Opinion

Dr. Strangeglove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate the Braves More than the Mets

I’m a pretty evangelical Phillies fan. Sometimes I yearn for the days when upper deck tickets could be had for $6, or half a pack of smokes and a Twinkie from the prison commissary. Sometimes, I yearn for the days of trying to talk to myself into the playoff chances of a Millwood/Myers/Wolf/Padilla/Duckworth rotation (which, even now, wouldn’t look too bad) and a Rolen/Brogna/Lieberthal heart of the order. Sometimes, I yearn for the days of wondering how Dan Lauria, the dad from The Wonder Years, knew so much about baseball (I was quite young during the Fregosi era). But on balance, I think the change in the Phillies’ reputation and prominence over the past five years or so has been a good one, and that the bigger tent in which we hold the congregation of Phillies fans today is not even not a necessary evil, but an active good.

That’s probably not a controversial statement. But this might be: If I could change one thing about the recent events that transformed the Phillies franchise and its fan base, it would be to disabuse them of this ridiculous notion that the Mets are somehow the Phillies’ biggest rivals, or are at least the club most worthy of our scorn. The Mets, of course, play the Phillies for a three-game set this weekend, and I can’t be bothered to care. Wake me up when the Braves come to down.

First of all, I get it. It’s a New York-Philadelphia thing, and we’re supposed to hate each other. I certainly do hate New York sports teams, and the idea that if you live in New Jersey you’re from New York. Buy a map.

I hate the whole idea of this supposedly-gleaming metropolis, this center of art and culture to shame all other cities, this mythical Oz where fortunes are made, love is found, and essentially that whole theatre-of-dreams crock of shit that Glee tried to sell us in last week’s season finale. The best city I’ve ever been to in the U.S. is Nashville, and while I’d live there rather than New York City no matter how much you paid me (for reasons other than the cost of living), no one dreams of making it big in Nashville except for country music stars, all because of this New York-centered cultural narrative perpetuated by New Yorkers themselves. In terms of cultural self-congratulation, New York is the macro-South Boston. Grow an imagination and set your movie someplace else.

I hate the haughty, pretentious manner in which New York looks down on the rest of the world, particularly Philadelphia, as somehow inferior, and that we ought to look up to the Big Apple in an aspirational manner, as if somehow we could shrug off the slings and arrows of living outside the Five Boroughs and one day join the elect to live on Olympus. It’s like the hot chick from high school who knows that no matter how badly she treats other people, they’ll worship her. New York City is the Regina George of New World cities.

Anyway, the point is that while I’m as sick of New York as the rest of you, I don’t get the Mets-as-Phillies’-biggest-rivals argument. Why should they be? The history of generational, almost sectarian conflict, a la Red Sox-Yankees or Cardinals-Cubs? Well, those rivalries go back a century–the Mets only joined the NL in 1962, and for the first 15 years of their existence or so, either they or the Phillies or both were so woefully awful that their games we more about a race for the No. 1 overall draft pick than for the NL East title. Did your great-grandad sit you on his knee and make you repeat after him: “In this family, we’re polite to strangers. Except Ed Kranepool”?

I’ve only been a Phillies fan since 1993, when I was six, but in that time, the Braves have stood out as the antagonist, with their crisp, unchanging home uniforms, their phenomenal pitching, and Chipper Jones‘ squinting, smirking face, often as not full of dip and buried in a Hooters waitress’s, well, you get the idea. Their players (Maddux, Klesko, Javy Lopez) were bright-eyed and handsome–except for Charlie O’Brien, I grant you–and, perhaps most irritatingly, were almost all avid golfers. The Braves were the ideal, the all-smiling, all-winning starched-and-ironed All-American heroes, while the Phillies were a team that looked and played like it was assembled out of spare parts.

And they tormented us, year after year, for no other reason than that they could. Remember all those great pennant races with the Mets? The collapses of 2007 and 2008, for sure, but apart from that, do you remember going to Shea to settle the division title, once and for all, year in and year out? Me neither. The Phillies and Mets have finished 1-2 in the NL East three times in the three-division era: 2006, 2007, and 2008, and in 2006 the division was decided by 12 games. However, the Phillies and Braves have finished 1-2 in the division five times in that span, and last year and in 2001, the division title came down to a do-or-die series in the last two weeks of the season. Of course, the same could be said of 2007 and 2008, but what tips the scales for the Braves, at least for me, is that those pennant races were interspersed with the 1990s, a period of time in which these Nietzchean ubermensch from the American Southeast dashed the hopes of our boys in red pinstripes year in and year out. Beating the Braves out for the division title would have been like the dog catching the car, and when the Mets finally did in 2006, I was not so much upset that the Mets had won the division as I was that it had been them, and not the Phillies, to end Atlanta’s run of dominance.

The Braves consumed my imagination throughout the 1990s. They were so beautiful, so perfect that they had to be destroyed. I was blinded by the brilliance of their reflection and I wanted nothing more than for them to be sullied, to be beaten, to prove that they could bleed just like the rest of us. The Mets? They were just another team that happened to play in our division.

The worst part I didn’t realize until after it was all over: no one in Atlanta cares about the Braves. As a South Jerseyite going to college in South Carolina, in the heart of what is, ostensibly, Braves country, I expected to wear my “J-Roll for MVP” t-shirt around campus proudly, starting shouting matches and fistfights indiscriminately with those poor hicks who had the misfortune to have different geographical footholds than I. Freshman year, there was a kid from Kentucky on my hall who was a rabid Braves fan. I remember Ryan Howard hitting a home run to beat Atlanta, in Atlanta, near the end of the 2005 season, and I ran down the hall to find him swearing at his television, so I ran down to his dorm room, and very respectfully, eloquently, and maturely, stuck out my tongue at him, put my thumbs in my ears, and, more or less, did this.

And you know what happened? I never saw another serious Braves fan ever again. Not in South Carolina, not in Tennessee, and not in my frequent trips to Atlanta itself. Those Southerners just cannot be bothered to give a crap about baseball. If it’s not college football, it might as well not exist. Don’t get me wrong, I love college football, and I’m more awed by the spectacle of 92,000 screaming Georgians spewing invective at their neighbors than I ever will be by anything baseball-related, but the point is, the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s were, against all probability, taken for granted. I was shocked, and angered. If you have a team that good, you ought to love it and cherish it every moment. It made me want to burn Atlanta down again.

This gives the Phillies-Braves rivalry sort of an odd character, where one side cares much more about winning than the other. I’m invested in a lot of these: South Carolina-Florida, Eagles-Cowboys, and so on. But what enrages me about this more than anything is that a fan base could care as little about as great a team as the Braves. And it’s not like they even care that the Braves aren’t in the playoffs every year anymore–no World Series means fewer distractions from UGA or Georgia Tech football. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Well, unlike anything except Philadelphia before 2005 or so, before all the people starting “E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles!” chants at Phillies games suddenly decided to care about baseball, and suddenly decided that we hated the Mets more than the Braves.

What’s more, berating the Mets nowadays is like, in the words of the author Bruce Brooks, challenging a double amputee to a footrace before you mock him. Think about what Mets fans have had to go through: the flip side of the 2007 and 2008 collapses, Game 7 the 2006 NLCS, John Maine, Johan Santana, the Kazmir Trade, Madoff, Minaya, Luis Castillo‘s pop-up, Oliver Perez, Mike Piazza‘s Freddie Mercury period, and suffering through nearly a decade knowing that watching your team play meant watching Rey Ordonez hit four times.

Haven’t they suffered enough? I just can’t get myself worked up enough to get the Two-Minute Hate going. At least, not enough hate to break Michael Irvin’s neck, then throw snowballs at Santa Claus while vomiting on Jimmie Johnson’s daughter, who’s throwing batteries at J.D. Drew. You know, Philly sports fan-style hate. I have no trouble hating the implacable foe, but the Mets aren’t that. They’re almost pitiable.

Maybe I’m completely out of touch with this–it wouldn’t be the first time. And I know we’re going to talk about rivalry, and Billy Wagner, and 2007 all weekend, and blah blah blah. Blow me. I may be the only one who feels like this, but in the same way you never get over your first love, I will never hate another baseball team the way I hate the Braves.

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