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Friday, October 24, 2008

The Reason for the Season

I've lived in Philadelphia for 16 years, and in all that time, a home team has gone to a championship series five times, always without success. The Flyers went to the Stanley Cup in 1997 and promptly got swept by Detroit. The Sixers played brilliantly against the Lakers in game one of the 2001 NBA Finals, only then to lose four in a row. The Eagles nearly beat Those of Whom We Do Not Speak in Super Bowl something-or-other in 2004, and of course there were the rip-snortin' Phillies of 1993 who won the pennant and were undone by Joe Carter's home run. When they've been in a position to win I have always rooted for the home team, which sometimes confuses natives who look at a native New Yorker as though he were a Bolshevik at a square dance. An Eagles-Jets Super Bowl is not bound to happen any time soon, so I'm in the clear, I guess. Above all, through their good years and bad, I have grown very found of the Fightin' Phils, and their current World Series against the Rays has me too distracted to write of late.

There's no doubt about it; sports brings people together. It's extraordinary, but Philadelphia has been a genuinely pleasant city of late. This morning, I awoke to an odd, pervasive odor. What was it? A house fire? A blocked chimney? Actually, it was a gagging, residual cloud of smoke from a forest fire in nearby South Jersey. It was disturbing. But you wouldn't have known it from the smiling faces all around. As Jason Robards' character in A Thousand Clowns says, the saddest sight to see in the world is people going to work in the morning. Even worse are Philly working people, arguably among the nation's grumpiest. So here they are - Philadelphians - choked by smoke, living in a city that sees some of the nation's worst gun violence, living in a country that may well be crippled by an economic collapse. And they couldn't be happier. The Phillies are in the World Series.

And they're underdogs. Has euphoria among people here blinded them to the fact that in this Series the Phils are playing like the 2008 Mets, like a team whose specialty is leaving men on base? The Rays are certainly playing like the Mets of 1969, whose specialties were spectacular fielding, clutch hitting, intimidating pitching and unflappable, unselfconscious determination. No, I think the natives here know exactly what's going to happen. Many mention it with a smile or a wink like some of the Republicans I work with whose candidate would seem to be poised for defeat in November (from their wink to God's eyes). We're going to lose. It's an expression of comprehension laced with the slightest drab of hope. But they're not clueless.

So what's preventing Philadelphians from collapsing into their characteristic Mass of nihilistic despair? They're just happy, I guess, or at least they're telling themselves they're happy, which is sometimes the same thing. And this is what following and loving a team can do. You follow the outcome of your favorites whom you love as if they were related to you, and yet there is nothing you can do to improve their chances. This can be simultaneously comforting and discomforting, but that's a universal human reaction to fandom too complex to discuss here. The fact is that their team is in the big one, and if Philadelphians' puffy grumpiness is actually a lacquer that covers a fragile ego, then their euphoria is rooted in a rare, authentic pride. And this is true whether we are speaking of day-to-day baseball fans or not. Among my less fervent colleagues and friends who suddenly find themselves Phillies fans, the Series is at least enabling them to think about something other than the dissatisfaction they feel with their jobs, their home lives, their fragile sense of well-being. At the very least, these two weeks in the World Series defy the existential horror found in the saddest sight in the world. As for my grumpier colleagues and friends who take no pleasure in the Phillies this week, I ask that they consider that this is exactly why people are fanatical about their teams to begin with. It's more than just a hobby. It's a key to psychic survival.

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