Philly's Inferno

A sports fan’s opinion through the lens of Philadelphia’s seventh circle of hell.

Month: December, 2012

What Lurie can learn from the Philadelphia Union and Sons of Ben

Jerome led me onto the field and there I saw a young Dick Vermeil on the sideline talking with a slender, well-dressed man smoking a cigarette.  The two were having a light-hearted conversation, about what, I couldn’t quite hear.  Maybe I wasn’t supposed to.  The slender man took a puff, said something, laughed and smacked Coach Vermeil on the shoulder.  Vermeil laughed just as heartily.  The two were obviously friends.  Jerome’s big frame stepped in front of me, blocking my view. He said, “Mr. Tose just told Coach a story about how crazy Eagles fans are.  He loves it.”

***

Jeffrey Lurie has a chance to start anew.  He and the Philadelphia Eagles front office have often been criticized for placing profit ahead of talent, arguably at the expense of fan satisfaction (or rather, while taking fan passion for granted).  When Joe Banner was team President and resident capologist, the Eagles seemed to take more pride in maximizing the team’s level of competitiveness while also maximizing cap space.  For a while it worked but the results were short lived.  As teams with higher payrolls and talent levels continued to win Super Bowls, Lurie’s business model changed.  His annual payroll rose to luxury tax limits this time while sacrificing team character and chemistry… and again, arguably, at the expense of fan satisfaction.  There are many contributing factors here: Andy Reid’s coaching, his (mis)management style, and Jim Johnson’s unfortunate death, to name a few.  However, as Joe Banner left for Cleveland and the Reid era comes to an end, Lurie has an opportunity to start fresh, to re-brand, to tap the great potential of his team’s passionate fan base.  He doesn’t need to look far for inspiration… In fact, on one particularly hot July evening, he only needed to look down from his luxury suite onto Lincoln Financial Field.

***

On July 23, 2011 fans 57,000 strong filled Lincoln Financial Field to see an international football game, Philadelphia’s Union against Real Madrid.  The match was quite an accomplishment in and of itself, pitting a two year-old toddler franchise against one of the most storied franchises in the world.  The Union fought hard but ultimately fell to the better team, 2-1.  For a night though, the loss brought Philadelphia to soccer’s center stage.  If Lurie paid close enough attention he would have recognized a thriving partnership between a franchise and its fans.  The Philadelphia Union have as rabid a fan base (if not as large) as the Eagles, a fan base that includes, but is not limited to, the influential Sons of Ben, who are credited with bringing the expansion Union club to the area.  The Union and its ownership group seem to make most decisions with their fans in mind (see also, Le Toux!).  Consider the carefully crafted uniforms.  The colors, blue and gold, highlight Philadelphia civic pride and pay homage to the colors utilized by the Sons of Ben.  Recalling Benjamin Franklin’s famous revolutionary cartoon, the Union crest includes a snake and the motto jungite aut perite, Latin for “join or die.”  Similarly, the fanatical Sons of Ben employ a meaningful Ben Franklin-inspired logo of their own, with a motto that could easily apply to any Philadelphia team’s fan base (but especially the Eagles), ad finem fidelis, “faithful to the end.”

***

However, these would merely be superficial connections without action providing context to meaning.  Perhaps the most meaningful is what occurs a short drive down I-95 at PPL Park.  Each year members of the Union front office, including members of the ownership group (and in 2012, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr.), participate in an exhibition soccer game, for charity, against representatives from the Sons of Ben.  Proceeds go to the Union’s charitable foundation, whose mission is to provide “opportunities for children through the power of relationships to offer transformational change in the areas of education, community, health and recreation.”  The Philadelphia Eagles do quite a lot for the Philadelphia community, and are recognized nationally for doing so, but can you imagine Jeffrey Lurie hosting and playing in a flag football game for charity, against fans, at Lincoln Financial Field?

***

As Lurie watched the Union play Real Madrid that hot Saturday night, he could not have known then the predicament facing him now.  But he is currently presented with a city of fans desperate for change and it would serve him well to keep the context of that game in mind.  Considering how many Philadelphia Union fans are also diehard Eagles fans, a coaching change is a good start, but not necessarily enough.  Lurie may soon realize there is indeed an end to fan faithfulness under his ownership.  More action is needed.

You can follow Philly’s Inferno on Facebook and Twitter (@JeromesFriend).

Andy Reid’s Softened Legacy

I was furious.  The Eagles were definitively beaten and embarrassed by the Washington Redskins.  With irrelevant time remaining, the time for Bryce Brown to get a few more reps, there on the field was franchise centerpiece LeSean McCoy receiving the football from rookie quarterback Nick Foles.  McCoy ran forward with Redskins quickly converging.  He lowered his head to power through and became the victim of a forceful blow from safety Madieu Williams.  Sickeningly, McCoy remained on the ground for several minutes.  It seemed in one fleeting moment Coach Andy Reid single-handedly destroyed a franchise he spent fourteen years building.  Why the hell was McCoy in the game?

***

Jerome led me through the dark to a large expanse of land… a parking lot… and there appeared Veterans Stadium through the fog, standing where it should not stand.  “There exists strong enough memories that the Vet lives on,” Jerome said.  We walked toward it and I was captivated once again by its enormity, its simplicity.  It’s just a large square-ish circle, after all.  I remember my first Eagles game there… against the Bears.  I was fifteen, swept by the fever introduced by the Phillies ’93 World Series run, and my dad introduced me to the 700 level.  There are few things I remember about that game but the smell of beer, the incredible wind, the loudness and brazenness of the fans, and the disproportionate quiet as Bears’ wide receiver Wendell Davis ran a route down the seam, tried to jump for a ball when his knees transformed into spaghetti by an AstroTurf perhaps still in baseball mode.  There was something unnatural about it, about the unforgiving violence.  Jerome spoke again: “There are a lot of unknowns in football; a lot of risk.  That risk is managed differently by different people.”

***

Andy Reid manages risk through organizational leadership, planning, and preparation.  He facilitates it by shielding his players from public criticism and tirelessly placing much of that responsibility on himself.  He takes pride in putting his players in positions to succeed, well executed or not.  But player success is defined by many factors; not only by team wins or individual accolades, but also by salaries and financial incentives.  McCoy signed a six-year $45 Million contract this off-season  with a base salary this season of $615,000.  Was Reid motivated to give McCoy more touches in garbage time in order to increase McCoy’s chances of reaching contract incentives by the end of the season?  Was Reid putting McCoy in a position to achieve more financial success?  It’s possible, I guess.   I do know that by most accounts, Reid’s players appreciate playing for him.  It’s one of the reasons why he will coach elsewhere with moderate success.  He may even win a Super Bowl elsewhere.  But it’s for this reason he will not win one in Philadelphia.

***

Playing on the Vet’s AstroTurf was a sufficient risk.  Reid has been in Philadelphia long enough to remember it.  He coached on it.  He began his career in Philadelphia in 1999 and walked the AstroTurf for two years before it was replaced by NexTurf in 2001.  The AstroTurf hardened the fans of Philadelphia for decades.  Perhaps Reid wasn’t here long enough for it to harden him.  My father and I watched intently amid the hushed crowd as Wendell Davis was placed gingerly on the cart.  I realized then that it takes a certain amount of toughness to play in Philadelphia, and Philadelphians are proud of that.  As the images faded, Jerome leaned in and whispered with conviction, “As each surface grew softer, so grew Reid.”

You can follow Philly’s Inferno on Facebook and Twitter (@JeromesFriend).

Introduction

One night not too long ago, I wandered through the foggy streets of South Philadelphia.  The Eagles lost another game in what was supposed to be a promising season.  The pundits were wrong.  The fans were wrong.  How could we all be so wrong?  Looking for my car, I was angry and lost, most likely walking in circles when someone noticed and began following me.  I turned around and could make out a large dark shadow of a man in the distance.  I quickened my pace.  He quickened his.  I ran.  He ran faster.  I turned corners and slipped through an alleyway and spun around.  He’d gone.  But now I was really lost.  I was already angry and frustrated; I didn’t need this.  I moved on to get my bearings and took out my phone to call a cab.  Suddenly, a voice whispered deeply, “I can help you.”  Startled, I jumped backwards into the chest of the large shadow man.  He placed his hand on my shoulder, smiled, and said calmly, “My name is Jerome.”  And so it began…

***

There are ghosts in Philadelphia, many of which are born from the strength of our emotional attachment to someone, or from an incredible event that left an indelible mark on our souls.  Some call it religion; some cite the laws of physics and the conservation of energy.  Perhaps then, our purpose in life is to transfer our behaviors and actions, our energy, into the brains of our brethren… by creating bridges and connections among neurons, forming memories.  Energy begets energy.  Sometimes our behaviors and actions are even stored in the environment around us and, over time, become embedded in our DNA.  They define us all the same, but the ghosts of our past are real and influential.

It is in this spirit that this blog/site/column/whatever is a product of my desire to fulfill my own need for a unique perspective on Philadelphia sports.  My inspiration comes from the mystical nature of the 700 Level, inherent in all Philly sports fans.  To me, the 700 Level is reminiscent of the seventh circle of hell from Dante’s Inferno, coincidentally (or appropriately), the circle reserved for the Violent.  Much like Dante’s guidance from Virgil, my opinions will be filtered through a lens more native than most, and with Jerome’s help, be a reflection of my own personal journey toward understanding what makes being a Philadelphia sports fan so incredible.  Putting this “out there” on the internet scares me shitless, but maybe there are others like me who would like to read something different from a different voice.  If so, I hope you enjoy.

You can follow Philly’s Inferno on Facebook and Twitter (@JeromesFriend).