Part 7: Those December Blues

by Timothy Malcolm

Every year in Philadelphia, at the close of the city’s popular Thanksgiving parade, Santa Claus dashes up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is what Rocky Balboa did in the 1976 film “Rocky.”

For Rocky, the dash up the stairs symbolized his mental and physical achievement. Early in the film, he attempted to scale the steps but, out of shape and losing breath, he staggered to the top and glanced warily at the naked Philadelphia skyline. After weeks of grueling training and mental cleansing, Rocky raced up the stairs, the climax of an epic relay through the broken neighborhoods of gray Philadelphia. In the iconic scene, Rocky bolts easily up the stairs, sometimes taking in three steps with one stride. He reaches the top, whips around, and raises his arms to the clearing Philadelphia morning. His accomplishment is the accomplishment of any man, and especially of any busted and broken Philadelphian. His achievement is our achievement. So when Santa Claus reaches the top of the Museum of Art’s stairs, turns and waves to his assembled believers, it’s more than an introduction to the holiday season, but a reminder of the ever-present philosophy that hovers over the eternally gray city. With a lot of work and determination, anyone can reach the top of the stairs.

The influence of “Rocky” on Philadelphia is staggering. Youths across the neighborhoods seem born repeating the very things originally uttered by Sylvester Stallone’s titular character. Scores of Philadelphians believe you have to work hard to live well, and that means marry, own a row house and maybe put a kid or two through college. And work is hard. Life is hard. So sports – especially the serious professional sports – are not simply taken for leisure. The efforts of the athletes performing on the field, court or rink must match the efforts of the men and women performing in the factories, and on the streets and job sites.

But as Santa waved and smiled to Philadelphia from his Thanksgiving perch atop the city’s most famous staircase, the athletes of Philadelphia were not meeting the city’s expectations. The Flyers, the city’s hockey team, were solid, hanging near the top of the Eastern Conference, but they are rarely taken seriously by the entire city until winter’s thaw. The 76ers, the city’s basketball team, were inoperative, a victim of the National Basketball Association’s labor lockout. Then there were the Eagles, the football team, for years the highest-profile team in Philadelphia, tapped as a potential champion for a decade. They were the reason for the missed expectations: A team handed lofty goals in September, a 4-6 record heading into Thanksgiving weekend, a complete failure in multiple areas of planning and execution. Really, singlehandedly, the Eagles had put the sporting fans of Philadelphia into a complete funk.

And so people turn their attention to the Phillies, the new kings of Philadelphia.

But what happens when you turn your attention to a baseball team as the calendar turns to December? It’s nearly the darkest, coldest and most foreign time of the year, a time completely unsuitable for the common man to care deeply about bats and balls, caps and hot dogs. But in times of harrowing misfortune, the common man must do what the common man must do. And suddenly the chatter builds, the anticipation grows, and those December blues begin burning white heat.

***

Major League Baseball has found a way to capitalize on December blues. It’s called the Winter Meetings. Here, every franchise brings its front office to a specialized location, usually a luxury hotel, to preside over organizational meetings, Hall of Fame discussions, minor league drafts and arbitration deadlines. And since everyone is in one tidy place, front offices discuss trades, as if the Winter Meetings is a large-scale swap meet in the middle of a hotel lobby. Meanwhile, free agent players still seeking suitors dance about in the lobby – their agents holding them by tethers – looking for the right offers to secure better futures. All of this activity was usually transmitted to fans through team beat writers and national print scribes. But in 2011, add national web writers, bloggers, television personalities and just about anybody enlisted as a member in the Baseball Writers of America. And documenting all of that madness in 2011 were ESPN – setting up a “Baseball Tonight” desk in the lobby – and the MLB Network, baseball’s 24-hour hotel erotica for fans of all ages, who broadcast two live shows daily from the Winter Meetings. Needless to say, diehard baseball fans were struggling not to stay home from school and work to  watch “Hot Stove” all day.

With all the writers, pundits, experts, columnists and analysts scrambling in the lobby of a Dallas hotel, newspapers, websites, blogs and Twitter feeds were constantly pushing through new content, and nearly everything was pushed. The battle to sign Albert Pujols, free agent superior seeking a $200 million payday, led the Miami Marlins to one night working overtime in a hotel room with boxes of pizza and chicken wings. We know this MLB.com writer Joe Frisaro tweeted the world that Marlins executives were holing themselves into a hotel room with room service pizza and wings. Anything was game. What happened at the Winter Meetings … left the Winter Meetings within seconds.

The Phillies front office walked into the Dallas hotel lobby knowing there was an elephant still in the room. Jimmy Rollins, who expressed a desire for a five-year contract, was still a free agent. Maybe the Phillies were focused on signing Rollins. Leave Dallas with an old elephant that could still shock and shine. Instead, the Phillies decided they were interested in Gio Gonzalez, a young pitcher from the Athletics whom the Phillies once paid. So Ken Rosenthal wrote that the Phillies were interested in Gonzalez. Then Rosenthal, thinking aloud, wrote that Gonzalez might be a replacement for Cole Hamels, who would become a free agent after 2011. Then all hell broke loose.

“Setting aside the fact that all of the six old dudes hanging around the media room right now think this is the best joke of the morning, the fact is that you can only push off your ‘we must have a second elite lefty starter in the fold but paying for his contract extension is gonna really hurt’ problems off so far,” wrote Craig Calcaterra, writer at NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk.

“As long as Cole doesn’t get distracted by a jewelry gala or something, he’s going to be pretty sure he wants money. And the Phillies should pay him,” wrote Justin Klugh at Phillies fan blog That Ball’s Outta Here. “So let’s hope all this Gonzalez snooping is just to piss off the other GMs.”

“Do not want!” succinctly wrote Whole Camels at The Good Phight, another Phillies fan blog.

The last word came, 36 hours later, from general manager Ruben Amaro, speaking to Calcaterra. No, he said, Hamels wasn’t being shopped. In fact, he said, the Phillies saw Hamels as a franchise player. Yes, he said, Cole Hamels was a Phillie, and hopefully will forever be.

Then, Tuesday evening, late, MLB.com Cardinals reporter Matthew Leach tweeted a third team was showing strong interest in Albert Pujols. There was the Cardinals, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and … well, he didn’t have a name. So he called them “mystery team.” Or, as we know them, #mysteryteam. Or, as they were called last year, the Philadelphia Phillies. So all hell broke loose.

***

“Rocky” is a story within a story. The film chronicles a luckless bum boxer from Philadelphia who works hard to realize his dreams, given the opportunity to fight the world heavyweight champion. All Rocky Balboa wants is to “go the distance,” to stand face-to-face with champion Apollo Creed, and to the entire world, and not lose on his own accord. Take all the punches in the world. Come within inches of death. Just don’t quit.

But the story of “Rocky” is about Sylvester Stallone, a starving screenwriter inspired by real life boxer Chuck Wepner’s ability to go the distance with champion Muhammad Ali. Stallone wrote his little movie and shopped it around until he got an answer. But his only caveat was that he wanted to play Rocky. He knew the character too well. He knew, if it was him in that ring, the movie – not just the character – would go the distance. Somehow, the studio agreed. History played out from there.

Stallone lived for years in Philadelphia. He knew Philadelphia, and his Philadelphia in “Rocky” is a character in itself. The tall ship that hugs the harbor at Penn’s Landing. The crooked streets that compose Stallone’s Kensington neighborhood. The dark alleys and grim factories. The city is set completely in gray; the world of Philadelphia in December 1975 is a world of dim skies, cold realities and just a sliver of hope as the city’s finest moment – the 200th birthday of the United States – approaches.

On January 1 of every year, costumed clowns invade Philadelphia. The Mummers, composed usually of regular working folks – the kind of folks that might just talk to a guy like Rocky Balboa – strut and saunter down the crooked streets playing brash music and providing a colorful hope that the new year might be better than the last. It’s a small break from the blight, a bright yellow sun cast through the gray. But everything before that, and everything after Santa Claus waving from atop those stairs made famous by Rocky Balboa – everything in that period between, is gray, and cold, and it’s those December blues. When apathy turns ugly. When any dash of excitement becomes an orgy of emotion. When harsh realities hit hard. Those December blues never fail.

***

On December 13, 2010, the #mysteryteam first appeared. At the time, the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers were combating in a money-fueled episode of ownership warfare. Both franchises sought the most prolific name on the free agent market, Cliff Lee, and by the end of December 15, 2010, one of those teams would own his services, according to just about every writer, pundit, expert, columnist and analyst.

But the #mysteryteam arrived late in the afternoon. Twitter nation watched intently. Somebody thought maybe the Phillies could be the #mysteryteam. Then Jayson Stark mentioned that Lee liked this team, and the feeling was mutual. Twitter nation began to boil. And the Phillies possibly were the #mysteryteam. Then Stark confirmed the Phillies as the #mysteryteam. Twitter exploded. Fans gasped. Joel Sherman of the New York Post said the Yankees felt like they were out of the bidding. Fans jumped and hollered. Then the Yankees were told they were out. And the Rangers were told they were out. And the Phillies were told, yes, they had Lee. And fans partied, showering in alcohol and running around their living rooms in pure elation, the kind of elation reserved for wedding proposals, births and lottery winnings. The #mysteryteam became a point of pride. T-shirts advertised the phenomenon. Comments lived in repeat. A way of life: #mysteryteam.

***

For a glimmer, an actual fluid glimmer – maybe three seconds – the Phillies seemed like the plausible #mysteryteam once again, this time to win the hearts and minds of the Pujols family of St. Louis, Mo. And during that three second glimmer, Michael Baumann at fan blog Phillies Nation thought, while obviously unlikely, the Phillies could actually be the #mysteryteam. So, late at night in a haze, led by a Stark tweet that noted the #mysteryteam would need to move their first baseman to sign Pujols, Baumann’s musing companion Dr. Strangeglove sprung to life with thoughts of Albert Pujols’ dancing in his head.

“I want to take you through a little deductive reasoning exercise to find teams that 1) have the kind of money to sign a player to a $22-25 million per year contract for 10 years and 2) have a first baseman that you’d have to worry about moving,” Baumann wrote. He concluded that the Phillies would actually be a decent possibility to be that very team, or, in words everyone can understand, the #mysteryteam.

“Yeah, we know after the Cliff Lee Incident of 2011 (sic) that ‘Mystery Team’ means ‘Philadelphia Phillies,’ but all optimism and homerism aside, this is the team that actually makes the most sense to be Stark’s third bidder,” Baumann wrote.

On Thursday, Pujols signed a ten-year, $250 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The #mysteryteam still had not been revealed. But it did not matter. It only mattered on Tuesday night, when the concept of the #mysteryteam returned to the hotel lobby, when Twitter became a dumping ground for every inch of pontification necessary regarding the #mysteryteam, when fans stuck out their chests, boasted and berated about their hopes that their team could be the one that magically lands Pujols. And many Phillies fans took this seriously. They had to. Because the Eagles stunk, the Flyers meant little and the 76ers weren’t even happening yet. Because it was December, and you have to cure those December blues somehow.

And yet the biggest story, the one that actually mattered for Phillies fans worldwide, was still nothing, just a grouchy elephant hanging out in a room. No offer made to Jimmy Rollins. Not much talk between the Phillies and Rollins’ agent, Dan Lozano. Sure, maybe a meeting here and there, but nothing concrete, nothing noteworthy. No big words, just empty space. But that’s not good. Not in December, when the blues torment and torture a fan beyond compare. Empty space is the biggest enemy when nothing is happening otherwise. So the devilish fans play with fire. They wait to strike, then they attack, and sometimes in the most insanely amazing ways.

He, the most devilish fan in Twitter nation, is @FanSince09. He was created as a reactionary, perfected as a mirror to society, living and breathing as the worst nightmare of the easily duped. He is the underbelly of Philadelphia sports fandom, the one who says all the things that the fans want to say, but won’t, at least in public, to millions of people, on a social networking platform. And Wednesday night, as the #mysteryteam business was fading from existence, @FanSince09 attacked. Calculated? No. @FanSince09 almost never calculates. He simply throws the somewhat believable stick into the alley, hoping a passerby will do what many humans do: grab the stick.

“RT @Sl_JonHeyman Rollins a done deal. 5 years, 70 mil.”

The JonHeyman refers to Sports Illustrated writer Jon Heyman, who earlier in the day began his new job at CBS Sports, leaving Sports Illustrated. Not to mention the Sl was an SL, not the SI Heyman used to employ in his Twitter handle. It didn’t matter. Somebody grabbed the stick.

“5 years for Rollins is what I’m hearing” was a tweet from a regular fan.

“BREAKING NEWS: Phillies and Jimmy Rollins have come to terms on a 5 year deal worth Approx. 70 Million! #OFFSEASON” was a tweet from a baseball website.

“@JimmyRollins11 5,$70M can you verify?” was a tweet from another fan. Soon, Rollins’ own Twitter feed was full of people asking him if he accepted the Phillies’ offer, and telling him that he didn’t deserve the offer. Even Rollins himself was confused:

“I know, they almost convinced me that I did sign, lol,” he tweeted in response to someone’s question.

Two days later, @FanSince09 struck again, this time tweeting that the Cardinals had signed Rollins to a five-year, $70 million contract. He used a fake Twitter handle for Todd Zolecki, Phillies reporter at MLB.com. More people grabbed the stick, causing Leach to tell followers the Rollins news was fake. But the damage had been done. One influential Twitter user with a devilish disposition. He can bring down cities, especially in those most insane of times, the days of those December blues, when every rumor grows like fungus, when people can’t help but talk, and when the most minute of matters becomes a mammoth moment.

***

Rocky Balboa’s Philadelphia is a Philadelphia of despair, but there is hope. Beneath the layers of gray is that simple idea: Anyone can reach the top of the stairs. There is a sunshine. It will appear. Just work, and it will come.

Santa Claus, whether myth or man, fiction or reality, proves every year that there is sunshine behind the gray of the Philadelphia cityscape. When he turns and waves to the city, he reminds everyone that the light will shine, and not just on December 25, when childlike whimsy overwhelms reason. So there is no need to worry, and there is no need to rush matters. The Eagles may stink, and the Flyers may grow slowly to relevance, and the 76ers may live again, but it does not mean the Phillies must swallow the city whole. There must be room for optimism in the dreary rains of April, the bright skies of June, the sweaty evenings of August and the cooling silence of October. Especially the cooling silence of October.

These are new days in Philadelphia. To coin a song from the “Rocky” soundtrack, it is morning in Philadelphia. It is dawn in Philadelphia. A time of eternal optimism and, like it or not, of abundant madness portrayed by white heat.

Advertisements