Paul Hagen: Philadelphia turns from football town to baseball town

Posted: October 07, 2008

FOR A WHILE THERE, being a baseball guy in Philadelphia was a pretty peaceful existence. Most of the big trucks used the bypass and it was usually quiet enough to hear the crickets chirping after the sun went down.

It wasn't that way when this foreigner from the sovereign republic of Texas arrived in town 22 years ago. Back then, that 1980 world championship was still radiating some warmth, the Phillies were just three seasons removed from their second World Series appearance and club president Bill Giles had swum against the tides of collusion to sign coveted free-agent catcher Lance Parrish.

The Eagles weren't exactly lighting it up back then, either. When the Phillies gathered for spring training at the Carpenter Complex in February 1987 the local NFL team was coming off its fifth straight losing season and on its way to another.

It didn't take long for that to begin to change. As the Phillies slipped into a numbing mediocrity, the Iggles began generating some excitement - and wins - behind brash head coach Buddy Ryan and electric quarterback Randall Cunningham. And even when the football team meandered gently through the Ray Rhodes and Rich Kotite eras, the Phillies were still a bad baseball team, blue snow aberration of '93 notwithstanding.

So when Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb started making the NFC Championship Game an annual stop on the Birds' schedule, one impression became firmly rooted in the civic consciousness: Philadelphia is a football town.

Which is a long wind-up to get to a throwaway line by lefthander Cole Hamels late Sunday afternoon on Comcast after the Phillies clinched their first NLCS appearance in 15 years by beating the Brewers in Milwaukee. "Hopefully it will turn the city red a little bit more than it is green," he said.

Well, then.

To this transplant, the notion that Philadelphia was not a baseball town was always overhyped twaddle. It was, and remains, a place of wonderful baseball history and tradition that had had that portion of its personality driven into hibernation by the unrelenting aura of futility that surrounded the Phillies.

Hamels was onto something, though. These two organizations don't have the warm and fuzzies for each other. It appears that the bad feelings began when the Phillies felt the Eagles weren't doing their fair share to maintain Veterans Stadium. The Eagles were unhappy that the Phillies weren't as prepared as they were when state and city funds became available to build new parks, delaying the openings by a year. There have been reports of petty jealousies over which team has gotten the better play in the newspapers on a given day.

The thing is that it's never taken much to fire up the Philadelphia baseball fan.

Toward the end of July 1991 the Phillies were 40-58 and going absolutely nowhere. Then, for no apparent reason, they started winning. And winning some more. They swept the Montreal Expos at home to run their streak to 13 straight, tying the franchise record. The last three games each attracted more than 30,000 paying customers.

I'll never forget going to the airport the next morning to fly to Pittsburgh. The terminal was jammed with Phillies fans, wearing the colors, talking about the team, many of them flying to the game.

It happened throughout the entire, magical 1993 season.

It happened again in the fall of 2002 as the Phillies pursued, and eventually signed, free agent Jim Thome. Walking around the streets of Center City, eavesdropping on the animated conversations of strangers who were happily talking baseball in November and December.

The Phillies were never able to sustain that momentum, though, never able to build on what they had going.

Until now.

Now they have an exciting young team. They have what may well be the best first baseman ever to wear a Phillies uniform in Ryan Howard. The best second baseman in Chase Utley. The best shortstop in Jimmy Rollins. And, potentially, the best lefthanded pitcher the franchise has ever developed in Cole Hamels.

All those players were drafted and signed by the Phillies as were No. 2 starter Brett Myers and leftfielder Pat Burrell and catcher Carlos Ruiz and setup reliever Ryan Madson. That's pretty impressive.

They also have made the postseason for the second straight season and are now just four wins away from making it to the World Series.

The Eagles, meanwhile, are 2-3 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the third time in 4 years.

Look, this isn't complicated. There's a deep pool of passion for both baseball and football here. The pendulum will swing toward whichever side is experiencing the most success at the moment.

These days, being a baseball guy in Philadelphia is a pretty frantic existence. There's been a building boom on main streets and construction cranes still dot the skyline. The population has exploded.

These days, Philadelphia is a bright-red baseball town. *

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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