Category Archives: Sports

When Philadelphia Was King

It can’t be called a renaissance, because that would imply it has happened before.

It can’t be called a miracle, because that would diminish those who have made it possible.

It can’t be called a dream, because that would mean it is not taking place at this exact moment.

What it can be called is a tale. A story now three years running, littered with more climaxes than a Jenna Jameson DVD. A thriller etched in the collective minds of Philadelphia sports fans, to be rehashed and retold in countless variations for decades to come.

Its title? “When Philadelphia Was King.”

Open the red, orange and green cover and the first few chapters tell how it all began. How a 2007 NL East title was torn from the manicured hands of the New York Mets over the last few weeks of the season. How, despite an early exit, this taste of October ball spurred a 2008 World Series championship that erased 25 straight years of Philadelphia sports’ futility.

It could only be had in classic Brotherly Love style. The clinching game – the final chapter of that year – ended mid-paragraph, and readers had to wait through a freakish storm for the finale to arrive. When finally the tale resumed and the trophy was raised, pandemonium swallowed Broad Street and euphoria overcame those who had been sucking their thumbs the last time such sports ecstasy invaded their town.

Flip to a year later and it nearly took over again. 2009 and another visit to baseball’s big show, this time led by the mid-year acquisition of Clifton Lee, who nearly slayed the mighty New York Yankees single-armedly. Losing hurt, but the fresh banner rippling from a pole in Citizens Bank Park helped soften it, as did the trade for the league’s best pitcher, Roy Halladay, a little over two months later. Even if this blockbuster came at the expense of David and his slingshot.

But more on that in a minute.

A Yankees’ championship would be the Big Apple’s last laugh. On April 11, 2010, the Flyers win a 2-1 shootout over the Rangers in a battle for a playoff spot. Then they swat down New Jersey in five like an annoying gnat. The cakewalk ends abruptly as the Boston Bruins bury the home team in a 0-3 hole, seemingly ending this story for good. But tales such as these have lives of their own, and the drama to follow would make for one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports.

Hockey lives a sad life vying for American fandom. For decades it has wallowed just above women’s basketball in the minds of beer-drinking men everywhere. Ad campaigns, rule changes, TV contracts: barely a blip on the radar. In four games, the Flyers showcased just how glorious the game could be for anyone with working eyeballs. Not only did they climb from the depths, but out of a 3-0 straightjacket in Game 7, in Boston, swinging, to take the game, and series, 4-3.

Simon Gagne, cheesesteaks on us for eternity.

Somehow the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens reach the Eastern Conference Finals and the Flyers get home-ice advantage. Cue Michael Leighton, another no-name goaltender following in a long line of them, to rattle off two straight shutouts (naturally) and a third at hockey’s mecca, the Bell Centre. By Game 5, the Habs were toast, and a 4-2 victory set a date with the Chicago Blackhawks for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

It almost doesn’t matter that they lost in six. What Philadelphia’s ice hockey team accomplished over 24 games will be remembered for the rest of time. If you look who’s sitting atop the NHL right now with 49 points and 22 wins (the latest coming against – who else? – the New York Rangers), you’ll realize how much of an affect that historical run had on this franchise. And on Philadelphia sports at large.

As if to prove this, a few short months later the Phillies finished the season with the best record in all of baseball for the first time in their 127-year existence. What happens next? Only the aforementioned Roy Halladay pitching just the second no-hitter in MLB post-season history. A sweep of the Cincinnati Reds followed but, in the end, bats turned to toothpicks and our sluggers from top to bottom couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a water balloon. Phils lose in six to the eventual world champs, the San Francisco Giants – paving the way for what would take place, again, less than two months later.

The signing of the best available pitcher in baseball.

Right from under New York’s nose.

Had our beloved Fightins beat the Giants and faced Cliff Lee and his Texas Rangers in the World Series, it is likely quotes like this one wouldn’t be making Philadelphia’s head swell so large it nearly bloats out William Penn standing proudly atop City Hall:

“The intensity that you can feel when you get in the game [in Philadelphia], it has an elevated feel to it. Compared to everywhere else, it’s completely different,” Lee said upon re-signing with the Phillies on Dec. 14, 2010. “I don’t know what the fans do to create that much more volume and excitement in the stadium, but it’s definitely something extra here. They get excited. They are passionate fans. They understand what’s going on. They don’t need a TelePrompter to tell them to get up and cheer.”

And this mind-blower from Lee’s wife, Kristen:

“We did pretty much everything [when in Philadelphia during the Lees’ first tour with the Phillies]. I would have never dreamed when we got traded here from the Indians that we would say, ‘Ooh, Philadelphia, I can’t wait to get there.’ But it’s a city like I’ve never been in before. We haven’t had that exact feeling anywhere else.”

Excuse me? You’ve never felt like you do in Philly anywhere else? All this time living in and around the city and I never knew it was Shangri La!

Such gushing is normally reserved for warmer or “cleaner” or “nicer” or “more cultured” towns, where fans don’t hold their players explicitly accountable and fail to stand and cheer when a star enters a steakhouse (which a colleague told me happened just last week while Cliff Lee dined at “The Capital Grille”). In other words, such fawning is New York territory. Which makes the fact that we stole him from the Yankees not only as sweet as mountains of Christmas cookies but another feather in the cap Philly’s been wearing while methodically decimating New York’s sporting hopes since 2007.

Which brings me to the Eagles. Meanwhile, as chapters on the Phillies and Flyers were followed breathlessly, our Birds toiled in relative obscurity, even if a shocking and entirely unanticipated run to the 2008 NFC Championship made for some indelible memories – particularly the 44-6 shellacking of the Cowgirls in the last game of the season, earning Andy & Co. a playoff birth with the improbable help of the Texans and Raiders.

But the surge of the city’s baseball team was the true page-turner, and the Eagles just couldn’t compete. Until Michael Vick rose from the dead.

Could there be a more captivating chapter in this Philadelphia story than that which is currently being devoted to this resurrected quarterback? We know the background, the horror of the murdered dogs, the jail time, the blacklisting by advertisers, the disgust throughout football, the fact that for many what Mike Vick did and permitted done on his property will never be forgiven. But whether you are of the boycotting camp or the “Go, boy!” camp, what this particular man has achieved over six short months is an undisputed best-seller, an Oprah book club-worthy, a made-for-the-big-screen saga that could make 10 years of sports’ destitution worth suffering through all by itself.

Instead, it is just another passage in our exceptional tale (albeit typed in bold font, triple-underlined, and printed in bright green ink). As we enter Week 16 of the 2010 NFL season, Vick ranks third in passer rating (103.6), tied for second-fewest INTs (5) and has thrown 20 TDs. He’s rushed for 613 yards and 8 touchdowns, more than big-name running-backs Stephen Jackson (5), LaDainian Tomlinson (5), Darren McFadden (7) and Cedric Benson (7), among others. He’s got more TDs than the back on his own team, LeSean McCoy (7).

As if Vick’s 2010 legacy had not already been cemented prior to a Week 15 match-up against the New York Giants for first in the NFC East, he pours several more molds of concrete over football nation then chisels them in his image. There’s one of the 65-yard strike to Celek; another of the 13-yard toss to Maclin; and four more of runs of 35 yards, 33 yards, 22 yards and a 7-yard score.

Between 3:50 and 4:16 on Sunday, the sound of jaws dropping awoke babies all across the country.

To have orchestrated a comeback from 21 down with a little over 8-minutes left in a game that determines playoff destinies is one thing, but to do so while jamming yet another stake in the heart of New York City instantly vaults Vick to godlike status. It also makes him MVP of the league, baring a collapse as epic as the Titanic’s over these final two games.

Simultaneously, it adds coffee tables to the bonfire that is this current Philadelphia sports story. Triumph, comebacks, resiliency, redemption, moments of sheer lunacy when pinching yourself proves you’re awake but you squeeze the skin once more anyway.

New York looks at us from its insecure Times Square and bars filled with strangers acting like friends and a tear falls from its eye, landing on the very edge of the current page we are on, the page on which we don’t yet know what will be written. We look at the droplet and nonchalantly brush it away. This is a story that refuses to be soiled, a story with no time for lesser men.

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