Stan Hochman: A few cracks in this 'Fan's Code'

Posted: September 13, 2011

MIKE TANIER thinks he has his finger on the pulse of Philadelphia sports fans. He knows why they embrace certain guys and shun certain other guys. Why they cheer, why they boo.

He has written a terrific book called "The Philly Fan's Code," which centers on his list of the 50 toughest, craziest, most legendary Philadelphia athletes of the last 50 years.

Read it, enjoy it, and then seek out Tanier in some musty Kensington bar and hit him upside the head with the book until he agrees to eliminate Scott Rolen, Shawn Bradley and Mo Cheeks when he puts out the revised, second edition.

"We value toughness and craziness over excellence," he says up front. Yo, he's one of you, but not a battery-tossing, rail-jumping, snowballs-at-Santa knucklehead.

"They are always there, because they are us," he writes. "We may not all be morons who boo Santa or run onto the field to get tased by security, but we are all guilty of giving up too quickly, expecting too much, turning uglier than we have to after a strikeout or a loss. We are a lot like the players we root for: We can be a little tough and a little crazy, have great moments and awful moments, come up big and come up short. And we could do a little better."

Tanier writes for the New York Times, mostly on the zany side of sports. He has taught high school math for 20 years, probably because someone once told him not to quit his day job, which is even better advice today than it was 20 years ago.

In the book, he's got his tongue so far up his cheek, you can see it sticking out his left ear. That just makes his list livelier, more kindling for a fiery debate.

What he's done is establish four criteria: Greatness, Toughness, Eccentricity and Legacy. Then he assigns one to five stars in each category. It's a lot like Wins Above Replacement, only better, because there are no decimal points involved. Higher the score, the more remarkable the player is.

Let's cut to the chase. Tanier nails Bobby Clarke, Wilt Chamberlain and Charles Barkley dead-on. Me, I always thought Charles was auditioning for life after basketball, figuring out how he could make the most money for the least amount of work and then laugh his ample butt off, all the way to Vegas.

Tanier is venomous in his portrait of Curt Schilling, while ranking him 32nd. Rips his blog, rips his politics, rips him up one side and down the other, right down to his bloody sock. Highlights a Schilling feud with a Boston writer named Peter Abraham and describes Curt's tirade as "vintage Schilling: short-tempered, short-sighted, self-serving and dumb, yet imbued with an air of superiority."

He writes fondly of the 1993 Lenny Dykstra persona, calling it "alluring," remembering that he "was a joy to watch, and the tobacco spit and cocky smile gave the appearance of a troublesome rogue with a heart of gold. The rogue part was dead-on; the heart of gold was debatable."

For every two Philly sports legends he's got right, there's one he whiffs on. He is so far off base on Mike Schmidt that even Steve Carlton could have picked him off.

He is wrong about Moses Malone, wrong about Bill Barber, shockingly wrong about Julius Erving and Mitch Williams. I had trouble recognizing Rolen, ranked 47th. Tanier gives him two stars for eccentricity. Why, just because he had conversations with his dog about hitting? What's strange about that? Isn't that what friends are for?

Tanier traces fan disenchantment with Rolen to "Scott Rolen Day" when Terry Francona rested him the afternoon they handed out Rolen T-shirts. I thought the fans hated that sullen, sour expression he brought to the ballpark every day.

The book gets high grades for telling me things I didn't know before. I never knew that Frank Thomas needling Johnny Briggs along racial lines was the catalyst for Thomas' memorable scuffle with Dick Allen.

And I never knew that Chase Utley was on a bus from Scranton to Ottawa when he was promoted to the big club and that the bus driver dropped him off at a gas station 45 minutes north of Scranton, your quintessential middle of nowhere. And that the place is in the Endless Mountains and that Utley waited there until a clubhouse attendant arrived to drive him to Philly.

Tanier defends the fans, sort of, against Jimmy Rollins' ill-conceived "front-runner" tantrum. "We are fickle to a fault," he says. "We can be bipolar. We may not rush after every winning team, but we anoint heroes at first blush, worship them slavishly, and then abandon them suddenly."

Sounds like something that would draw a derisive comment from the late Wes Covington. Not only is he wrong, Wes liked to say, but he's loud wrong!

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