THE PHILLY FAN opens at a dive bar in South Philadelphia in 2005, the night before the Super Bowl, with the title character drinking a beer and booing a television set that happens to be showing a Tom Brady highlight. The character, a white-haired union worker in a flannel shirt who served in Korea and vacations on the Jersey shore, spends the next 70 minutes lamenting in explicit language and excruciating detail all the great losses of his life—among them his best friend, his wife and the 2001, '02 and '03 NFC Championship Games. "There's somethin' ya gotta understand," the Philly Fan warns early on. "We never do nothin' the easy way 'round here."
This is an article from the Oct. 27, 2008 issue
The one-man show, written by Bruce Graham and starring Tom McCarthy, premiered at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in 2004 and had to be redone after the Eagles reached the Super Bowl in '05. The play became so popular that the Northlight Theatre outside Chicago wanted to run its own version, with a notable twist. BJ Jones, the artistic director at the Northlight, asked Graham if he could adapt his script to the plight of the Chicago fan. Graham, a native Philadelphian, did not see how that was possible. "You haven't lost enough," he said.
The Cubs have gone 100 years without a World Series title, but at least their fans have had the Bulls and the Bears, even the Blackhawks, to provide them an occasional ultimate thrill. Philadelphia has gone a combined 100 seasons without a championship in any major professional sport—25 fruitless years in a row for the Phillies, Eagles, 76ers and Flyers, easily the longest wait for any of the 13 metropolitan areas with four major professional sports teams. As The Philly Fan relates in the play's final scene, "We are the most loyal goddam fans in the world, and we just want a championship, that's all. That's not askin' a lot. Not when ya got four teams.... When's our turn?"
This World Series, which was supposed to be all about the Cubs and their 100 down years, is instead all about Philadelphia and its 100 dry seasons. The rallying cry is not 1908, but 1983, the year the 76ers swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Point guard Maurice Cheeks, believing he would win several more championships with the 76ers before his career was up, left the locker-room celebration early at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles and walked back to his hotel alone. "If I'd known how many more years it would be until the next one, I'd have stayed a lot longer," says Cheeks, now the 76ers head coach.
Since '83 the Phillies, Eagles and 76ers have each played for a championship, and the Flyers have played for three. They are a combined 0 for 6. Their timing has been terrible. They ran into the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe, the Patriots of Brady and Belichick, the Oilers of Gretzky and Messier. (Even Smarty Jones, the legendary racehorse from Philadelphia Park, won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2004, only to finish second in the Belmont Stakes.)
"Cubs fans would say, 'It's O.K., we got there, what a great year, they're still the lovable Cubs,'" says John Kruk, the first baseman for the 1993 Phillies, who lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays. "In Philadelphia they're not the lovable Phillies or the lovable Eagles or the lovable Sixers. Freakin' win. We'll love you then."
PHILADELPHIA IS unique in that all of its teams play next door to one another, with Citizens Bank Park butting up to Lincoln Financial Field and the Wachovia Center, a veritable strip mall of professional sports. If one team is winning, the other teams believe the good fortune somehow rubs off on them, as if success can seep through the walls. When the Phillies started advancing in the playoffs this year, 76ers forward Donyell Marshall told guard Willie Green it was a sign that they would do the same come spring.
The golden age of Philadelphia sports spanned 10 years, from 1974 through '83, and included two championships for the Flyers, one for the Phillies, one for the 76ers and a Super Bowl appearance by the Eagles. As the Flyers paraded down Broad Street in '74, a 19-year-old aspiring physical therapist named Pat Croce jumped on top of the bus that was carrying the media. "It was just me and a couple of gangsters up there," Croce says.
Croce would become president and part owner of the 76ers, and in 2001 he was so confident in his team that he started planning their championship parade in January. "It was going to come down through North Philly into Center City," Croce says. "I reserved 15 flatbed trucks. I had the airport flyover zones checked. The city thought I was nuts." The 76ers made it to the Finals, but the Lakers beat them in five games, and Croce resigned six weeks later after a power struggle with team chairman Ed Snider.
A city can take only so many victory parades that never come to fruition. At some point in the past quarter century, all the heightened expectations gave way to crushing disappointment, and Philadelphia enhanced its reputation for one three-letter word. "When they boo you in Philadelphia, it penetrates you," said Dickie Noles, a relief pitcher for the Phillies when they won the World Series in 1980. "It's different than your normal boo. It comes at you quicker because of the knowledge of the Philly fan. And then it grows into something louder than you hear anyplace else. Philly fans are not just booing the play they just saw. They are booing a whole lifetime at you."
Mitch Williams still hears from those folks on a daily basis—only now they are less likely to be threatening his life than to be shouting in the middle the street, "Mitch, we love your honesty!" Fifteen years after Williams gave up the walk-off home run to Joe Carter in the clinching Game 6 of the World Series, he has become the most unlikely TV and talk-radio personality in Philadelphia, beloved by the local fans because he is almost as critical as they are. "When I was pitching," Williams says, "there wasn't anything that anybody in Philadelphia said about me that I didn't say about myself on the way from the mound to the dugout."
As Williams spoke, a TV in the lobby of the Phillies' administrative office caught his eye. "Look! Look!" he said. On the screen was a clip showing thousands of Philadelphians pouring out of bars and restaurants in the middle of the night, rushing into the streets after the Phillies beat the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. "That's just to get to the World Series," said Williams, laughing and shaking his head. "It's sick."
Williams played for the Cubs as well as the Phillies, and the difference between the organizations was evident in the way they tried to exorcise their respective demons before this year's playoffs. The Cubs had a Greek Orthodox priest spread holy water in the dugout at Wrigley Field to remove any curses. The Phillies simply asked Williams to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Wild Thing took the ball before Game 1 of the NLDS against the Brewers and playfully launched it 20 feet over backup catcher Lou Marson's head, all the way to the backstop. The crowd howled. The Phillies have hardly missed a throw since, taking out the Brewers in four games and dispatching the Dodgers in five. "I'm just praying these guys win the World Series this year and get me off the hook," Williams says.
Even if Williams had retired Carter and saved Game 6 in '93, the Phillies still would have had to come back and win the seventh game in Toronto. Really, Philadelphia's best shots at a championship were in 2005, when curious clock management doomed the Eagles in the Super Bowl against the Patriots, and in 1987, when the Flyers forced a seventh game in Edmonton for the Stanley Cup.
The Flyers had won Game 6 in Philadelphia, and afterward there was such bedlam in the parking lot that goalie Ron Hextall needed six security guards to get to his car. When the Flyers returned from Game 7, after a 3--1 loss, they did not know what kind of reception to expect. "We landed at about 4 a.m., and there were probably 2,000 people lining the fences at the airport, cheering for us," said Hextall, now assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Kings. "I learned something then about Philadelphia fans: If you give everything you've got and come up short, they'll live with it. If you don't give everything you've got and come up short, they'll have a harder time living with that."
JAMIE MOYER grew up in Souderton, Pa., a quaint borough about an hour north of Philadelphia. "For me, coming into the city was a little sketchy," Moyer says. But after the Phillies won the '80 World Series, Moyer and a few friends ditched school at Souderton Area High and made their way down to South Philly. "I remember coming out of the subway, and there were people everywhere," he says. "They were up on streetlights, hanging off trees. I remember saying it would be pretty awesome someday to be sitting on those floats as they go down Broad Street."
Moyer wears his stirrups halfway up his calf, the first sign that he is not of this era. These days he is nearly 46, a lefthanded starter for the Phillies. In a couple of weeks he may very well get to sit on one of those floats as it rolls down Broad Street. The thought of it is a little too much for a guy from Souderton to bear.
"At this point, a championship in any sport will ignite a celebration unmatched in the history of this city," says St. Joseph's basketball coach Phil Martelli, a Philly guy himself. "It has become a mission that covers racial lines, socioeconomic lines, the lines separating the city from the suburbs. Every other celebration that has taken place here—after the Flyers' first championship, after the Phillies' first championship, after World War II—will pale in comparison."
"It will be mayhem," Kruk says. "But it won't be, 'Finally it's over, now we can die happy, now my great-great-grandmother can rest in peace.' No, people in Philadelphia will be thrilled and elated, and then they'll stop and say, 'Do it again.'"
And Bruce Graham will have to sit down at his house 10 minutes from Citizens Bank Park and write. The Philly Fan is scheduled to be revived again from Feb. 17 through March 1 at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, Pa., 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia. A new ending is in the works.
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