Posted by: mdegeorge | December 14, 2010

Lee signing as un-Philadelphia as they come

In the last several years, I’ve grown more than somewhat exhausted of Philadelphia’s self-appointed moniker of “The City of Champions.”

After all, were we to get technical, they would really be the city of champion, as the 2008 Phillies represent the only team from the City of Brotherly Love to be crowned king of their respective sport in the last two and a half decades. Being a non-fan and a considerable cynic, it wreaked of belligerence. And worse, it had no support, no evidence, no logical backing.

But the tide is turning. And if there was any question as to that shift, it was resolutely answered by the signing of Cliff Lee Monday.

Philadelphia Phillie fans hold up signs at the end of the game celebrating the fact that Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay got his 20th win with the defeat of the Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Citizens Bank Park September 21, 2010. Philadelphia defeated Atlanta 5-3.  .   UPI/John Anderson Photo via Newscom

Lee’s acquisition signals a sea change in the Philly sports scene. What was once brusque descendents of factory workers puffing out their chests, full of bluster but little substance at poking the New York and Boston sporting bears, has become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Philly has long been a town of underachievers and disappointments. It’s a town that believed that Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins were worth top dollar. It’s a town that hitched its star to those who chronically underwhelmed—to the Donovan McNabb’s and Samuel Dalembert’s. It was a town that deluded itself into believing that Eric Lindros’s and Mike Lieberthal’s would somehow lead them to the promised land. And it was a town with the unmitigated gall to announce to the world that this was the case, to play its hand like it could withstand cards drawn from the deck when really its cards were face up and showing all the time.

Philly was a town of teams that lost—not losers, per se—but collections of individuals, on the field of play and in the front office, that were never able to answer the call. Or worse, those who’d pick up the phone and dial the wrong number and then turn to the masses and announce that all was fine—better than ever, even—either out of a belligerent façade self-interest or sheer oblivion.

Philadelphia wasn’t a town that thought outside the box, one that pushed the envelope. Philadelphia was content to passively watch Donovan McNabb wither until the age of 30 under the assumption that the cost of finding a replacement would be too high. Philadelphia was willing to let Allen Iverson play out his days, surrounding him with talent like George Lynch and the dying embers of Derrick Coleman’s career. Philadelphia once thought that Jim Thome could do it by himself.

Five years ago, a bullish deal for Chris Pronger had no place in this town. The ability of Ruben Amaro, Jr. to acquire for four perennial Cy Young candidates—four!!—in less than two years would have been blasphemy. Taking a chance on someone like Michael Vick was utter lunacy. The right play was the safe play, the one lined up from miles away so that the seller saw Philadelphia coming, money in hand and pressure mounting, so that the price could be adjusted accordingly.

Philadelphia teams weren’t “secret bidders” in any sweepstakes. When Philadelphia teams were stocked offensively, they added defense, and vice versa. They sought to turn liabilities into passable commodities, not strengths into specialties into units of domination. They would never replace an outfielder with a pitcher, especially when they had a few good pitchers already there. They wouldn’t take the risk, and when they did, they would opt for the one that came cheapest and easiest but which often skewed the risk/reward balance most unfavorably.

The Lee signing was the cherry on top. Cliff Lee wouldn’t have been a Phillie five years ago; the serendipitous happenstance by which he came to arrive in Philadelphia a second time just wouldn’t have occurred.

He wouldn’t have been traded for originally, because a pennant race if well and good, but prospects are prospects (there’s just no way of knowing when the next Lou Marson or Brandon Duckworth will come along). He wouldn’t have wanted to return to a town that so unceremoniously dismissed him.

But he did. In every account he did. He was wronged, and yet so drawn by the town’s gravity that he came back, even after leaving on shaky terms. He came back for less money, $60 million less, not chump change by any standard. He chose Philly over the Yankees—the Yankees!! That just doesn’t happen in Philadelphia.

The change in the winds has lifted the sporting sphere of Philadelphia out of its collective doldrums. The trip down Broad Street 26 months ago wasn’t a wake up call; it was affirmation that once the town’s feet were out from under the covers and firmly on the ground, it could walk…and run…and win.

Even the ominous foreboding, the waiting for the other shoe to drop, is gone. The bristle was always a cover for that insecurity, the knowledge that another disappointment lay in the next big game or opportunity to improve. Now, the protruding chest has muscle behind it, not hot air; the jaw jutting out confidently isn’t awaiting a punch to shatter it, but rather to shove in the eye of anyone in its way.

Monday was a seminal moment in that transition. Were it not for the frigid temperatures, I’d suspect you’d have heard people outside, rousing their neighbors and taking their dogs for walks just to spread the news. It was a moment you wanted to share with somebody, anybody. The intensity and the anticipation for the Phillies are palpable, and it’ll be over two months before a glove is so much as oiled for spring training. Even as one who admits no connection to the fandom, the atmosphere is intoxicating.

Philadelphia’s renaissance is not unlike the one Boston enjoyed early this decade. The Patriots, perpetual bottom-dwellers dating to the 1970’s, had this Brady guy. The Red Sox curse was broken. And the Celtics, reduced to a borderline laughingstock for years, were restored to their rightful place as World Champions. It was all because Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, Tedy Bruschi, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett were worth the money, worth the risk.

It’s now Philadelphia’s turn. Sure, SEPTA’s probably already devising schedules to accommodate the extra volume on Broad sometime in that first week of November. The Eagles have already toppled the Patriots in Super Bowl XLV thanks to a catch-and-run touchdown and expertly choreographed celebration dance by the greatest wide receiver ever to done pads. Sergei Bobrovsky has back-stopped the Flyers to a Stanley Cup before his 23rd birthday. And the Commissioner’s Trophy has been engraved with a big, script “P”.

In the minds of the Philly sports fans, it’s all on the precipice. It’s not the bandwagoners doing the talking; it’s the prodigious contingent that have time and again tried to help push the bandwagon out of some ungodly mires only to be splattered by the flying much from the tires. That group’s pushing has been rewarded, and they’re now willing to dream—and dream in Technicolor: red, orange, and green. It’s not a new Philadelphia, just a reformed and edified version of the passion that has always existed, now with an output in terms of effort and guile put towards winning more commensurate with the outlay of devotion.

For the first time in a very long time—since an Afro-ed Doctor and a bunch of Bullies patrolled South Broad—it’s not just their tattered egos, futility-conditioned psyches, and Pabst liquid courage doing the talking.

Now, there’s substance to it. Perhaps, the stuff of champions.



  1. […] Lee signed, it seemed like a sea change that free agents in every sport were looking at Philly as a prime destination. Now, it’s the new […]

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