Friday, October 31, 2008

On Winning a Championship

It's fourth block, and with about half of my students at the Phillies' victory parade in the city, I'm sitting here in a half-empty classroom writing. I have been cheering the Phillies on throughout the Series, and I made sure to go into town right after they won to at least drink deeply the mania Philadelphians have felt in the wake of the team's slightly improbable win. I saw young men and women kissing each other like strangers on V-J Day. I also saw a man climb a lamppost, only to have his pants slip to his ankles in the process. I saw people queuing up to climb atop bus shelters, trampling them down by doing so. Someone in an Easter bunny outfit was dancing around on someone's shoulders. Innocent vegetation and landscaping on Broad Street were pulled from their roots and paraded around the streets like war booty. For some mysterious reason someone carried a floor lamp around, its chord trailing behind, as if it were torch. The lampshade wobbled ominously.

After living here for a decade and a half, I still don't call Philly teams my favorite. I would have been happier if the Mets had lived up to their potential and payroll the way the less salaried Phillies did. But still, the Phillies are a team with a 45 year-old starting pitcher, with largely homegrown talent and no free agent bigwigs (minus the peerless Brad Lidge). They are, in other words, extremely likable. Can you name a team of professional athletes that qualifies for that description? Keep thinking. The Phils are a bunch of nice guys, finishing first. But I would have been happier with Johan Santana, Carlos Delgado, and their expensive contemporaries doing the same.

The Mets did once in my lifetime, when the 1986 team managed somehow to escape ignominy by allowing the Red Sox to practice a calamity on themselves. It was an beautiful, awful, terrible thing to watch. My parents went to bed for the final inning of Game Six, fully anticipating that I would report to them that the Red Sox won. They gave up. As for me, I wanted to stay up, with tears in my eyes, watching the Sox win because I felt that it was an historic moment. I was so disappointed. How could the Mets lose to the Red Sox, a team inferior to them in every category? And then, it happened. And when it happened, I knew I had to let Mom and Dad know, but in truth I didn't have the words. I didn't have the schema. I was overwhelmed and humbled by life's unselfconscious penchant for shocking both its winners and losers alike. The Mets won Game Six by virtue of a wild pitch and a missed Mookie Wilson grounder that should have been an easy out. I didn't know why the gods, for once, picked my team to enjoy the fruits of others' misfortunes. Why? Then the Mets won Game Seven. Why? Why me? Why was I so lucky?

I haven't had occasion to ask the same question since. The Jets were 15 football minutes away from the Super Bowl (one that they would have won) against the Falcons in January 1999 had it not been for the Broncos' Terrell Davis scoring 12 touchdowns in the fourth quarter of the AFC Title Game. It's not the same thing. Not even close. Having a beloved team win a championship is a life-changing experience. Don't ask a Yankees fan about it, at least maybe not 10 trophy-less seasons under the the current spawn of Steinbrenner have passed. How did Sox fans feel after 2004? How did NY Giants fans feel after 1986? I remember a sign held aloft by a Giants fan right after Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena that read, "Dad, Your Dream Came True." It wasn't just the sign holder's own dream, but a generation's dream. That's how it feels. It feels that big. When the Mets won the 1986 World Series, it felt like that. Like my dream came true. And my Mom's. And my grandmother's. It was freakin' huge.

But in 1986 I wasn't quite ready for it. It was just too overwhelming. It had to mean something that the Mets, a baseball team that I had followed with almost as much zeal as I had the Jets, were champions of their sport. It could have meant that my life was looking appreciatively better, but I chose instead to read Bill Buckner's misfortune as a foreshadowing of my own. Surely the gods (or God) looked upon the Mets victory as barter for something calamitous in return. I remember how Gorbachev and Reagan left their summit in Reykjavik unhappily in October, and I took the confluence of a potential world conflict and a World Series to be a sign. If the Mets win, the world will be vaporized in a nuclear war. Yeah. There would be no other way. So the happy championship of my life turned into a nightmare of assured doom. Instead of the metaphorical, "Now I can die happy," it was "OK. So this is it. Now I'm going to die."

This is what obsessive fandom does. It enervates your spirit. It takes years off your life. The numbnuts who trashed Broad Street Wednesday night weren't real fans. The guys who either scaled the lampposts or who carried the lamp weren't interested in baseball. The true Phillies fans were probably too exhausted to even leave their house. A parade or a riot are not enough to exercise the full feelings of fulfillment, so why bother going out?

I got over my fear of instant death. Nuclear war was probably not contingent upon Bill Buckner's sore ankles or Ray Knight's World Series exploits. But luckily the formal feeling of joy didn't leave me for years and years. A sign hung over the Long Island Expressway leading up to Shea Stadium that read "New York Mets 1986 World Series Champions." It hung there after an incongruous number of years passed. But that hardly mattered. It hung in my heart a similarly ridiculous period. So should it for the fans of the Fightins.

One of my colleagues suggested that if the Jets ever won the Super Bowl I would have the right to go to New York and quiz the lamppost jumpers about their own credibility. He is a Philadelphia purist, which means that he hates New York, but I suppose a New York Jets purist is better than a bandwagoneer. Plus, I'm not a Giants fan. "You would have every right," he said, "to ask as many factual questions about Jets history as need be in order to figure out who did and who did not deserve the honor to cheer on the Jets' victory parade."

"Can you name the backfield the Jets brought into Miami to play the unbeaten Dolphins in 1972?" *

"I wasn't even born yet."

"That's not relevant. Next question..."

The fact that we will probably not need to worry about such an event any time immediately soon is irrelevant, I suppose. Being a true fan means you always dread the unthinkable, you always harbor the dreams of the impossible. Everywhere people tell you, "Be realistic," "Be reasonable." I don't go to work in skin-tight lemon yellow denim pants. I am reasonable. But I believe the Jets will someday hoist the trophy again. I have my limits.

* John Riggins, Emerson Boozer, Cliff McClain, Hank Bjorklund, Steve Harkey

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