Being a Philadelphian and a sports fan has proven to be, for me, an interesting phenomenon. Indeed, Philadelphia fans are infamous throughout the country, their sins forever magnified because some legitimately frustrated fans of the "Joe Must Go" Eagles pelted a replacement Santa with snowballs on 15 December 1968. To be sure, the intersection of Philadelphians' (in)famous "addytood" and the vicissitudes of its four major professional sports franchises inherently creates a volatile situation, one which periodically erupts in episodes of fan hostility. It is in the athletes' reactions to this hostility that their true measure is gauged.
Yesterday, Kyle Scott over at Crossing Broad posted a piece detailing Flyers' $51 million dollar goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's bitter attitude toward the fans in the city where he is paid so handsomely:
You know, I think it’s an easy life when you can blame one guy…’it’s a bad goalie, it’s the goalie’s mistake.’ It’s easy to find a scapegoat. You point to one guy and say we’re always losing because we have a bad goalie, but I think it’s the wrong philosophy. I know I was frustrated in my game today and I know I have to be better and I will continue to work on this, but….I will try to find peace in my soul to play in this city.Considering the fact that three of the goals he allowed in Saturday's 6-4 loss to the Penguins would have thrilled Mr. Whipple in the old Charmin ads, one could say the fans' predictable reaction (boos, as Robert Johnson might have said, falling down like hail) was justified, and hence that he was trying to absolve himself from the inexcusable (a fig leaf designed to cover his unacceptable .900 save percentage this season). Even worse, however, is what he said to a fan at Sunday's Flyers Wives Carnival. In the words of the fan in question:
I said, “Hey Bryz, this is a great city to play in. If the fans didn’t care, you wouldn’t hear from anybody. But good luck the rest of the year, man.” And he looked at me, kind of crinkled his lips, put his head back and to the side and said, “I think you (the city) care too much.”This is an old complaint from disgruntled Philly players chafing under perceived underappreciation. Think of Mike Schmidt, complaining that Philadelphia was a city where "you can experience the thrill of victory one night and experience the agony of reading about it the next day." Or consider current Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins who, back in August of 2008, whined thus:
There are times, like, it's one of those cities ... I might catch some flack for saying this, but, you know, they're front-runners. When you're doing good, they're on your side. When you're doing bad, they're completely against you."Poor J-Roll," I initially thought, "he not only fails to come to grips with why the fans were booing him (showing up late to games, not running out ground balls), he doesn't know what a frontrunner is." Indeed, America is rife with frontrunner cities—think of Miami and Los Angeles, for instance—and Philadelphia is emphatically not one of them (except, perhaps, with regard to the Sixers). Every game the Eagles, Phillies, and Flyers play is sold out no matter what the team's record is. I attended a Phillies-Orioles game in Baltimore back in 2002, smack in the middle of a 14-year stretch in which the team failed to reach the playoffs, and more than half of the fans in attendance were wearing Phillies red. Bryzgalov is right to this extent: despite their faults—implicit racism at times, an over-zealotry that makes them the American equivalent of Liverpool supporters—Philadelphia fans care.
Perhaps he is right that we care too much. Sports are, after all, mere games, designed as leisure-time distractions from the rough-and-tumble of real life. But that, I might suggest, gets to the heart of the issue. Bryzgalov, with his generous contract, might not have noticed, but times are hard. Millions of people are hurting despite their hard work which, as often as not, goes underappreciated. Fans in Philadelphia want, more than anything else, an acknowledgement by their athletes of how extraordinarily fortunate they are to be in their position, and an effort on the field, court, or ice commensurate with their good fortune.
One of Philadelphia's greatest civic characteristics is its intolerance for superficiality and glitz. It is this that lies at the root of their distaste for teams from cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, and (for some) New York. It is also what lies behind their hostility toward home-grown (and, to them, traitorous) superstar Kobe Bryant.
Philadelphia fans prefer to cheer for grind-it-out, blue collar players like Bobby Clarke, Wilbert Montgomery, Pete Rose, Moses Malone, John Kruk, Brian Dawkins, and Chase Utley. Players who appear to get by on natural talent alone (Schmidt), who don't live up to hype (Eric Lindros), or who shrink under pressure (Donovan McNabb) tend not to be accorded the same respect. The rare athlete manages to walk the tightrope and achieve popularity while maintaining flamboyance (Julius Erving comes to mind). Others, like Schmidt, manage to win the fans over via achievement (I attended his 1995 Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown with 28,000 other red-clad fans, all quite proud and teary-eyed that he had played for their team). Nevertheless, the recipe for winning over fans in Philly is a simple one: effort + success.
Maybe that's not fair to athletes, but I don't think so. What baffles me is the attitude that expects adoring support when performance would suggest theft, or at best waste, of the fans' hard-earned money. Do people like Bryzgalov understand the financial sacrifice it takes for an average working stiff even to attend one game? Perhaps, but I think it more likely that he—and he is not alone—never bothers to give it a thought. That is the real problem. Perhaps he would rather play in a frontrunner city like Phoenix, where the civic microscope isn't nearly as powerful as it is in Philly. If so, he is all the poorer for it and, were he to leave, I would chime in, "Good riddance!"
The great, fat, and adored John Kruk—who famously claimed "I'm not an athlete, lady," but managed nevertheless to retire with a .300 career batting average—said it best: "You hear players, media people, say that it's tough to play in Philly in front of these fans, to those people I say: 'you didn't have the guts to succeed here!'"