Watching the Phillies on TV the other night, I focused on a close-up that demanded my attention. A dad (or some insensitive version of one) was smiling lovingly at an approximately five-year-old filling his face with cotton candy. Actually, two things about the scene got to me. Cotton candy? Allowing a little kid to stuff his belly with gobs of noxious spun sugar? What’s next, lighting a cigar for him?
What really ticked me, though, was the sight of an urchin being introduced to Philadelphia pro sports at so vulnerable an age. Aren’t there enough scary things in the world awaiting this innocent tyke without encouraging interest in almost perpetually lousy teams? The Phillies aren’t the only local team that induces these shudders. I’ve had the same feelings looking at “endearing” shots of parental duos at Eagles’, Flyers’ and Sixers’ games, too. Collectively, those teams comprise a special genre, the Philadelphia Hope Shatterers.
To me, these images suggest a form of reckless endangerment. I don’t doubt these cozy vignettes reflect good parental intentions. I’m sure from most adult perspectives it’s deeply satisfying to observe the next generation following in traditional footsteps, however misguided those prints may be. Truth be told, I’m actually a product of such good intentions which, obviously, worked out badly for both intender and intendee.
My father was a rabid sports fan who never missed a chance to encourage that interest in me. That the teams he followed stank didn’t dampen his ardor for them. He was unbelievably patient in response to habitual failure. His outlet for disappointment was regret, not vituperation. “He didn’t strike out intentionally” and “He feels worse about that error than we do” were two of his comfort-intended comments.
Years later, too late for me to absorb the lesson, I came to understand my father wasn’t results-fixated. He enjoyed and admired instant reactions, the over-all athleticism displayed almost casually by players. For him, I understand now, the allure of games lay in how expertly they were played, not in their results.
Early on, motivated more by filial respect than genuine interest, I occasionally followed games with him in the living room of our house in West Philadelphia. The results rarely motivated me to want to see more, but despite his being a discerning fan, I don’t remember him ever becoming overtly critical. That tolerance didn’t rub off on me. My peer group was intensely competitive, both in school and in our street games. Engaging in the latter, we regarded losing not as the opposite of winning, but as symptomatic of a deficiency in character. Sometimes, I tease myself by reflecting about how growing up in a city of sports winners might have affected me. In the glory days of the Yankees, for example, would I, as one of their fans (perish that thought!) have become smug and complacent? Would I have reacted to victory simply as something that was my due, like a monarch casually accepting expressions of loyalty? Furthermore, doesn’t predictable victory eventually lose much of its luster? Somewhere along the line, I wish I’d had reason to discover the answer to that question.
“Smug” and “complacent” don’t make it into the dictionaries of most badly treated Philadelphia fans. “Cynical” or “snarky” appear in Gothic print. That they’ve been used more than once to describe me doesn’t make me proud. But, for good reasons, I think I see some less cloudy sky on the horizon. Not sunny, mind you, just less cloudy. I’m bothered by the fact that when any Philadelphia sport is discussed at home, my family shields itself against imminent negativity by trying to change the topic. My scorn for the latest fiasco generally sparks eye rolling and moderate facial contortions, never the agreement I always hope for but never get. Elaine, Gill, and Alan can’t help hearing me, but they’re generally unresponsive.
Somehow, that’s become more acceptable to me. I know my deficiencies as a fan, and I’m glad they haven’t diluted my family’s interest in sports. Basically, that interest, like my father’s, is rooted in appreciation for the aesthetics of performance, not in final results. In addition, our grandchildren are on the brink of becoming fans, and I certainly don’t want them to replicate my type of fandom. So, more often now, I try to stifle sarcastic comments- not with ease, I assure you, and feel good for having done so. Maybe by the time we inhabit Mars, I’ll have evolved into a decent fan. At this point, though, as they currently relate to me, those last two words contradict one another.
The next time a father-son duo is captured on TV, I’ll try to be more positive in my reaction. I’ll attempt not to make the snap judgment that the kid’s time would be better spent making his own shoe laces or devising constructive uses for used bubble gum. Until that happens, simply regard these sentiments as ruminations of a dyspeptic Philadelphia fan warped by endless mistreatment at the clumsy hands of local players.