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World Series: Phillies fans starving for a winner

PHILADELPHIA

It's 5 p.m. sharp in the birthplace of democracy, and of a baseball club that has broken the hearts of its hardcore fans for generations.

As the gray Mid-Atlantic sky grows darker over Market Street, and the cool autumn air gets chillier by the minute, tourists file out of a hallowed building that houses one of the nation's most inspiring sights: the Liberty Bell.

We have come on a pressing mission: to gauge the depth of devotion Phillies fans have for their team as the World Series comes home for the first time in 15 frustrating years, and a possible city championship for the first time in 25.

Naturally, we want to know what they think of the young, upstart team called the Rays — another one of those annoying pro franchises from Tampa Bay that always seems to block the path to Philadelphians' rekindled sporting glory.

So what better place to explore the collision of baseball cultures and communities than this sanctified spot of American history:

Where the Liberty Bell meets the Cowbell.

At this very moment, two young men approach alongside the busy cobblestone street — a perfect opportunity to sample opinion.

"We look forward to beating the team that has no fans until their team gets to the World Series; it's just ridiculous," says investment banker Jason Showmaker, 23.

He has just knocked off work for the week, primed for Games 3, 4 and 5 in Philly after the 1-1 split at Tropicana Field. "The Rays haven't been to Philly yet," says co-worker Jason Gomez, 26. "Citizens Bank Park will be rockin'. We don't need no cowbells to make noise."

Minutes later, just across the street at the venerable national landmark of Independence Hall, a door swings open. Out step three men with a familiar look who might just have a different declaration to make on the matter.

The legendary founding fathers of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — or rather the character actors who portray them each day in full costume for waves of enthralled sightseers — are calling it a day as well.

Excuse me, Mr. Franklin, any thoughts on who'll win the Series?

"I understand this is a new sport, but it's very exciting and Philadelphia of course is the center of everything — it's the cultural, economic, political and now sporting world center of the universe," says the sage statesman, brought to life by local thespian Ralph Archbold. "Everyone has come here to see the Philadelphia team win, so we cannot disappoint them, can we?"

Mr. Adams? "Considering that I hail from Boston, I have no comment," says the future second president of the United States, a.k.a. Steven Perlman.

How about you sir, Mr. Jefferson? The principal author of the Declaration of Independence speaks with a firmness befitting the country's third president (or loyal fan Graham Dellinger): "The Phillies."

The home team has history on its side. But to understand the passion of the fans in this town — known for their boisterous ways, even for once booing Santa Claus at an Eagles game — we need to explore further.

Voice of the people

To get to the heart of the Philly fan psyche, you need to call an expert: in this case, Glen Macnow, co-host of the popular midday talk show on SportsRadio 610 WIP, along with partner Anthony Gargano.

"There's a lot of excitement and a lot of nervousness," said Macnow, who broadcast his show with Gargano in Tampa before Games 1 and 2.

"In Philadelphia, there's always a bit of a dread from having our hearts broken so many times. I think since 1983, Philadelphia has been in the final — meaning the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA and NHL final — seven times, and lost each of those times. So it's almost like people are holding their breath, hoping that this one is finally going to be the one to break that trend."

And they haven't forgotten that the Bucs dashed the Eagles' dream of a Super Bowl berth in the 2002 NFC Championship Game, and the Lightning grounded the Flyers in the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs. "What the hell was the Tampa Bay Lightning?" he said. "So there's a little rivalry now with Tampa Bay."

You can call him Ray

Just past Ninth Street and Cherry, in Philadelphia's Chinatown district, Ray's Cafe & Teahouse seems like a logical place to take the World Series pulse. "I was born in Tampa," revealed manager Lawrence Ray. Perfect, an original Tampa Bay Ray. "But I don't know anything about the Rays," he added. "The only thing I know is I hope we beat them."

At a table nearby, the Slade family — Jim and Sondra with sons Jacob, 11, and Alessandro, 7 — is decked out in red and fired up about the Phils. "I grew up a Phillies fan, and before that it was my uncle and before that my grandfather," says Jim. "The 1980 World Series championship is still one of my greatest memories. I tell my boys, it was very rare the Phillies had a winning season when I was a kid, let alone get to a World Series like this team has done."

As expected, no Rays fans at Ray's.

A Cheesesteak state of mind

It's time for a short taxi ride to the old row-house neighborhood of South Philly. The cabbie, Mike Eze, loved soccer in his native Nigeria but has grown to love the Eagles. He hasn't gotten over the 2002 season's NFC title game. "I'm still dreaming about Ronde Barber; in my mind, he's running right now, running away with our championship."

We stop at the corner of Ninth and Passyunk, where dueling cheesesteak giants Pat's and Geno's battle for business across the street from each other. Each place is packed with lines of patrons, many sporting Phillies garb.

"You can't count on the Flyers or the '76ers anymore," says Erroll Rittenhour, dining at Pat's with wife Theresa. "So this is really big, really intense. Even though we're in the World Series, part of you is just waiting for them to c--- out. But what I like about them is they're blue-collar guys and they play hard."

On the side of a nearby building, giant portraits of South Philly icons are painted on the brick wall — Frankie Avalon, Al Martino, Eddie Fisher and Chubby Checker to name a few. Inside, the South Philly Bar & Grill is doing a brisk business. Owner Ken Brownell plays theme music from Rocky before Phillies games, and sometimes just airs Rocky movies when no games are on — a nod to the fighting spirit of Rocky Balboa, immortalized in a statue across town at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Sylvester Stallone's iconic character ran up and down the steps to get in shape to fight Apollo Creed. "Even though Rocky's not real," Brownell says, "his legend is part of every Philly sports fan."

The ultimate sports bar

Across from the hub of pro sports complexes for the Phillies, Eagles, 76ers and Flyers stands the king of local sports bars and restaurants, Chickie's and Pete's. A converted A&P grocery store, it's 24,000 square feet jammed with big-screen TVs and hundreds of avid Philly fans. Joe Connelly, a 37-year-old printer from nearby Washington Township, N.J., still feels the sting from Tampa Bay in the '02 and '04 playoffs. But he could be speaking for everyone in the place when he says — with the passion only a fan who has been burned before could muster — "The Phillies are not going to lose to the Rays, all right?"

World Series: Phillies fans starving for a winner 10/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:54pm]
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