Posted by: mdegeorge | July 30, 2011

The Philadelphia excitement arms races amps up

Perhaps I should start with a disclaimer: I wasn’t born into the world of Philadelphia sports craziness. I perceived it from a distant as a conscientious objector to the sports teams I grew up around in New York, always a fervent critic of that which was so adored around me.

But that distance has given me the opportunity to see the two of the three East Coast sporting Meccas from each other’s vantage point. I’ve seen the deplorable bravado of suddenly confident Mets fans in the late 90s and early 2000s enjoying the dependable doormats from Philly. I’ve seen Eagles fans go at Giants fans, forgetting momentarily their last championship dates to long before most in the argument – and certainly anyone playing out their pissing match on the field – were even born.

New Phillie Hunter Pence could be strolling toward a World Series title. (Courtesy of Creative Commons

In short, I’ve seen the regard in which each fan base holds the other. It’s a rivalry that will go on forever, where good and evil are relative and ever changing.

But I’ve got to say, in the latest battles of this ongoing war, Philly is kind of kicking ass. It’s not just a head-to-head rivalry on the field or in the presses; it’s becoming an insuppressible type of excitement that regardless of where your fan allegiances lie is pretty palpable. It’s even enough to dampen this writer’s usually irrepressible cynicism.

I’ve had the privilege of experiencing a few nights in this Philadelphia storm – all of which occurred in the near-deadline throes of a newsroom, incidentally – that are simply generation defying.

There was the Dec. 14 signing of Cliff Lee, a night where if you had a high enough vantage point, you could almost see the wave of information propagating throughout the Delaware Valley, where putting out a newspaper that featured such shocking and joyful news really felt like a public service. There was the Flyers draft-day revamping, with leading scorer Jeff Carter and captain Mike Richards sent packing, only to be replaced a week later with the best free-agent goaltender available (Ilya Bryzgalov) and a marquee free-agent forward (Jaromir Jagr).

And then there was Friday, an unbelievable bit of one-upmanship from the Eagles – inking top free-agent prize Nnamdi Asomugha – and the Phillies – trading for the right-handed outfield bad they so desperately coveted in Hunter Pence and managing to keep their young major leaguers like Domonic Brown and Vance Worley. The Eagles tried to get the final word on the night with the official signing of Vince Young as the backup quarterback, and even the Union somewhat feebly tried to get in the act with manager Peter Nowak’s cryptic press conference message that leading scorer Carlos Ruiz would be on the way out thanks to a bid by a mystery team for a mystery amount at a mystery time. It was a night that forced long-time columnist Phil Sheridan to tweet “Been covering #Philadelphia sports a long time. Tonight is an all timer. #headspinning.”

It may be more than a coincidence that three of those big arrivals were plucked from under the noses of New York teams (Lee from the Yankees, Jagr from the Rangers and Asomugha from the Jets) and each with the Philly squads representing mysterious bidders entering the fray at the last minute to snatch the prize. Even more amazingly — or vengefully, the adjective is yours to chose — it appears all three, including Asomugha, taking less money to call the City of Brotherly Love home.

These impressive front-office coups aren’t without parallel on the field. Within the last year and change, Philly teams have recorded historic performances that rank high up there on the all-time scale – think Roy Halladay playoff no-hitter and perfect game, the DeSean Jackson Miracle at the Meadowlands II and the Flyers 2010 playoff comeback against the Bruins.

It’s tough to categorize as cutthroat of a sports scene as Philly’s as good-natured (you know, like Joe Banner announcing the trade of Donovan McNabb 24 hours prior to the Phillies 2010 Opening Day). But it seems that the pro squads certainly drive each other. I mean, once the Asomugha signing was announced today, was there anyone who doubted Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies wouldn’t pull the trigger to get their man in Pence? The announcement of the move of Ruiz, their leading goal-scorer and a piece of big news for those so interested, was the one that stretched the day beyond the limits of ridiculousness. I half expected the Flyers brass to announce that they’d traded Chris Pronger for Steven Stamkos or some other ludicrously earth-shattering move before our deadline.

When 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 norm. The teams seem to be engaged in an arm race against each other; the commodity at stake is excitement, and they seem to be building plenty of it. Teams like the Eagles and Phillies are identifying the guys they want and going out and getting them.

It’s difficult to put into words just what that means. There’s a cynicism – partially built here on decades without championships, partially ingrained in me from the rivals to the north – that makes this type of success in the open market feel unlikely. But for the last year, it’s like that seemingly outlandish statement you toss around half-sarcastically with your buddies – “yeah, watch the Eagles go after Asomugha” – comes true every time. And there’s nothing more exciting than watching a report of that magnitude go from rumor, to gaining traction, to sources confirming, to the team confirming to it being real.

The Pence deal was the perfect example. The Giants’ acquisition of Carlos Beltran – a player the Phillies looked at and who debuted in Philly, no less – upped the ante, as did the continuing escalation of desperation and injured bodies in Atlanta. The Eagles’ moves did much of the same on the psyche of the town. That put everybody on watch. At 7 p.m., rumored makeweight Brown was in the Phils lineup. At 8 p.m., as reports that a three-team deal was disintegrating, Pence was a starter for Houston. As the night wore on, names of prospects were thrown around, Brown-Watch was instated, since his substitution ensured the deal was done. Then the reports broke. Then Pence was taken out of the game. Then he tearfully hugged his teammates in the dugout. It really was a riveting day for a respectful sports fan; I shudder to think what it was like as a Philly fan.

It’s part of a palpable excitement in this city. Whether the championship results – the final wall to break down in the ebb and flow of success – will follow remains to be seen.

But it makes for a scintillating time to be in this city, and not just for Philly fans.

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