This year in Philadelphia sports has felt like death by a thousand cuts—a slow, inexorable march to a terminal ending. With Monday’s Eagles’ loss at the hands of a lowly 2-8 team, in front of a national television audience, I thought I’d finally entered the last stage of the Kubler-Ross model of grief. The others had already passed: denial (the Phils can turn it around after the All-Star break!); anger (Flyers goaltending! Bynum bowling!); bargaining (if I bring my Dawkins jersey back into the rotation, maybe they’ll start playing defense); and depression (listening to sports-talk radio). All that was left was acceptance, coming to terms with the fact that 2008 was just a fluke. Losing is the new old normal again.
The events of this week knocked me right back down the grief ladder, beginning with anger inspired by new Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Jason Babin. When the Eagles cut him on Tuesday, Babin wasn’t embarrassed by his paltry five-and-a-half sacks or his Alfred E. Neuman attitude. He didn’t apologize for questioning the loyalty of Eagles fans or for apparently spending more time on Twitter than in the film room. Instead, Babin laughed when Andy Reid called to tell him he was unemployed. He also said the news really messed up his afternoon: “It’s crazy, because my Tuesdays are like my dad day. I get to pick the boys up from school. I’m getting ready to take them to football practice. And I got all this going on.” I’m hard-pressed to think of another recent ex-Philly athlete I’ve so loathed. Something tells me he’ll be a perfect fit with the Jags, a team that’s even worse than the Eagles.
Before I could finish stitching together my Babin voodoo doll, news broke that Carlos Ruiz was suspended for popping Adderall. Chooch is the anti-Babin, a folk hero who had his best season as a slugger last year, at age 33. Seems like now we might know why. It’s bad enough that Ruiz was popping pills, but to make it worse, this was the second time he got caught. When an athlete fails his first drug test, Major League Baseball tests him more often. Maybe he’s addicted or somehow felt invincible. Maybe our beloved Chooch is a dope. Regardless, it’s a reminder that even our most likeable heroes inside the lines are human in the real world. Ruiz just picked a really lousy time to let us down. And with that, I’m back in sports-suicide mode.
Look around—for every glimmer of hope, there’s a kick in the pants. Bryce Brown reels off record yardage for a rookie in his debut, then fumbles twice. Jrue Holiday is showing signs of All-Star potential, while his much-hyped All-Star center may never play a single game as a Sixer (again—bowling!). The NHL brings in the Feds to help end the lockout, and the league sums up its tepid optimism by saying “we have no expectations.” The Phils pick up reliever Wilton Lopez from the Astros, then don’t. Even daydreams of Spring Training are now tainted by the Ruiz 25-game ban and wondering how he’ll play when he’s off his meds.
In the Philly sports fan adaptation of the Kubler-Ross model, there’s really no such thing as acceptance, since the patient never dies. Teams flatline, the crash cart is wheeled in, and there’s life. Each season brings the promise—shallow as it may be—of hope, of patience rewarded and euphoria on the horizon. That’s the sick part of fandom. Owners and players come and go. We’re stuck in this cycle forever, doomed to a lifetime of sports suffering. When a little piece of my soul dies as this Eagles season finally ends, it won’t be reincarnated as a Patriots fan. We’re down till we’re in the ground. Maybe for us, the final stage of our sports grief is insanity. We’ll never accept losing, but we’re crazy enough to keep coming back for more.