By Jeff Hurvitz
No moniker in sports is as synonymous with its city as Phillies. The team's name is not only a piece of the town's; it also conjures its essence.
If you have experienced the last half-century of baseball here, as I have, you are marveling at the evolutionary process that landed Cliff Lee back in red pinstripes last week. More than establishing a potential dynasty, the rebuilding of the Phillies franchise has contributed to a level of civic pride that seems to make us believe in our city's potential.
Members of my generation can hardly forget the long summers when each new day brought not only a new Phillies game, but usually the same disheartening result. In the late '50s and early '60s, when I often sat in section 42 of the upper deck, above left field, at Connie Mack Stadium, the excitement of the game, the ballpark, and the players was all-encompassing. But the hope was extremely fragile.
My memory flashes back to a typical Sunday doubleheader. The Phillies are in their usual spot in the standings, last, and closing in on the seventh-place Cubs. The Reds are in town, and Frank Robinson and Wally Post have each just deposited a ball onto the roof of the stadium, high above me. The thud of each home run on the wooden surface left a bruise on my hopeful young heart. I knew - we all knew - that the Phillies were going to lose once again.
The ballpark, which a few years earlier had housed both the A's and the Phillies as Shibe Park, was aging and worn. The sparse attendance was testimony to the myopic management that left the public lukewarm.
The surrounding North Philadelphia neighborhood was home to a team of decaying factories that had once helped to make Philadelphia nationally prominent. Now they were closing, with a job exodus to follow.
Between the finance and entertainment capital of New York to the north and the power center of Washington to the south, our town was losing its standing as a producer.
When, shortly after relocating from Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Dodgers returned east to play the Phillies in the late '50s, it seemed there were more Brooklyn than Philadelphia accents in the stands. And each fall, we would watch the World Series, listen to the Yankees' Mel Allen describe another shining New York success, and feel nothing short of despair.
Oh, yes, we had an inferiority complex in Philadelphia, didn't we? But conditions can and do change.
First there was Veterans Stadium, that circular jack of all sports and master of none. But then came our pearl of a park, Citizen's Bank, which generated the increasing revenues that, combined with astute management, produced perennial World Series-level teams.
Cliff Lee gives the Phillies a starting-pitching rotation of historic proportions. But it was even more gratifying that he and his wife thought enough of our city and its fans to choose it over New York. The coup de grace was a New York Times headline acknowledging that the Phillies had arrived at the pinnacle of baseball. My, how the mighty have fallen and the downtrodden have risen!
Maybe an elite baseball franchise can continue to restore and reinvent our collective psyche. And perhaps it can show us success is attainable - for a team and for a city.