This was supposed to be a story about swagger. For much of 2011, Philadelphia seemed on the cusp of becoming the greatest city in sports. In July, the premier free agent in the NFL, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, spurned the loudest team in the league — the New York Jets — to join the Philadelphia Eagles. With a couple of other flashy acquisitions on defense and weapons like quarterback Michael Vick and running back LeSean McCoy on offense, the Eagles were a legit threat, if not the favorites, to reach the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, last December, the best pitcher on the free-agent market, Cliff Lee, passed on Yankee millions to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies. With the help of Lee and the Phillies’ other starting pitchers — Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Vance Worley — the team finished the regular season with the best record in baseball.
Residents admit that Philadelphia, wedged two hours south of New York City and three hours north of Washington, suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex. But with the Phillies the World Series favorites and the Eagles jockeying for a strong start, you’d have expected that sensitivity would be traded for swagger right now. “To have players wanting to be here, it tells us that we’re not so bad,” says Jack Longstreth, 33, a financial adviser born and raised in Philadelphia. “We’re not so inferior anymore.”
But this is Philadelphia. And being a fan here is just never that easy.
Yes, the Phillies clinched a playoff spot in mid-September. But they dropped eight games in a row in the final stretch, a slump some saw as evidence of a dangerously weak batting lineup. And the Eagles are giving Philadelphia’s passionate — some would say crazy — football fans fits.
At 1-2 in the young season, the Eagles are saddled with serious issues. Their offensive line is a sieve; defenses are pummeling Vick, who has already suffered a concussion and a bruised hand. Asomugha has been slow to adjust to Philadelphia’s zone defense; last Sunday, against the New York Giants, he botched a coverage scheme and gave up the winning touchdown to wide receiver Victor Cruz.
So thanks to the Eagles’ troubles, many fans can’t enjoy the success of the Phillies to the fullest. Such pessimism is part of the city’s DNA. For 25 years, between 1983 and 2008, none of its four major professional sports teams won a title — a record drought in a four-team town. The Eagles have never won a Super Bowl. The Phillies, for all their recent success — they’ve won five straight division championships, the 2008 title and the 2009 National League pennant — still have only two World Series victories in their 128-year existence. They’ve lost more games — over 10,000 — than any other team in baseball history.
So when you ask Philly fans to talk about their psyches, it’s no surprise that they turn to the dark side, fast. “Andy Reid is the worst coach in the NFL,” says steamfitter Larry O’Connor, talking about the man who has won more games than any coach in Eagles history. He’s having a beer at Chickie’s and Pete’s, the famed South Philadelphia sports bar around the corner from Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park. “His clock management skills are awful. My god, man, he needs a sundial ahead of him.”
“There’s just a sense of entitlement with them,” says Longstreth of the Eagles. “The way decisions are made, they can care less about our response.” Sure, the Eagles piled up on Pro Bowl cornerbacks, say critics. But where was the help for the offensive line and the team’s increasingly outclassed linebackers? “We’ve gone from being pissed off to just tired,” says executive search consultant Rich Alexander, 58, a longtime Eagles season-ticket holder. “We’re just throwing our hands up.” (Yes, he and other Philadelphians are aware it’s only week four of the NFL season.)
The Phillies could win four straight titles and Eagles agita would still run deep. Most Philadelphians agree that their home is more a football town than a baseball town. “My 10-year-old son knew how to say ‘Dallas sucks’ before he knew his own address,” says Mike Tait, 39, a Philadelphia police officer. “The Phillies are camouflage for the Eagles right now. Eventually, the deer is going to come out of the woods, and the Eagles are a buck with pretty big horns. It’s so frustrating. If the Phillies win the World Series, we’ll have a party. The next morning, we’ll wake up and go, ‘Damn, the Eagles haven’t won a championship since 1960.’ “
At Brothers Two, a South Philadelphia neighborhood joint where the specialties are beer and ball busting, patrons are slightly more upbeat. Sure, there’s plenty of vitriol for Reid — “I know a 10-year-old who can call better plays than him,” says bartender Vinny Gangemi — but they want you to know they’re enjoying the Phillies’ run. And they really want you to know that the stereotype of Philly sports fans as brutish — when the city sets up a jail at the old Veterans Stadium or fans throw batteries at an outfielder or famously boo Santa Claus at an Eagles game, you’ll get a reputation — is overblown. “We’re the most knowledgeable fans around,” says Frankie Fratto, a regular at Brothers Two. “We get a bad rap. Everybody’s fans are bad. Just because we once threw snowballs at f—ing Santa Claus, we get this bad rap. That’s going to follow us around until we die.”
Sure, a lot of cities would kill to have Philadelphia’s problems. The Phillies, after all, are still a safe bet to win the World Series. But the City of Brotherly Love is used to being an underdog, and being cast as the favorite is making folks jittery. Moments after threatening to beat the pants off a driver loitering in front of his bar — to be fair, the guy was blocking an entire street — Gangemi is asked to characterize the Philadelphia sports fan’s mind-set. He doesn’t need much time for reflection: “The Phillies are scaring the s— out of me.”