In my junior year in high school, my English teacher’s face was the spine of an ancient, leather-bound anthology. Cracked and grooved. Spotted. A derelict piece marked by decades of misuse and poor upkeep. Through his yellow, jagged-glass teeth, he taught us to appreciate Twain, Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson. Add a glass of brandy and you’ve got a perfect image.
But the wisp of wisdom I remember most clearly from his class had little to do with literature.
“I’m glad that I’ve been a Philadelphia Phillies fan,” he said, inserting a caesura for effect. “It prepared me for a lifetime of failure.”
“Open your books to page 75.”
When the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Washington Nationals, 6-1, on Sunday, they sent forth a wave of peculiar things. The win gave them entry into October baseball for the first time since 1993. It ended the New York Mets’ season, a campaign that collapsed over the final three weeks, branding the Mets as the first team, ever, to lose a seven-game lead with 17 to play. But ultimately, it signified a massive disruption in the yearly rhythm of The City of Brotherly Love.
The circumstances were, of course, bizarre – a prerequisite for any success that descends on Philadelphia. In our house, we stared at the television and took in the celebration. But the most interesting part of the festivities wasn’t the players, who were busy shooting each other in the eyes with Bud Light. It was those whose only affiliation to the game were the tickets in their pockets.
For the fans, the moment was less validation than it was shock, a time not of relief but of liberation. The end of every Phillies season terminates with the ritualistic gestures: hands over the face, heads slung down facing shoes, paper bags being lifted off. Instead, those in attendance just stared and cheered, both jubilant and deeply confused. At least for a week, the seasonal-affective disorder known as Eagles-Sixers-Flyers season would be staved off.
And on this most hopeful of weeks, we reflect.
Even without much of a chance of a World Series ring, being included in October feels different, like we’ve been invited to the cool kid table. But there’s more to moving up (ask The Jeffersons) than just changing rooms. You gotta change.
Philadelphia fandom is founded solely on delayed satisfaction. Indefinitely delayed satisfaction. Losing, like the migration of seasons from hot to cold, grounds you. Cold winters and bad bullpens each teach humility, not to mention two of the most essential components of the modern personality: self-effacement and self-loathing. The only difference between the seasons and Philadelphia failure is that the seasons inevitably rotate. Failure need have no end. And for the past 27 years, it’s continued.
So, being a Philadelphia fan comes with a touch of existentialism. It means living constantly in the present, never letting the mind stray into the realm of possibilities. Not that we’re dealing with a heady, intellectual thing here. It stems more from of a pervasive suspicion of the future, from the knowledge that something quite terrible will soon arrive. You live in the moment because of abject terror at the thought of the future.
We expect success to be rare and fleeting. Always an anomaly. And when it comes, we’re not sure how to deal with it, like sex for Hungry Joe in Catch-22. Joe, carnally obsessed, felt that every time he was engaged in intercourse, it was a cosmic blip, so he made sure to finish up the act as quickly as possible, before the universe registered its error.
It’s not that we’d throw away a dynasty, we’d just feel uncomfortable having one. When the Red Sox won the Series in 2004, the win caused a whole re-appraisal of the Boston fan. But Boston can adapt. Philly cannot. Boston’s curse was that it got close to winning. Philly’s identity is that it gets close to mattering.
We’ve been taught that the only team that can possibly succeed in this town needs to reflect the perceived workingman, rough character of the town. One character model is acceptable. The words ‘outcasts’ and ‘rogues’ are often employed. The last team to fit that model played in 1993, led by the triumvirate of Lenny Dykstra, who filled his entire mouth with chaw, Darren Daulton, who’s now in touch with the outer reaches of the universe and John Kruk. John Kruk.
And even though our trio of Rollins, Utley and Howard are a bit glossier, they’ve still managed to squeeze into those parameters. So now we wait, enjoying this horrible, terrifying and glorious moment.