Thursday October 13th, 2011

A lot of people think Philadelphia sports fans are insufferable raving lunatics, but I prefer to think of them as lovable raving lunatics. Sports mean nothing unless people care about them, and Philly fans care as much as anybody.

This may be the worst time in history to be a Philadelphia sports fan. And it's not because the teams stink. They don't stink. It's because they have not lived up to enormous expectations, and for a sports fan, that is the hardest thing to stomach. We can deal with stink. We can prepare for it. What Philly is going through is worse.

These should be the best of times in Philadelphia. Fans there are coming up with anagrams for "Nnamdi Asomugha" and nicknames for their starting rotation ("The Awesome Arms of Awesomeness"). Now look at them.

The Eagles are 1-4. By this point they were supposed to be 4-1, with four blowout wins and one forfeit loss because they skipped the game to record a rap video.

The Phillies just got eliminated by a St. Louis Cardinals team that appeared to be eliminated itself six weeks ago. The Phillies were supposed to breeze through the playoffs thanks to the best starting rotation in history. Instead they lost in the first round, and even worse, their lead ace got out-aced. Roy Halladay was great, but Chris Carpenter was just a little bit greater in a 1-0 Game 5 victory last Friday.

Philly fans can console themselves with the Flyers, but who are they kidding? The Flyers have disappointed them for 30 years.

The only team that is safe to cheer for is the 76ers. Last year, everybody figured the Sixers would be awful. Instead, they made the playoffs. Then, before they could disappoint people, they started canceling games. Now that is how you avoid the expectations problem.

We dramatize losing a lot in the sports world. When a team goes through a championship drought, a city is "tortured" and filled with "heartache" at all the lost "clichés" that plague their "writers."

But losing isn't the worst thing for a sports fan. Cubs fans usually have a blast. Clippers fans rarely get truly angry at their team, because if winning mattered that much to them they would be Lakers fans. Cleveland fans suffer, of course, but the suffering is a badge of honor. They can say it makes them the best fans, the truest fans, the only fans who have stood by their teams for a half-century of lousy winters without winning a title.

Watching lousy teams can be fun, in a twisted sort of way. Watching teams that are supposed to win and flop instead is painful. The problem, again, is not that Philly's teams stink. It's that Philly fans allowed themselves to believe. They are supposed to be the toughest fans in America, inured to failure, hardened by years of losing. They finally thought this was their time.

Now they are left answering one of life's biggest questions: "What the ----?"

What happened here? If you look closely at the wreckage, the problem with the Phillies and Eagles was hype. They each made one free-agent signing that seemed impossible and got the whole town excited beyond reason.

The Phillies signed Cliff Lee to pitch after Roy Halladay and before Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They didn't really need him, but that was sort of the point. It seemed almost unfair to add Lee to that rotation. Not surprisingly, he had an incredible year.

But as the Atlanta Braves proved literally a dozen times, the best starting rotation in the game guarantees nothing. Look at the Phillies' lineup: the names are bigger than the production. That made the Phillies vulnerable, and the other thing that made them vulnerable is that this is baseball. There are no overwhelming favorites in the postseason.

The Eagles signed Asomugha, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. It may turn out to be a terrific signing; I haven't seen people blame him for the poor start, and at this point you figure they are blaming everybody. They also acquired cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from Arizona. Their defensive backfield suddenly seemed like the Phillies' rotation -- too good to be true.

But winning in the NFL is rarely about flashy signings, and it is almost never about stockpiling talent at one position. For years, the Steelers lost very good linebackers to free agency and kept winning. The Patriots famously plug low-cost, undervalued players into important roles. I understand why people thought the Eagles could contend. But unlike with the Phillies, I never saw why the Eagles were considered such favorites.

The whole "Dream Team" name was absurd in the first place. The Eagles didn't really tout themselves as the Dream Team, at least, not in the beginning. It started when backup quarterback Vince Young uttered those words: "dream team." Young was an alltime great college player. But your backup quarterback cannot lead your team in trash talk. That just doesn't work.

That's the thing about being a sports fan, though: Even the most cynical among us want to believe. The Eagles and Phillies gave their fans just enough reasons to think they would have it easy. And that's what makes it so hard to be a Philly sports fan right now.

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