Some day in 1968 at Franklin Field, a bunch of drunken, rowdy Eagles fans booed to and threw snowballs at a man in a Santa Claus suit. More than 40 years later, can you believe we’re still dealing with that?
Every few weeks the fact will reappear. Yes, Philadelphia sports fans once jeered and pelted Santa. It happened. Yes, Philadelphia sports fans once threw batteries at JD Drew. That happened, too. And yes, Philadelphia sports fans once booed at the selection of Donovan McNabb in the NFL Draft. And at 9 p.m. Monday, the Discovery Channel will feature the post-World Series celebration in Philadelphia on their show “Rampage! Riot Rampage 2.”
Subtle, isn’t it?
Philadelphia sports fans have long been subject to generous amounts of criticism and scorn. Most of it is image — the media plays up the image of the Philadelphia fan to drive emotional impact, which drives viewership. Leading up to the NFC Championship, I encountered numerous people normally impartial to football who said they wanted the Cardinals to win. Why? “I hate Philly fans.” Take the World Series, which featured the lovable Rays — already Philadelphians were cooked in the support column. Much of the country rallied around the Rays, and a lot of it was because people didn’t want to see Philadelphia sports fans happy.
Much of the country is conditioned to think that Philadelphia sports fans should always be miserable because they’ve caused so much past trouble. You know, Santa Claus, and JD Drew and Donovan McNabb. But does the country remember 2003?
I attended Boston University from 2002 to 2006, and in 2003, the Boston Red Sox entered the postseason behind the “Cowboy Up” mantra voiced by first baseman Kevin Millar. The Sox had finally gained some respect and love by people across the country — suddenly the Red Sox were the lovable underdogs. Considering their divisional doppelganger — the New York Yankees — were the reigning dynasty of baseball, coming off five World Series appearances in the previous seven seasons, everyone wanted to see the Red Sox grasp the baton from the Yankees and end an 85-year drought.
But before the Red Sox could face the Yankees, they had to defeat the Oakland Athletics. It was close, but the Sox fended off the A’s in five games, taking the American League Division Series and sending their fans to a frenzy. A frenzy that went too far.
My friends and I raced across the street to Kenmore Square, which bordered Fenway Park and held the bulk of the celebration. Kenmore was a mob scene — thousands of college students huddled like sardines, waving their arms, flipping cars, climbing onto rooftops, starting fires. Girls flashing the crowds. Other students hanging onto lampposts like monkeys. Almost 100 revelers inked their fingers that night.
Boston lost to the Yankees in an epic American League Championship Series, but the country remained romanticized by the Red Sox. The creation of Red Sox Nation turned the team into an institution, and in the 2004 ALCS the Sox famously upended the Yankees in a stunning comeback. Another celebration began.
Another hundred revelers were arrested as students again caused havoc on the streets of Boston. And sadly, one student — 21-year-old Victoria Snelgrove — lost her life after being shot in the eye by a police officer’s pepper spray projectile. That moment tempered future celebrations, even the one that came after the Sox dispatched the Cardinals to win the World Series. Police in full riot gear surrounded Fenway Park throughout the World Series, even when the Sox weren’t playing at home.
As an excited but distanced observer of those 2003 and ’04 celebrations, I can say honestly that a wealthy percentage of the revelers were college students. Some lived in other parts of the country, some were bona-fide fans. For lack of a better term, they rioted. They damaged. They cost the city. And yet it’s the car flipping and song singing of the 2008 World Series celebration that finds time on a show called “Rampage! Riot Rampage 2.”
That’s because 2008 was Philadelphia, a city decided long ago to inhabit nothing but disgusting, foul-mouthed fans. Some of these loudmouthed grovelers became radio hosts and television personalities. And they wax poetic about the Jersey shore, hanging on the corner in the lower Northeast and smoking packs of Parliament. They snub those who disagree with them, yet embrace the misinformed. They revel in mom’s spaghetti and Danny’s hoagie shop, Tony’s pizza and Frank’s soda. Their version of culture is North Philadelphia, however sad that aspect seems. And their version of celebration is pounding cheap beer, stuffing face with bread and meat. It’s a Philadelphia thing. And yet, it’s the very thing we hate when outsiders heckle.
What does sports mean to Philadelphians? Really, it means everything.
You’re born into a large family and a small row home. You attend school with people who mirror you — they have brothers and sisters, they have the same food, clothing, toys, hobbies and faces. You grow up acclimating yourself to the people in your neighborhood. You decide to also have a large family. You might attend college, and if so, it’s in the city. You return home. You create your family. You move to a neighborhood that houses new couples. You grow your family. You work long hours and provide for your suddenly large clan. And why do you do all of this? It’s comfortable.
Philadelphians revel in comfort. They want children who were like them. They want families who were like theirs. They want jobs that were like their fathers’. And they want houses like their childhood homes. And just like all of that, they want their Flyers to be Broad Street Bullies. They want their Sixers to go “Fo-Fo-Fo.” They want their Eagles to bruise like Gang Green. And they want their Phillies to play like 1980.
They want their childhoods all over again.
And just like that, Philadelphians use Eagles and Phillies games as reasons to get drunk and forget about life. They tailgate hours before, fill themselves with beer and enter the stadiums in a zoned trance. Every action is amplified. Every moment is magnified. A Red Sox game, meanwhile, is an example of the high-brow. Try to buy two drinks at Boston Beer Works or the Cask & Flagon before the game. Just try. You’d better have four hours to burn. There is nowhere to tailgate. You need a ticket to enjoy a dog and a beer.
In Philadelphia, you can trade three cigarettes for a dog and a beer.
While the Bostonian middle class has an infallible sense of beauty and history still weaved within itself, the Philadelphia middle class is completely removed from the idea of beauty and history. Life is a struggle. Any free time is to be taken seriously. Bars, clubs and parties are great. Phillies and Eagles games? Those are dreamlike events.
The key reality
Have Red Sox fans treated opposing players poorly? Of course. Have Red Sox fans committed acts as supposedly evil as booing and pelting snowballs at Santa Claus? Sure. Have Boston college students caused “rampage!” in the streets? Absolutely.
But when the day is done, who revels in the twisted image they’re handed?
Will Philadelphia sports fans continue to deal with the Santa Claus story? Considering it has been 40 years since the incident, it’s unquestionably hard to tell. But in my eyes, as long as fans decide to forget their troubles when venturing down to Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field, the floggings won’t end. It’s part of the Philadelphia ethic: The tough, blue-collar, dirty-handed grouch who wants a fattening dinner and sports on the tube because the day was just too much to handle. And you can’t tell me that person has been counting down the days until his first Phillies game. Because that’s the day he can blow all his troubles away, if only for three hours.
Mug of Malcolm is published every Sunday at www.philliesnation.com.