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For Philly fans, winning is torture

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

PHILADELPHIA – The presidential limousine pulled in front of the third-base dugout and Herbert Hoover stepped out. The 32,295 gathered at Shibe Park in Philadelphia for Game 2 of the 1930 World Series serenaded him with a chant.

"We want beer!" they bellowed. "We want beer!"

Nobody is safe in front of Philadelphia sports fans. The tradition of booing and heckling at ballparks in the City of Brotherly Love was personified in that spontaneous expression of displeasure over Prohibition, and years later when they booed Santa Claus and pelted J.D. Drew with batteries and, this season, needled Phillies shortstop and reigning MVP Jimmy Rollins for daring to suggest the fans are "frontrunners."

All of which is bottlenecking into a serious identity crisis among the boo-birds as the Philadelphia Phillies stand one game from winning the World Series, the city's first professional-sports championship in 25 years. They lead the Tampa Bay Rays three games to one in the World Series and, weather permitting, will continue the suspended Game 5 on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park, where they haven't lost in October.

In spite of the good vibrations, the inner Philadelphian – the one who cheered when Michael Irvin got carted off the football field with a neck injury – is always aching to come out in any form. Phillies fans this October are like pit bulls wagging their tails, seemingly rehabilitated until one false move turns them savage.

How else to explain a family member of a Rays' employee holing up in a bathroom stall during Game 3 because Phillies fans were pounding on the door and threatening him? Or a grade-school student getting beer poured on him. Or the seven-year-old granddaughter of Rays manager Joe Maddon being pelted with mustard packets?

"If you want to be vociferous with us, I am fine with that," Maddon said. "But leave the families alone."

Heckling the opposition remains a Philadelphia tradition, acceptable at times and over the top at others. The "Eeeee-va" chants when Rays' third baseman Evan Longoria came to the plate were creative and harmless. The verbal abuse Rays' pitcher Scott Kazmir took as he signed autographs was neither. And the profanity directed at the families of Rays' players and employees – inexcusable.

It's as if some fans need to live up to the lore, that Philadelphia's reputation for heckling gives them implicit permission to persist. What, then, to do when things go right, when Ryan Howard belts two home runs and Jayson Werth hits another and Joe Blanton, the pitcher, hits the first World Series shot from a pitcher in almost 35 years? After so many years of booing, it's OK to cheer. Right?

Fans here long ago became intolerant of mediocre baseball. And that's what they've mostly gotten from the first sports franchise to reach 10,000 losses. The Phillies had one winning season from 1987 to 2000, and that ended in the 1993 World Series heartbreak of Joe Carter's epic home run off Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams.

"I know this city has starved long and hard for a winning baseball team," Phillies third baseman Greg Dobbs said. "All those years combined, it's hard to erase that. But I'd like to think we've managed that. They deserve it."

The starvation mentality goes back generations. The Phillies had one winning season from 1918 to 1948. The team had 100 or more losses a dozen times during that stretch, when the major-league schedule called for only 154 games.

Booing and heckling weren't born then and there, of course. The crowd at gladiatorial games determined whether a competitor lived or died. And in sixth-century Greece, playwrights competed to determine whose tragedy was best. Audience applause meant approval, shouts and whistles the opposite.

The antics of two brothers at the Baker Bowl – where the Phillies played from 1887 to 1938 – were not similarly encouraged. Al Horwits, the late sportswriter who covered baseball from 1927 to 1941 for the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, told author Jerome Holtzman in "No Cheering in the Press Box" about the origin of heckling here:

"There were these two brothers, the Kesslers, who were really rough. They sold fruit around the neighborhoods, and would start early and be finished by the time the game began – which in those days wasn't until 3:15. One brother would sit on the right side of the field, near first base, and the other would be at third base. In Baker Bowl you could sit anywhere and just about shake hands with the players in the infield.

"The Kesslers would hold conversations across the field and be terribly abusive. These guys were needlers. They never let up. They were forerunners to the CIA. They knew all the ballplayers' habits, where they were drinking and the girls they were with. And they would go out and yell the names. A ballplayer would be real upset when he found out they knew the truth about him."

Horwits also related the incident about President Hoover, who, it should be noted, called for the repeal of Prohibition two years later. Possibly hoping for similar impact, Philadelphia Flyers' fans roundly booed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin upon her introduction at the Wachovia Center, where she recently dropped the ceremonial first puck.

Booing is what they do in Philadelphia. Heckling comes as naturally as chewing a cheesesteak. Turning their frowns upside down is an odd exercise. The Phillies are enjoying it while it lasts.

While throwing in the bullpen Sunday afternoon, pitcher Brett Myers was amazed at a chant emanating from the adjacent Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles were finishing off a victory against the Atlanta Falcons.

"It was one of the greatest things I've heard in a long time," Myers said. "

"It's 4:15 in the afternoon and I'm hearing Phillies chants. That was weird, man. I'm used to hearing Eagles chants all these years. So to hear that, it gave me chills. It told me, 'These people are ready to go.' "