Saturday, April 08, 2006

The metropolitan eastern seaboard fan

My first trip to Philadelphia in 1985 stays with me. Mike Schmidt was being booed lustily by Philly fans for getting off to a slow start. A big red-faced fellow screamed at Schmidt from behind the screen at home plate after popping out with runners on base. It was awfully close at the old Vet, and both dugouts and Schmidt could hear, "Schmitty, YOU STINK ! YOU STINK! YOU STINK!"

Probably hearing it all before and perhaps even agreeing in a fashion, Schmidt seemed unaffected. Schmidt's certainly forgotten about it by now, but I will always recall the incident when I think of fan displeasure for athletes. And I have an observation that may give some pause for readers. I've found that these most vociferous examples to be unique to the metropolitan eastern seaboard cities of Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Some commonality exists among the three. All three have histories which date back to American Revolutionary. All are port cities. All three have significant ethnic neighborhoods and identities. All three have more than one widely read daily newspaper. And I believe at least one tabloid exists in each city which contain a full back page for sports and a provocative headline. All three have storied franchises in the four major team sports. All are in close proximity and accessible via train and have been so for generations. The list goes on.

These things being brought together creates a perfect storm for rabidity for pro sports. I've experienced it and have indeed been part of it, too. All's one would have had to do would be to witness me during the Rangers run to the Stanley Cup in 1994. Passion for pro sports teams here far exceeds that of any other area of the country. The only thing which comes remotely close is college football in my native south where an Auburn fan marrying an Alabama fan is still considered a mixed marriage.

So it shouldn't surprise that athletes here are routinely booed in such collectivity. Ed Whitson and George Foster are two who certainly come to mind for performances which left something to be desired in the minds of fans. Consider Carlos Beltran.

Expectations accompanied Beltran when he arrived last season with the Wilpons willingness to make Beltran one of the game's highest paid players. Memories of Beltran's play-off performance the previous season was expected to be duplicated at Shea. The 2005 Mets had glaring holes, yet played hard for Willie Randolph all season. Cliff Floyd played in 150 games and had a career season. In his first full season, David Wright played in 160 games and drove in 102 runs. But Met fans found Beltran's season lacking, but they really did not consider the whole picture.

Beltran played 2005 with an extremely painful injury to his quad. It affected every aspect of his game, yet he gamely still played in 151 games for the Mets. Everything that's done in the game is done on a player's legs. So Beltran's ability to use his legs when hitting suffered greatly. Nevermind what it did when he ran the bases. He played with the shadowy knowledge that any quick movement or acceleration could cause a significant tear in the quad and he would likely be lost for two months. Keith Hernandez suffered a re-tear of his hamstring in 1988 and missed close to 50 games. The Mets played the 2005 season with post-season play a reality. So a less than 100% Carlos Beltran was certainly better than one who wasn't in the line-up at all.

Beltran knew this and so did Randolph and his teammates. This is why you are seeing Mets coming to his defense this year in unison. Athletes in New York rarely will come out critical of a fan base which they realize is so supportive unless they feel it is warranted. And with Beltran it is.

I'd imagine that somewhere in Philadelphia someone is planning a billboard or something with Terrell Owens photo on it in a Cowboy uniform. The caption will be something like' "...just another reason to hate the Dallas Cowboys." Never will we see such hostility that awaits Owens return to Philadelphia in the fall. And its a passion that unique to the part of the country.

Ron Darling remarked to me last week that the Mets of the mid to late 1980's fed off these expectations and largesse, and he was critical of former teammates who didn't seem to realize this. As for the Mets and their fans this season, I sense something afoot. I got on the field prior to three games last week. And an energy was palpable when I sat in the Tradition Field dugout.


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