Philadelphia and Washington and the sociology of fandom

I just enjoyed a good chuckle because I just ran across a story about my Tuesday column that Dan Steinberg posted on DC Sports Bog, his fabulous general interest sports blog whose format I would love to see other newspapers replicate (cough, cough...hi Chuck!). I spent much of yesterday fending off 140-character pitchforks from indignant Nationals fans who managed to find some time in their workdays to defend their fair ballpark. The experience did not come as a surprise. Manufacturing outrage at perceived slights from an out-of-town media members is a time-honored tradition in sports, and I would not be the first writer to go out of my way to indulge a fan base's desire to feel persecuted.

Of course, many readers who managed to make it through the entire column probably realized that my intent was not to lob gratuitous cheap shots in the general direction of our nation's capital. Even Steinberg acknowledges that possibility, qualifying the obligatory pot-stirring lead paragraph with the admission that, "Some diehard Nats fans would say these are deserved shots, but still. . ."

In fact, the ensuing comments section of that blog post includes two types of reactions: Nationals fans unleashing their best neener-neener-neeners, and Nationals fans acknowledging that, hey, you know what, a World Series contender shouldn't need to spend 75 percent of its gameday budget on video bits hyping its mascot race and an in-game television host interviewing fans about how much fun they are having not watching the action on the field because they are talking to him. The latter viewpoint is the viewpoint that I hold. I didn't mean to sound judgmental, but I am, so that's probably how it came across. Still, the intent of the column was to highlight the peculiar dynamic that I felt as I watched the Nationals finish off an ascension that wasn't supposed to happen for at least another year. It is a dynamic that always exists among the nouveau riche when they complete the transition from fun-loving summer entertainers to legitimate contenders. October arrives, and two worlds collide: the cowbell-ringing, rally-monkey-waving, president-racing world of a marketing department that started the season desperate to put fannies in the seats, and the baseball-game-winning, home-run-hitting, champagne-spraying world of a baseball operations department that has succeeded in its quest to make the product on the field sell itself. We saw it in Anaheim and we saw it in Tampa and now we are seeing it in Washington, and this final series of the regular season made that dynamic even more pronounced because the team that watched it first-hand from the visitor's dugout was the Phillies, who five years earlier had witnessed a similar transition on the final day of the 2007 regular season.

I label the transition "similar" because Philadelphia fans of a certain age will recall that their own team was not always above the use of gimmicks to attract fans to the ballpark. In fact, when the Phillies faced the Yankees in the World Series in 2009, fans found themselves on the receiving end of some of the same condescension they may have inflicted on the Rays one year earlier. Put it this way: I have a friend who is a Yankees fan, and he would have a heart attack if he ever saw rally towels distributed in the Bronx.

That being said, winning in places like Philadelphia is different from winning in a lot of other cities across this country, and that sociological divide feels even more disparate when the winning happens in Washington, a town that is just three hours south in distance but worlds apart in culture. I reference this phenomenon in the column in question. Places like New York and Boston and Philadelphia are cities populated by sons and daughters whose fandom is less a diversion and more a cultural tradition that links them to all of the generations that lived before, from their parents to their parents' parents to their parents' parents' parents, all the way back to a time when the Northeast was the epicenter of the industrialized world and living there meant taking pride in everything it manufactured, from the troop transports in the shipyard to the ballclub on Broad Street. Sports in this country rose to prominence at a time when the desire for greatness infected every aspect of American life. The playing field was an extension of our lives. An steelworker could arrive home after a day on the job, read about Robin Roberts' latest complete game, then think to himself, "Both of us made this city better today." They shared a mission, and that mission was greatness. 

Steinberg actually provides a perfect summation of the situation when he writes, "I thought the meaning of the mission was just to have fun. Not saying that the baseball should be secondary to races and gimmicks and ads, but golly, there’s an awful lot of raw emotion in certain cities that I could do without. I prefer my emotions partially cooked. Or maybe fully boiled."

That's no less acceptable, and perhaps psychologically healthier, than the way folks do it up here. But it is different. As I noted in the column, everything has a beginning, and this just might be the beginning of a baseball revival in the beltway. But for now, the way many Philadelphians see it, they got beat by the Nationals, and all they got in return was a Teddy in 2012 bumper sticker.