There was a time, during the late '80s and the '90s, when I was convinced Philly would never celebrate another major sports championship. Those were dark days.
I remember the first time my dad took me to a Phillies game. I was in grade school. We went with some of the other neighborhood kids who were on my Little League team. We sat up in the 700 Level at the Vet. I'll never forget how the warm summer sun made the green artificial turf shimmer.
It was 1988. The Phils were essentially Mike Schmidt and a bunch of guys not named Mike Schmidt. I'm doing some rough calculations here, but I'm pretty sure they were something like 200 games under .500 that year and out of the race before spring training ended. But I didn't know that at the time. I was a kid, and they were my hometown team. I figured they'd win the World Series, then we'd all go for ice cream.
I remember asking my dad about the Fightin's' chances to win it all. He looked at me and suppressed a laugh, then handed me a hoagie.
"Here - eat this," he said, as if to tell me that was as good as it was going to get at the ballpark for a while.
We're a long way from the hoagie days. We're a long way from Steve Jeltz and Ricky Jordan and wait till next year. We're a long way from Buddy Ryan's underachieving Eagles. We're a long way from Bryce Paup snuffing out our title hopes before they could properly burn. We're a long way from the awful Charles Shackelford years. We're a long way from those hideous 76ers uniforms with the star/comet trail that streaked from their jerseys to their shorts.
We're a long way from lousy.
How's the old Billy Joel song go? These are the times to remember.
After years of frustration and heartache and utter disappointment, the sports landscape here in Philly is as developed and beautiful as any artist's rendering could have imagined. The Phils have reached two straight World Series. The Eagles - though they've yet to secure the ultimate prize - are perennial contenders (as they constantly remind us). The Flyers are back in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 13 years. And the Sixers . . . uh, the Sixers . . . they have a new head coach and a nice, high draft pick. And don't forget about all those swell promotions they run.
For a generation of Philadelphians too young to remember the glory days of the late '70s and early '80s when all four teams were relevant and winning - and I count myself as a member of that particular tribe - what we're experiencing now seems almost impossible. We grew up at a time when games ended bitterly and the championship drought was part of our collective identity. Now we're regularly treated to wins, and the promise of a parade rides shotgun nearly every time we turn the key and start the engine for another season.
As you Flyer yourself up for the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals, pause for a moment to appreciate Philly's improbable and long-overdue karmic flip-flop. The city that once went 100 combined seasons without a title in any of the four major sports is the same town that just might be enjoying the best run of any hamlet in America. Of all the cities in the country with four pro franchises (not three or five), Philly is the only town that has reached the finals in hockey, baseball, football and basketball over the last decade.
The economy may have crashed in the 2000s, but, at least in Philly, the business of sports has boomed. And whoever said business isn't personal couldn't possibly be from here. If you've walked the city streets lately, you've surely noticed a dramatic spike in orange Flyers gear - not to mention smiles. People seem friendlier when one of our teams is winning. The Flyers have always had a dedicated, hard-core fan base, but those loyalists have since been joined by neighbors and random strangers alike. Philly is a positive place at the moment, and everyone appears to be having a grand time. Call the late-comers front-runners or bandwagon-jumpers or whatever you like, just be sure to call them happy while you're at it.
That's really the whole point. Sports are supposed to be a diversion, a way to relax and unwind. During the lean years, sports often had the opposite effect and stressed some (or most) of us out. Right now, we're not tense or upset - we're loose and loving it.
Billy Joel was right. These are the times to remember. Of course, that line was followed by another one that we ought to internalize: It will not last forever.