Max White explores the unique attachments we can form for those who don’t play for, but coach our favorite teams.
When the Philadelphia Phillies’ recently fired longtime manager Charlie Manuel, it hit me hard. To be fair, a changing of the managerial guard was probably warranted: the Phillies slumped terribly after the all-star break and compiled a 5-19 record over Manuel’s final 24 games.
As an avid Phillies fan, I’d second guessed many of Manuel’s lineups and in-game decisions over the years of his stewardship. From allowing Ryan Howard to face Damaso Marte in the 2009 World Series to relying on Brad Lidge to close games in the 2010 pennant race to playing Delmon Young at all in 2013, I cursed Manuel’s loyalty to his veterans even as I rooted heart and soul for my favorite players to succeed.
And for one glorious week in October 2008, they did: when Lidge, after closing out the World Series, dropped to his knees and embraced Carlos Ruiz on the mound at Citizens Bank Park, my world was perfect. That memory still compensates for the on-field disappointments that have followed in its wake, but strangely, I found that it didn’t help me feel better about seeing Manuel walk out of the stadium toting only a Wawa bag.
After questioning so many of his strategies and never really thinking about Manuel’s positive managerial traits, I found myself wondering why, exactly, Manuel’s firing left me feeling so empty? Utley proclaimed the Phillies “World Fucking Champions” and Lee and Roy Halladay inspired me to buy their jerseys, so why was it Manuel I was so sad to see leave the organization?
The answer lies, I think, in how I came to identify as a Phillies fan. I grew up in northern Delaware, and my dad took me to almost every Phillies Sunday home game from the time I was 12 until I was 18. At the beginning of those years, I didn’t necessarily want to go. Sure, I liked baseball, but the Phillies were terrible and I didn’t follow any team in particular; I had more fun playing baseball on my Sega Genesis than I did watching it in real life.
Over time and several years of Phillies games, that stance changed. I stopped playing baseball video games and started reading baseball columnists. I followed the Phillies, but no other teams. By the time I started high school, I could name each year’s starting lineup and pitching rotation, as well as the most prominent beat writers. I lived and died with the Phillies.
At about the same time (1998-1999), another Philadelphia sports team was hitting a low point. The 1998 Eagles stumbled to a 3-13 record, which was bad enough to induce the firing of Coach Ray Rhodes. The man who replaced him—the mountain of a man who replaced him—was Andrew Walter Reid. Having recently mastered the art of baseball fandom, football seemed the next great frontier.
Reid’s first NFL draft brought a media circus worth the price of admission. In a publicity stunt that haunts Philadelphia sports fans to this day, antagonistic local radio personality and certifiable attention whore Angelo Cataldi organized a trip up the New Jersey Turnpike for Eagles fans to attend the draft in support of selecting running back Ricky Williams or, as was more likely, deride the selection of one of the draft’s several touted quarterbacks.
Reid wanted a franchise quarterback with the #2 pick, and he selected Syracuse star Donovan McNabb. The response from the Eagles fans in attendance was predictable. In other words, just as I was seeking inroads to football knowledge, a group of local nut jobs served up an inescapable media firestorm around the rebuilding local team. I was hooked.
My high school and college years saw the Eagles soar to four consecutive NFC title games, but never win a Superbowl. Each defeat was tantalizingly close to a victory, yet Reid’s teams always seemed cursed. Aeneas Williams’ fourth quarter interception in the 2001 NFC Championship Game, the inexplicable collapse in the 2002 NFC Championship Game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that wasn’t supposed to win games played in temperatures lower than 40 degrees, and the bizarre Terrell Owens driveway press conference that effectively ended the franchise’s “Gold Standard” era all seemed more like scenes out of a sci-fi novel than an NFL season.
Despite Reid’s tremendous regular season and early-round playoffs success, fans derided him mercilessly for poor game clock management, overly complicated plays, and a skewed run-pass ratio that seemed better suited for Madden than an NFL playbook. I agreed with all of these criticisms, and voiced them loudly and proudly in bars, text messages, and Facebook statuses.
Reid’s firing last December 31st seemed inevitable: his roster moves backfired badly, the team played sloppy football, and the Eagles’ fanbase was weary of hearing Reid say he “had to do a better job” of putting players in positions to win. I was ecstatic to learn of Reid’s firing, but my initial glee soon evolved into a sense of wistful longing. Not longing for a pass play on third-and-goal from the one or a third quarter timeout because the play caller (Reid, mostly) couldn’t get the play to the quarterback in time to snap the ball before the play clock expired, but longing for the hours spent with friends and family watching Reid’s teams win and lose, succeed and fail, toil and struggle.
For all of the frustration Reid’s tenure conjured deep within my green and white soul, it was the processes of cheering, thinking, and debating to which I had grown so attached, not the team itself.
Which brings me back to Charlie Manuel and the Phillies.
Baseball writers, commentators, and analysts agree that in-game strategy is an overrated attribute of successful baseball managers. Tony LaRussa aside, few managers make their names through heavy-handed tinkering; on the contrary, it’s their ability to manage a clubhouse of millionaires and million-dollar-egos that delivers victories to hungry fans.
The second-guessing I directed at Manuel never seemed as important to my Phillies fandom as the second-guessing I directed at Reid seemed to my Eagles fandom. I think that’s because it wasn’t, because baseball and football are fundamentally different in how we form relationships with the managers and coaches entrusted with the stewardships of our favorite teams.
If football fandom is rooted in activity—cheering, debating, etc.—then baseball fandom is rooted in passivity—watching, memorizing, etc. My childhood Phillies games with my dad shaped my life. Not the games themselves, of course, but the time with my dad. While I do remember a few wins and losses, what I remember most are the car rides up I-95, the summer thunderstorms reverberating through the cement bowl that was Veterans Stadium, and circling the Stadium concourse to obtain the treasured and invaluable lemon flavored Rita’s Italian Ice.
Those are passive memories, memories of the backdrop to my childhood. The Phillies may one day return to dominance in the NL East (probably just in time for my retirement in approximately 2045), but I’ll never be able to return to the sweltering hot vinyl bench seat of my dad’s 1990 Ford Ranger.
And that’s exactly the point: for all of the energy we pour into analyzing and debating our favorite teams’ strategies and scores, what rewards do we get? We don’t get jobs as team statisticians or analysts, beat writers or television commentators. Even if we did, would we want them? Aren’t sports a diversion from our careers?
I’m not suggesting we, as sports fans, stop engaging with our favorite pastime. On the contrary, I think the ways we behave as fans define the ways in which we relate not only to the teams we follow, but also to the tapestries of our lives to which sports form the background. The manager or coach, of course, is a surrogate for us; he allows us to imagine we have some degree of control over decisions that are completely out of our hands.
And that’s a problem we face throughout life, one with no easy solutions except to remember the hot vinyl bench seat of your dad’s 1990 Ford Ranger, and the I-95 traffic jam that won’t clear up any time soon.
Photo: AP/Gene J. Puskar