PHILADELPHIA -- Back in April 2004, I attended the first-ever night game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Now, I know it's declasse to admit this in a day of hot tubs beyond the center field fence, or climbing walls, or gourmet hamburgers, but I loved the old Veterans Stadium -- it was a reminder of an era when you could get in the bleachers for six bucks just by showing up five minutes before first pitch and everyone in the 700 level was smoking. The 700 Level was the most famous upper deck in sports; my favorite stories about the 700 Level are the one about the guy who brought a toaster oven up there and the time several thousand people wore Kathy Lee Gifford masks. It wasn't a glamorous time for stadiums, or for sports, but it was an honest one. And no place was more honest than Veterans Stadium.
Citizens Bank Park was nice to visit that night, no question: It had (and still has) excellent sightlines and all sorts of amenities and a vaster beer selection than, frankly, most Philadelphia bars I've been to. But it was far more comfortable than I'd believed Philly fans even wanted. Everything was sleek, with cup holders and cushions and bathrooms that didn't resemble war zones. My friend that night, a lifelong Philadelphian, said, "Everyone's treating this place like their grandmother's couch she still hasn't taken the cover off yet." Everyone was well-behaved; no one was screaming at me in my Cardinals hat; no one had tried to grill a squirrel on a space heater they smuggled in. This wasn't what Philadelphia sports was to me, at all.
The thing, though, that we've learned in the last decade-plus is that maybe -- just maybe -- we had Philadelphia fans all wrong the whole time. You know that fancy new stadium that supposedly wasn't a fit for those hard-scrabble, scrapple-eating Philadelphia fans? Well, they sold it out for three straight years. Those supposedly negative, never-satisfied Phillies fans? They cheered on a likable team to a World Series championship and didn't tear the stadium apart when the team fell short at winning another one. That supposedly win-a-title-or-we'll-burn-you-alive mindset of the lunatic Eagles fan? Ask them how they feel about Andy Reid right now … or for that matter, get them started on Carson Wentz, the golden boy they're ready to hand the keys of the city to. The impatience of a sports city supposedly so desperate for immediate championships? I dunno: The fan base looked like it understood what the 76ers (and, of late, the Phillies) were trying to build.
Since the volume on sports talk has been turned up to 11, the idea that fans in Philadelphia have any sort of special monopoly on overheated rhetoric is a spectacularly weak one. We're all alike. Eagles fans booed Santa Claus one time? Well, that's quaint to some of the stuff we're hearing now from all corners. You're calling out Philadelphians as crass? Get over yourself.
This is all to say that Philadelphia fans are, I've found, just like every other sports city's fans: They're passionate, they're fiery, they're helplessly devoted to their teams, they lose their mind when their teams win, they tear their hair out when they lose. I dunno: That sounds like every team's fans to me. The stereotypes -- the type of stereotypes that get cemented during a time when you could take a toaster oven to the upper deck -- have been more conversation topics than reality, in my experience. Would I have been wary wearing a Giants jersey to the Eagles game on Sunday? Of course. I'd be wary of doing that in Washington, or Oakland, or Pittsburgh, or Dallas, or really anywhere where fans are passionate and loud. Philadelphia fans may be somewhat obsessive and a little bit nuts. But this is what we want from sports, right? Isn't this essentially the definition of what being a sports fan is?
But then again: It has been a few years since I spent time in Philadelphia. So this week, we're fixing that. It's time for our sixth installment of The Sports Tourist (formerly called Leitch Across America). So far we've been to:
I'll be spending this whole week going to games, talking to fans and visiting Philadelphia sports landmarks, trying to get a sense of what makes Philadelphia's sports fan heart beat. You can tell so much about a town with how it connects with its sports teams. If you live in Philly, or just care passionately about Philly sports, email me email@example.com, and let me know your thoughts. I can only get this right by hearing directly from the locals. We'll also be doing a series of videos from the city, like we did in the Detroit. Here's our Sports Tourist: Detroit series.
Philadelphia is a beautiful city full of beautiful people eager to throw beautiful things at people. I can't wait. Come with me, won't you?
Tomorrow: Eagles Game Day
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