When the history of 21st-century sports in Philadelphia is written, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011 will be recognized as the day the city was shaken out of its short-lived Baseball Heaven/Dream Team reverie and forced back into its traditional hard-bitten role. When the Phillies and Cliff Lee surrendered a four-run lead in game two of the NLDS debacle against the Cardinals, just about eight hours after the Eagles gacked up a 20-point advantage versus San Francisco, local fans were forced to confront a stark reality that their heroes weren’t as good as they thought and that this wasn’t sporting Nirvana. This past weekend’s collapses were merely crowning blows that rammed home the fact that neither the Phillies nor Eagles have what it takes to win it all. Worse, it appears things might get worse before they improve.
There will be plenty of time to review the issue of talent, and I will do some of that later in this obituary, but the most important challenge facing both franchises now isn’t ability. It’s about approach. The Phillies and Eagles won’t achieve their stated championship goals without substantial changes in their personalities. Both teams have been laid low by an arrogance that has prevented them from doing the things necessary to reach their potentials. Although in 2011 this is more about the Phils than the Birds, our NFL squad has been plagued by top-down hubris for several years.
The funny thing about the Phillies is that we have seen this before. In the late 1970s, the team won three straight National League Eastern Division titles but fell in the championship series. The ’76 loss to the Reds was excusable, since Cincinnati was a thresher. But in ’77 and ’78, the team’s cool attitude and belief that its substantial talent was enough played big roles in the disappointments. It wasn’t until the Phillies signed Pete Rose that they won it all.
The 2011 Phillies were just like their disco-era predecessors–and unlike the ’08 squad that captured the World Series. No matter what happened, the team continued on its steady course, which was enough to win 102 regular-season games. But the good times that came from slapping around a National League that had no fire-breather masked key concerns that went largely unaddressed–or at least unsolved–throughout the year. Anybody who had the temerity to point out inadequacies (too-young bullpen, poor hitting discipline, rotten bench) was shouted down. The strange thing about the hallelujah chorus was that it didn’t often come from the organization, although the team’s broadcast crews were quite savvy in their promotion of the company line. A fan base besotted by the “good times” mounted most of the defense and was happy to buy into the delirium promoted by the Phillies and media alike.
It was as if the championship had already been won. Against the Cardinals, however, Philadelphia fans learned harshly that there would be no parade. Worse, they learned that their favorite team, the one whose stadium-cum-theme park they have packed to overflow more than 200 straight times, had become complacent. Watching Charlie Manuel trot out the same lineup (save a game-three John Mayberry insertion) five times was compelling evidence that the entire organization believed that no matter what, the Phillies were just better than everybody else, and that the need for situational change did not exist. Worse, with the driftwood on the bench, it might not have been worthwhile, although a dose of Wilson Valdez at third couldn’t have hurt. As the team’s bats curled up and died against Chris Carpenter in game five, there was almost a shock throughout the Phillies family that 2011 would end without a champagne shower and shouts of “World F—ing Champs!” That’s what happens when bellies fill and the drive to win is replaced with a sense of superiority. The 2011 Phillies were great. It’s just that they didn’t know how to be gritty. If ’12 is to be different, there must be sound personnel moves made, yes, but there must also be a realization that talent doesn’t win without proper preparation and attitude.
The Eagles are a little different. While their 1-4 start has featured a liberal dose of arrogance from the top–Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator? Really?–it has been more a factor of a roster bereft of leaders and talent. When a team coughs up leads and makes bushels of mistakes, one can be certain there is something wrong with the culture. The Eagles have nobody on the roster, and particularly on defense, capable of leading the band to victory. QB Michael Vick has experience, but his previous NFL life was characterized by shrinking statistics and petulance. Worse, many of his teammates look at him as a video-game hero, rather than a proven winner.
Even though the off-season featured a spate of high-profile signings, it did not include the guts-and-glue additions that great teams need. That is now painfully obvious in the Eagles’ inability to stop the run, cut back on turnovers, convert in tight spaces and hold leads. The team is weak-minded and unable to avoid mistakes.
If things are to be different in the next year for both teams, personnel upgrades are necessary, for sure. The Phillies must find more productive bats, bolster their bench and strengthen the bullpen. The Eagles must fix their defense and upgrade the O-line. More than anything, the teams must do some heavy-duty analysis to determine how best to change their personalities from ones that expect to win into ones that do whatever is necessary to prevail. Achieve that, and there’s a chance Philadelphia can escape a return to the Old Days. Fail in that mission, and disappointment will be the city’s athletic calling card once again.
- Do I hear 82-0? How ‘bout those Flyers? Now that the Phillies have gone home, and the Eagles are looking for a soft place to lie down, it’s great to see the local hockey team make a quick break from the gate. Repeat after me: “Briz-GAL-ov. Briz-GAL-ov.”
- Kudos to the Union for its 2-0 win over Seattle Saturday. That was a biggie and puts the team in great shape for a playoff berth, not to mention potential homefield advantage in the post-season. Work remains, but this has already been an impressive season.
- NBA players and owners are back at the negotiating table again today, and it will be interesting to see if there is a sense of urgency commensurate with the stakes. Start cancelling games, and there will be absolutely no outcry like the one that accompanied the NFL’s labor pains. Most people just won’t care.