A survival guide to playing pro sports in Philly

'For who? For what?' Ricky Watters' explanation for short-arming a pass to him in his Eagles debutdidn't exactly endear him to the fans.
'For who? For what?' Ricky Watters' explanation for short-arming a pass to him in his Eagles debutdidn't exactly endear him to the fans. (FILE PHOTO)
Posted: August 25, 2011

EVERYWHERE you look in the Eagles' locker room at the NovaCare Complex, you come across a new face. Over here is Vince Young, the backup quarterback who has come to Philadelphia to rejuvenate his career. Over there is Nnamdi Asomugha, the stellar cornerback who came over from Oakland. And then there are Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Danny Watkins, Donald Lee, Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jason Babin, Sinorice Moss and . . . well . . . you get the picture. The year ahead should be excellent for the sale of replica jerseys.

Players come and go every year and not just in football, of course. The Phillies have been vigilant in adding reinforcements in their yearly run at the National League pennant: Hunter Pence has been the latest, and has immediately become a crowd favorite. The Flyers have turned over their roster dramatically since the disappointing conclusion to last year: eight of the 20 players who dressed for them in the final game are gone, replaced by Jaromir Jagr, Ilya Bryzgalov, Brayden Schenn and others. And while the Sixers have not been so aggressive, they will head into the NBA season (if there is an NBA season) with some new blood from the draft in center Nikola Vucevic from USC. (Oh yes, and the Sixers will have a new owner in Josh Harris).

One commonality that every new player who comes to Philadelphia shares is this: All of them have heard what it is like to play here and it is not exactly a ride at Disney World. Of course, this is just purely the perception that has been fueled by the inexhaustible smear job that has been done by the national media, old stuff that continues to be dredged up and passed along like a plate of gruel in a prison mess hall (see the endlessly cited "Santa Claus Snowball Episode," which only occurred some 50 years ago). To hear it told (and told and told and told), any player who comes to Philadelphia would have to think he is descending into the deepest depths of hell. By comparison, you would think that New York fans sit around with construction paper and spend their days carving hearts to send to their favorite players.

So . . . what have some of the new Eagles heard?

"That this can be a hard place to play, because they know about winning around here," says Rodgers-Cromartie, the cornerback who came over from the Arizona Cardinals in the Kevin Kolb trade. "I hear the fans can get crazy, but they are loyal."

Former Oakland wide receiver Higgins adds, "I know the fans can get rough, but I also know they are 100 percent behind you. I use it as motivation."

Moss echoes that.

"Remember, I played with the Giants in New York, so I have some sense of what it is like," the veteran wide receiver says. "When I came here to play as a visiting player, I learned the Eagles fight song just by hearing it on the other sideline. But you just have to play hard and be a professional on and off the field."

Contrary to what players might hear before they come to Philadelphia, chances are their experience once they are here will be a highly positive one. In fact, Philadelphia has become a city of destination for athletes. Exhibit A: Cliff Lee. The Phillies pitcher passed up the New York money to come here. That has forever endeared him to the fans, whose passions can elevate a player to sainthood and condemn him to the Lance Parrish Wing of Underachievers. In an effort to help our new arrivals to achieve the former and avoid the latter, we have come up with a few pointers for them.

Call it: "A Survival Guide to Playing in Philly." Or: "Five Things Every New Player Should Know."

1. Give a good first impression

Was there ever, ever a worse first impression by a Philadelphia athlete than the one made by Ricky Watters? In the 1995 season opener, the Eagles were beaten, 21-6, by a poor Tampa Bay team. In the game, Watters short-armed a pass over the middle to avoid contact. When asked why he had not given the ball a better effort, Watters replied, "For who? For what?" It was absolutely, positively the worst answer he could have given, and the media and fans ate him up for it. Though Watters was a durable player who went on to have a fine career, he is still remembered for a comment that epitomized selfish play. Chances are that Watters would have been skewered whenever he said it, but the fact that it became the initial impression fans would have of him only added to his woes here.

Moral: Show up for the first day of work prepared to show people you are who you are supposed to be. Remember, you do not get a second chance to make a first impression.

2. Go hard

Who do you remember? Aaron Rowand? Or Bobby Abreu? Statistically, the better player across the board was Abreu. But the player you remember is Rowand, who in the first inning of a 2006 game against the Mets at Citizens Bank Park crashed into the centerfield fence to run down a deep fly ball and saved three runs from scoring. Rowand shattered his nose and suffered an array of lacerations. There were big pictures of him in the paper the following day leaving the field with blood pouring down his face, as if he had just skated off the ice with the Broad Street Bullies. Ultimately, he underwent 7 hours of surgery to repair the damage. (By the way, the Phillies won the game, 2-0.)

Under the heading of what not to do: Catcher Rod Barajas, who in 2007 allowed a runner to slide between his legs to score and became forever stigmatized. Interestingly, Barajas is now playing with the Dodgers in Los Angeles, where such style of play is obviously forgiven among the Hollywood elite. As our former colleague, the always-astute Ray Didinger says: "Players who are too cool for school tend to have problems in Philadelphia." This even extended to Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman ever to wear a uniform. The game came so easily to him, the fans criticized him for years for not appearing to care, despite the big numbers he put up.

Moral: Go for the knockout. Rocky Balboa always did.

3. Be authentic

We loved it when it when legendary Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil would become so overwhelmed with joy or sorrow that he wept. In the case of Donovan McNabb, we could never be quite sure where he was coming from: a place in his heart or place that was scripted for him by some PR type. All that we could be sure of was he was always angry over the reception he received on draft day. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the grudge he held for so long was a football, he would have never had a fumble. Otherwise, McNabb came across in his postgame interviews as if he were explaining a math problem.

Better to be a Jim McMahon - you know, someone with a pulse. McMahon used to hang out at the Fraternal Order of Police building. Didinger remembers how McMahon left the field one day and some fans seated above the tunnel were calling him names. McMahon flipped them off. Immediately, the fans began cheering him. Former Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa, in a state of pique, once called the fans the worst in baseball, only to go on to be beloved as a player.

Moral: Let the fans know you are "real," and you care as much as they do.

4. No one is interested in your excuses

We hate hearing them. McNabb was guilty of it when he blamed a playoff loss to Dallas on the inexperience of his teammates. Cole Hamels indulged in a certain degree of whining before he wised up some and became accountable for his occasional lousy pitching performances. Hey, admit it: No one is perfect! You screw up, say so. Instead of hiding out after a game, go in there and face the media. Schmidt did just that after his horrendous performance in the 1983 World Series, when he went 1-for-20 against the Orioles. Schmidt stood there and answered every question.

Moral: A bad performance does not become a good performance if you hide from it. It becomes a really bad performance.

5. Come up big in the clutch

Certain players bring with them expectations. Pete Rose was supposed to add spark to a team that was very good but not quite there. He did. Moses Malone was supposed carry a fine Sixers team led by Julius Erving over the top and win a championship. He did. Both Rose and Malone will be remembered in Philadelphia forever as players who delivered the ultimate prize. Roy Halladay has not yet won a championship, yet appears poised to go down as one of those special players who has come to Philadelphia as advertised.

On the other hand . . .

We have Eric Lindros. A very fine player, but he will be remembered for not bringing the Flyers the coveted Stanley Cup. McNabb. Again, a very fine player, but someone who will be remember for coming up short in the Super Bowl (and supposedly barfing during a huddle). And there is Ryan Howard. Great player and yet until he adds to his history, there will be people who will remember him looking at a called third strike to end the 2010 NLCS.

Moral: When it comes to greatness, many are called, few are chosen.

The interesting thing is, the players who come here and succeed often end up settling down in the area, even some players who had dreaded coming here. Didinger recounted how Ron Jaworski, then a backup quarterback with the Rams, was aghast when he came to Philadelphia to play an away game and the fans began throwing golf balls onto the field. Jaworski could never imagine playing here, but he did and became as popular and as successful off the field as any former Philadelphia athlete. Didinger says Vai Sikahema had the same experience: could not imagine coming here, but did and stayed on to become a star sportscaster. Countless members of the Broad Street Bullies also still live in the area.

Eagles All-Pro long snapper Jon Dorenbos is not surprised. With the team since 2006, he acquired an appreciation for playing in Philadelphia, how it "holds a lot of clout" when he lets people know in his outside business ventures that he plays in Philadelphia. When a new player comes in, Dorenbos will occasionally speak with him, and pass along the ingredients of success to thriving in Philadelphia:

And they are:

* Give it everything you have.

* Show the fans you genuinely care.

And you will be loved.

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