This is the most exciting time to be a fan of Philadelphia sports in the history of my 23-year existence. The Eagles and the Phillies are the main ingredients in this medley of joy–the meat and bread of the cheesesteak, if you will. Of course, the Phillies world championship in 2008 is the ultimate moment of glory, the culmination of that which matters most, and we will never forget. But over the past six months, we’ve experienced unprecedented satisfaction–the sort of optimistic anticipation that fuels a city and its fans through the routine of each week, giving purpose to the mundane and significance to the minutiae of life.
Having the best team in Major League Baseball certainly makes you feel good about yourself, checking the standings everyday for a brief reminder and a visual reassurance that yes, we are still winning more games than anyone else in the country. When the Eagles signed all of their free agents in July, fan psyche transcended a new level. We were rivaling New York and beating them–on the field, as well as off it–in the manager’s offices, by the owners, and the scouts. The Dream Team chatter has fortunately begun to die down, tempered even more, no doubt, by last week’s defeat against the Falcons. The Phillies also lost that Sunday night to boot, setting off an unusual losing streak at the hands of what I’ll call late September “cruise control”. But unlike other unfortunate Sundays in years past, all is not lost as we inch closer to postseason baseball and a titanic week 3 match-up against the Giants.
The Phillies are the lesser concern, having locked up the NL East and a playoff spot earlier than we’ve seen in quite some time. As we await their final win-count, hoping to make our mark on baseball’s history book (come on, 100), while staying healthy and hot heading into the playoffs, everything boils down to the playoffs. Who will show up and take care of business?
I think we all have a great deal of confidence in Halladay at this point. Pencil him in as the game 1 starter and hope that Lee and Hamels have their best stuff, or close to it, each start. What about Ryan Howard, coming off zero home runs and zero RBIs in the 2010 playoffs? Will he reemerge as the team’s primary slugger? Will Polanco and Rollins be fully healthy? I’m most excited to see Hunter Pence bring his goofy, kinetic enthusiasm to the postseason for the first time. This is a guy who really puts the Phillies over the edge when it comes to a position by position match-up against any potential opponent.
The Philles certainly have experience on their side. But sometimes knowing how to take care of business in the playoffs isn’t always as powerful as simply knowing that you must. For example, the Brewers and Diamondbacks provide formidable threats. They haven’t been a playoff mainstay like the Phillies, but they’ve got more than enough talent that, if coupled with a healthy dose of urgency, could derail a juggernaut even as mighty as our beloved Fightins. The Braves are not to be overlooked either. Michael Bourn could be a pest on the basepaths and if Tommy Hanson (and to a lesser extent in my book, Jair Jurrjens) get healthy, they’ve got their ace(s) back to rival any of ours.
Looking ahead a bit to a potential trip the World Series, the steadily surging Rays are glaring up at the Red Sox, within striking distance now of a surprise Wild Card dethronement in the last week of the season. Eliminating Boston from the AL playoff slate would surely provide a bit of extra incentive for the Phillies to make a push knowing that perhaps their most formidable opponent, on paper, has been knocked out of contention. In the end, I would welcome a rematch of the 2009 World Series against the Yankees…no other team would be as satisfying to beat.
As for the Eagles, it’s never as easy as it seems. Unfortunately you can already mark one tally in the “unfortunate, if not bullshit of a loss” column after only two weeks of play (sure wish we challenged that INT). Yes, the Eagles still have a lot of work to do, but by all general measures, they looked like a better team than the Falcons. It’s a true shame they couldn’t stick them in an 0-2 hole to start the year, but I believe losing early in the season builds character, gets the jitters out, and focuses the team on the work that needs to be done to correct the problems. The game against the Giants this week will be no small task, despite the truly ludicrous amount of injuries the Giants have already faced. If Andy Reid can call a fundamentally sound game, and if the Eagles can stop the Bradshaw/Jacobs running game combo, I expect a fairly stress-free victory.
As for the always newsworthy Mike Vick, let’s hope that new Kevlar helmet can protect his noggin. We all feared he’d take a beating this year, to the hips and the ribs, the knees and the shoulders, but why didn’t we see this storyline coming already, with all the attention that concussions caught last year? More than any other body part, we need to keep Vick’s head safe this year, for as amazing as his body is from an athletic standpoint, the whole package is rendered worthless without the CPU up top. Fortunately, we are prepared if Vick goes down, and I truly believe this team can win with or without him. One of my favorite players the past two years has been Mike Kafka and I’ve said time and time again before the season started that this guy can win games for us. If anything, he’d force our offensive play-calling to get back to the basics, we’d hand-off to LeSean more, and we’d call a more balanced game. I’m not saying Vick doesn’t give us a much better chance to win, but Kafka, as well as Vince Young, will step in and keep this team rolling if they have to.
On defense, the front four and secondary are looking elite as hell. If the linebackers can stop the run and/or guard the tight end (honestly I’d take either right now, something please), I can’t see even the best offenses in the league doing much damage against us late in the season, after the unit has grown and gelled together. Also, you see Roddy White last week? No you didn’t, thanks Nnamdi. Better get ready for a long Sunday, Mr. Nicks.
As for the Flyers, we certainly appreciated having the best record in hockey for much of the season, as pundits everywhere called us the deepest, most complete team in the league, but the playoff disappointment was all to familiar and the carousel at goalie was even worse. There’s a legitimate chance Bryzgalov is finally the answer in net, but we’ll have to wait to see if this team, after gutting itself in favor of a youth movement, is ready to win now or ready to simply establish some momentum for a 3-4 year window of opportunity. Of course, signing the legendary, first-ballot Hall of Famer, Jaromir Jagr (after spurning the Penguins), is sure to be a fan-pleasing move. Can’t wait to see him in orange and black. Also, Claude Giroux is looking to be one of the NHL’s fastest rising young stars. I succumbed to his tantalizing potential by getting his jersey this year, and expect more great things to come. Also of note this year, the Flyers will be hosting the Winter Classic outdoor NHL event against the Rangers at Citizens Bank Park. That’s going to be really great to host. Overall, the Flyers, despite being adored in this city, are continually cast in the shadow of the bigger-market Eagles and Phils, but they’ve been good to us fans, rewarding us with continual trips to the playoffs. Want to really get everyone on the loveboat, though? Get back to the Stanley Cup and bring it home to Broad Street.
The Sixers are also a great group to root for. Doug Collins really changed the culture of the team this year. The love he has for his players is wonderful to behold. He brought those guys closer together as a team than I’ve ever seen (all those years with me-first AI didn’t help, but man I still love him). Jrue Holiday is my boy, and you don’t have to go much further than @natemandel on Twitter to see that. He should easily be a top 10 point guard this coming season (if there is one). Evan Turner might not be a star, but he could become one of the best utility players in the league, a multi-threat talent that could eventually be the glue of a championship team. Of course, there are still a lot of issues to address, namely a go-to big man, a true center…as well as a #1 scorer…but the team approach last year was so much fun to watch, I’m not sure if I even want to see sweeping changes anymore. I had the privledge of going to the one game that the Sixers took from the Heat in the playoffs this year (a day after dining next to LBJ and Dwayne Wade at Sabrina’s in Philly) and the atmosphere was so electric, so exciting, that I just fell eternally in love with these young underdogs. When Elton Brand’s contract clears up a sizable amount of cap-room, (again, if the NBA still even exists), I’m thinking this Sixers team could be a top four team in the East within two or three years, and that’s all I can ask right now.
Finally, the newest addition to the pro sports Philly family, the Philadelphia Union of the MLS. I love Danny Mwanga and want to see him getting more starts, but his effectiveness off the bench has been undeniable. Le Toux is a rock. And after his reemergence in the CONCAF final against Mexico, Freddy Adu decided to come over and join the Union–I couldn’t be happier about that news. Here’s a guy that might play an enormous role in the 2014 World Cup for the U.S. I hope he can continue to hone his skills and get experience with us, and I’ll have even more reason to root for him down the line. Truly exciting to see an over-hyped player disappear off the map and then have a chance to come roaring back. And he’s only 22! There’s a lot to like about this Union squad, and with playoffs approaching, we’ll see if they can make some noise and capture the love of even more soccer fans in Philadelphia.
Overall, professional sports here have been good. I can’t imagine them being much better, really, and it’s important to stop and cherish this era, because it’s really quite hard to come by. Of course, if the Eagles lose their next two games I’ll have to reevaluate my optimism, but I’m confident that at least one of these five professional teams, most of them young, all of them brimming with potential, will satisfy our thirst for the ultimate glory of a championship–preferably in October of 2011…and then again in February, 2012. This town is full of great sports teams right now, amazing players, and awesome coaches. The fans have been loving it, but it’s finally time for more. Don’t call us greedy, we haven’t won anything yet. But heading into battle, I’m ready to see some fireworks.