Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Euphoria of Ending the Drought

I recently reconnected with an old friend from summer camp on Facebook. Rich Knopke has worked for the WSJ, NBC Universal and other media properties and is a Cherry Hill, NJ native, which is a suburb of Philly for sports affiliations. He posted this note recently on his Facebook page and in the spirit of Bill Simmons captures what life was like before, during and after the Phillies win last year. Sure, the note was written in November and it's about the Phillies but that doesn't matter - Reading it brought me back to the Red Sox in 2004, the Patriots in 2001, and even a bit of the Celtics in 2008. I really hope we never take this decade for granted in Boston sports lore - it will be nearly impossible to duplicate those moments. This a long post, but bare with him - Rich does an amazing job describing the moments and I asked for his permission to share it here. He doesn't have a blog anymore but he should. (I added some emphasis for great lines here).

"World F-ing Champions" Syknopkis
11/1/08 - Rich Knopke

For over 10 years, I've written over 60 stories with a basic premise: pain + suffering = humor. That simple equation was born out of growing up with 25 years of Philly sports frustration and a lot of what I'd written reflected our sports teams "wallowing in the deep morass of ineptitude, blunder and futility with futility always winning out in a squeaker.”

Some of that humor tried to mask real hurt and I didn’t do a real good job of it (“There’s pain. There’s suffering. And then there’s being a Philadelphia sports fan.” – after losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship where I asked my boss “how many days I can take off for bereavement.” “I think three,” he replied seriously.)

This story isn’t about bringing up the bad moments that we endured over 25 years. Rather it’s about the feelings and emotions we had along that loss infested path that can help describe the wonderfully odd feelings that we have now (that “something” I think is what “they” call happiness, joy and civic pride)

We had reached 100 seasons of losing and “every Philly team that fails to win a championship makes the pain and longing that much worse.” It was after the Bucs loss that I first related our losing to living out Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’ ’Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…bold lover never never canst though kiss.’ All of this losing ‘leaves a heart high sorrowful…a burning forehead and a parching tongue.’

At one point I had sworn off sports as the unrequited return on my loyalty and devotion had become unbearable. January 23, 2003, again after the Bucs loss (that was a particularly tough loss because we let our guard down and expected to win, not a good combo for us): “I’ve been going on four days now and I haven’t watched one second of SportsCenter. I haven’t read one sports page…Pete Rose could be the commissioner of baseball right now and I wouldn’t know it.”

I used my time away from sports to read, write and challenge myself. “I even taught myself how to put the toilet seat down.”

This time away from sports was good. It was healthy. It lasted only 96 hours.

“It’s not that we lost on Sunday (Super Bowl vs the Patriots), it’s that we didn’t win. We never win. Yeah, it’s not like someone died. It’s more than that. For everyone in the Delaware Valley, a piece of them dies every time we lose, every year we lose. The losing eats at you that way.”

The losing became a part of us, like wearing a scarlet L for LOSER and I wondered if I would ever experience what a championship would feel like:

“When the Sixers won in 1983, I was 10 and I barely remember it, which is to say I don’t remember it at all. I only say that I remember, because I want to say that I know what it is like to win. Philly fans say that one of their teams will surely win again soon, but do they have to? Maybe they won’t even win again during our lifetime. Generations of Phillies fans were saying that they had to win one of these years but it took almost 100 years just to win one. Maybe I was stuck in one of those generations that endures a lifetime of losing.” 25 years without a championship may as well have been 35 years or 50 years or 100 years….it was all the same to me since I never got to experience and enjoy winning.

Just this summer, I wrote about how bad it would be for my kids to grow up as Philly fans:

“There's cruelty. There's torture. And then there's raising your kids as Philadelphia sports fans living in New York. It is a cruelty that surely may have child services knocking on my door and the folks at Guantanamo wondering if they could use this on Al Queda.

“Some people pass down an inheritance to their kids. Or intelligence. Or a house. Or male pattern baldness. I'm passing down something not in a will or in dna: futility.”

I was going to push them to like ballet, “where there wouldn’t be as much pain and suffering involved though the Nut Cracker sounds fairly awful in its own right.”

If they did venture down the sports path, I was going help them “find lessons in the constant pain and suffering that only Philadelphia losing can bring someone. They'll learn to lower expectations for their life whereby they'll never be disappointed in anything because they'll think everything is going to suck going into it. Lowered expectations = unexpected payoffs and you won't be hurt by over-expectation. It may not seem like it but this is a positive.

“They'll learn the difference between awful and god awful, between a bum and a slacker, a torn labrum and a torn rotator cuff, and a guy who is in it for who vs for what. They'll know that plantar facitis isn't latin for a sick plant. They'll be able to discern the difference between a loss and a devastating loss. Note: it is a trick question....devastating losses only happen when you have high expectations. They shouldn't let this happen to them.”

Talk about lowered expectations equaling unexpected payoffs. Heading into the stretch drive of the regular season, there wasn’t anything that screamed “THIS IS THE TEAM TO END THE DROUGHT.” After all, this was the team with the historic amount of losses where I once wrote that the “Washington Generals have a better winning percentage than the Phils” and “matched up against Walter Mondale, could make even him a winner.” This is the same team that had 1 championship in team history compared to the Chicago Cubs 2 and yet the Cubs are known as American’s loveable losers. It seemed that we couldn’t even get losing right.

So, um, no I wasn’t expecting much from them especially when we lost 2 of 3 to the Marlins in September that had my friend, Jason, saying that if we can’t beat the Marlins in September we don’t deserve to play in October. Sadly, I agreed. I was still into every game but the disappointment had grown so much that I had become numb to the losing and had resigned myself to waiting another eon or two for a winner.

After that series, however, something seemed to click and we became the team that got hot and peeked at the right time. There were no late season injuries derailing us. No managerial gaffes, player goofs or late inning goobers. We started playing like the ’98 Yankees and less like the ’64 Phillies.

While the playoffs had the potential for pitfalls (CC, Manny, rain, Bud Selig), this team never stumbled. Looking back, this postseason run was - and I can't believe I'm about to say this – easy.

Hamels Game One vs Milwaukee set the tone for the postseason (I remember saying he became an ace that day but I had no idea he would be this dominant throughout) and along the way there were Victorino's 2 homers (the slam against CC and the blast in LA) and the throw at my ribs not at my head moment, me trying to get my wife to name our unborn son (due in 4 weeks) Shane, Meyer's at bats (19 ridiculous pitches against CC and the 3 for 3 out of his mind performance against the Dodgers that had us wondering if he should DH), J-Roll’s series clinching lead off homers, Burell's decomposing body waking up for an occasional big hit (Milwaukee clinching homers, Rays clinching double), Blanton's portly body jamoking a ball on the Phillies most unlikely homer scenario since Steve Jeltz went yard from both sides of the plate in one game, Stairs absolute bomb against LA that produced a roar from me that nearly woke up everyone from here to Niagera Falls, Utley's key plays (the homer in game 1 vs LA and to start the Rays series, yes, but every key defensive play in the postseason seemingly came from him - if jeter makes that fake to first, throw home play, he'd be able to lop off another 20 women on Maxim's top 100 hottest women list), 207 year old Jamie Moyer’s game 3 gem and diving flip to a barehanded Howard that was called safe, the “Eeeeeeevaaaaaaa” chants and his home run ball that was blown back into play for an out, the 1:30 minute rain delay/Carlos Ruiz 50 foot chopper at 1:47am (watching the game w/my 2 year old daughter was incredibly special), the 46 hour rain delay, the angst it caused and the Jenkins double to start game 5 ½. It all culminated with Lidge's 7 for 7, heart-stopping postseason saves and the booing of Bud during the trophy ceremony (and Charlie Manual laughing at the booing may have been the best part of it – how Philadelphia). I kept waiting for the game tying hit and then the eventual kick to the groin culminating with a Rays 7th game series win. It never came.

There were so many positives and so few negatives to the whole thing. So incredibly non-Philadelphian (though I'm still waiting for Bud to pronounce the Rays world series winners where he says he's "frankly on very solid ground" as commissioner to make this change). I’ll remember all of it.

Where do we go from here? So as not to be too dramatic, I will leave out all hyperbole when I simply say that everything has completely and utterly changed….my life and worldview are forever altered with the Brad Lidge slider to end the World Series. Nothing is impossible….Democrats and Republicans getting along, Jews and Palestinians living peacefully, cats and dogs living together w/out the mass hysteria….if the Phillies can win the World Series, well, why not?

The dream, unrequited for all those years, is now achieved. We're finally able to touch the Grecian Urn and poetically, it was our baseball team that allowed us to cradle it (in fact, I’m spooning it and don’t want to let it go. You’re definitely not going to want it when I’m done with it by the way).

But what I’ll remember more is the 25 year journey shared with friends - friendships born out of sports and our quest to win something, anything that didn’t have the words “Bon Jovi” and “Arena Football” attached to it – culminating with tears and text messages and phone calls and long distance, virtual hugs after it was all over.

There’s been so much talk about what this championship means to people who lost loved ones along the way and I’d like to throw out another casualty: my sports rooting prime. Your sports rooting prime runs from about the ages of 15-30 before a wife and kids and a move away from Philly meant incorporating texted high fives from afar.

When the Phils won I jumped up with a giant “YES!” kissed my wife, opened up a bottle of Scotch, poured champagne over myself and texted with everyone in the Delaware Valley. It didn’t feel right. I felt a little gypped celebrating alone and making my wife clean up the champagne on the floor. I’ll take the championship but I thought it would be better, something along the lines of 72 virgins in paradise or something.

Still, it doesn’t suck. Two days after “the day that changed everything,” (I can barely remember my anniversary but I will always remember October 29, 2008), I’m still a nervous, giddy, anxious, drooling mess.

Sports are going to be fun during the next few weeks. Turning on SportsCenter, getting my Sports Illustrated, laughing at Mets fans, reading followed by spring training, Opening Day with a frenzied home crowd and defending the title. And the congratulations from my New York friends is nice especially as opposed to all of the “sorry about the ______” (fill in the blank with Flyers, Sixers, Eagles, Phillies) I’m so used to hearing. And then I’ll laugh at Mets fans some more.

After the game on Wednesday, Harry Kalas came out of his broadcast booth and led the crowd with his favorite song “High Hopes.”

“Next time your found, with your chin on the ground
There’s a lot to be learned, so look around

Just what makes that little old ant
Think hell move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, cant
Move a rubber tree plant

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

So any time your gettin low
stead of lettin go
Just remember that ant
Oops there goes another rubber tree plant”

For 25 years, Philadelphia had its chin on the ground. For 25 years, despite our high hopes, I felt like the only thing to be learned was heartache and torment. After all this time, it took all of one 14 game stretch to change the formula: Winning + Philadelphia = Joy. Would you believe it, Harry?

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Penalty Box

Penalty Box

I took my girls ice skating the other day at a local rink. It was the free skate and there were a bunch of other kids there with their parents. It's school vacation week, so any fun activity that tires them out is a winner.

During a break on the boards my oldest asked me about the penalty box. Her question and my explanation got me thinking about how effective the penalty box is in hockey. The power play puts the penalized team at a distinct disadvantage... consider for a second that the best team in the NHL (Detroit) scores 28% of the time when on the man advantage. It's often a game-changing scenario and is always exciting for the fans.

So I got to thinking about what a penalty box would look like in other sports.

Baseball: If the pitcher hits a batter, the pitcher's team plays one player down until they're able to get an out. How would you play the field with eight players? Would good offensive teams be able to exploits the gaps? Would it be exciting?

Football: Personal fouls should include losing a player for the next play. Can you imagine seeing Tom Brady pick apart a team forced to play defense with ten players?

Basketball: No more flagrant fouls. Put the offender in a courtside "penalty box" for two minutes and make the offending team play one man down. How does a team play man-to-man defense when they're one man down?

Soccer: They've got it covered with the whole red card thing.

How else could the penalty box be a positive addition to team sports?

Cool photo at the top of this post is from neat1325's stream on Flickr.