Hope is eternal, even for Phillies fans

A young Phillies fan proclaims her belief in the team in July 2006. Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Phils a loss, their 9,926th in team history.
A young Phillies fan proclaims her belief in the team in July 2006. Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Phils a loss, their 9,926th in team history.
Posted: February 28, 2010

Gerard Shields is a Kensington native and author of the new book "Phutile to Phinally: 10,000 Losses and One Life as a Phillies Fan"

As preseason games start this week, Phillies fans join millions of others across 30 North American cities hoping that their team is the last one standing in the fall.

Our city has been blessed to be in the World Series the last two seasons, hoisting the championship trophy in one. Not only have we had excellent ballplayers, but they have proved themselves to be good men and fine role models.

Of course, it hasn't always been that way. As baseball enthusiasts and national commentators like to note, the Phillies are the only team in baseball history to lose more than 10,000 games.

Few note that the Phillies have won more than 9,000 games, yet we cannot deny the futility. Between 1917 and 1949, the club had one winning season. The franchise has dropped at least 100 games in a season 14 times. And the Phils have finished in last place 31 times.

"Since 1915, I have been cheering for the Phillies, and if that doesn't take character, what does?" Bucks County author James Michener wrote in a 1976 newspaper column. "In such circumstances, it is traditional to say, 'I supported them in good years and bad.' There were no good years. I cheered in bad years and worse."

Inquirer sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick put it this way in a 2001 book: "Examining the franchise's history is akin to reading the Book of Job."

The most brutal cut may have come in 1936, when a huge sign on the right-field wall of the Baker Bowl promoted Lifebuoy deodorant soap, proclaiming: "The Phillies Use Lifebuoy." An irate fan scrawled underneath: "And they still stink."

Why are Phillies fans and sportswriters so hard on their team? One word: pride. Fans see their team as a representation of their city, and thus themselves, to the rest of the nation. As go the Phillies, so goes Philadelphia. We are the tribe; they are our warriors.

Going back to the first Olympic games in 776 B.C., the spirits of towns rose and fell with their athletes. Winners of the Greek games were welcomed home with festivals, no different from a Broad Street parade.

Jim Fregosi, manager of the Phillies' 1993 World Series team, which may have best embodied the city's blue-collar foundation, explained it this way:

"The fans in Philly - they're like an extra coach," Fregosi told reporters. "If they see a guy not running out a grounder, they'll boo the hell out of him. The coach doesn't have to say a thing."

That attitude has occasionally frayed the bond between fans and players. Fiery former shortstop Larry Bowa, tired of being harangued by Phillies fans during the team's successful World Series run in 1980, called the crowd "front-running" (expletive deleted).

Yet it was Bowa who later relented after the team won its first World Series in its 97 years, calling his tormentors the "greatest fans in baseball."

The love for our red-pinstriped team moves into its 128th year and, as with a marriage, we are joined in good times and in bad, for better or worse.


E-mail Gerard Shields at GerardShields@aol.com.

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