -- even during Games 1 and 2 of the World Series. In Philadelphia, raucous Citizens Bank Park is our civic temple, a place where the defining image of the 2009 season didn't involve boos or batteries, but a dad hugging his two-year-old daughter after she threw away a foul ball. No wonder New York is so jealous of a city that is so confident and -- dare we say it -- so happy, that is coming into its own in opening moments of a new millennium. Confident enough as a city that even losing this World Series -- which to paraphrase Clint Eastwood, is not going to happen -- wouldn't change that.

You could say that July 8, 2007 -- with its miracle of the wind-blown tarp rescue, in far-flung Denver -- was the day that changed everything. Or maybe it was just the day that a beaten-down city finally looked in the mirror and simply realized what it had going for itself all along. Either way, it almost makes you feel sorry for New York, and sorry for the Yankees.