A Rooting Interest

by Matt Cosentino | Nov 30, 2023
A Rooting Interest
Electric, magical, thrilling—these are some of the adjectives that have been used to describe the atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park this fall as the Phillies were making an extended playoff run for the second year in a row. Whatever word one wants to use, this time, something just felt different.

“The Bank” has only been around for about two decades, but already it has been the site of some of the greatest moments in the 140-year history of the team. The night in 2008 when the city’s 25-year championship drought finally came to an end certainly ranks at the top. Jimmy Rollins’ walk-off against the Dodgers in the NLCS a year later touched off a celebration that some say was even more deafening, and Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in the 2010 postseason was another signature victory.

Yet it wasn’t until this year’s playoffs that national broadcasters and writers were constantly singing the praises of an oft-criticized fan base, and hailing Philly’s passionate crowds for making a significant impact on the outcome of games. The ballpark’s energy was so palpable that broadcaster Gregg Murphy and his colleagues in the Phillies’ radio booth often found themselves pausing to soak it all in.

“We’d take off our headsets and get chills because it was so loud and so exciting,” Murphy says. “You couldn’t help but get pumped up from it.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a stadium or ballpark louder than Citizens Bank Park during the playoffs the last few years,” adds John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “It was Eagles football level.”

For Murphy, a Burlington County native and longtime South Jersey resident, it served as another reminder that there’s nothing better than working for one of the teams he cheered for as a boy.

“Covering sports in other cities might be great, but I don’t think it’s quite like covering sports here in Philadelphia,” he says. “We’re pretty unique in our situation with the way the fans are. … Having been from here and growing up rooting for these teams, feeling the passion and the power of sports in Philadelphia just makes it that much better.”

Why Do We Take Games So Seriously?

Most sports followers agree that Philadelphia has some of the most diehard fans in the country, comparable only to New York and Boston in the Northeast and maybe Chicago in the Midwest. Murphy posits that perhaps it’s because the Delaware Valley doesn’t have a lot of transplants like cities in the South or West, so fandom is ingrained at a young age and stays with the person throughout his or her lifetime. Similar to Murphy, Ray Didinger not only grew up in the area supporting the teams, but went on to a distinguished 50-year career as a sports journalist, and he finds some truth to that theory.

“A majority of the people here are third- or fourth-generation Philadelphia people,” he says. “Along with cheesesteaks and water ice, one of the things that gets handed down is being an Eagles fan, a Phillies fan, a Flyers fan or a Sixers fan, and that’s part of who you are. That’s part of how you identify yourself. I think that’s more true in Philadelphia than it is in most places. That’s not all of it, but I think that’s a big part of it.”

Clark, yet another area native, agrees and adds other reasons for why sports are taken so seriously here.

“I think in general, fans in the Northeast are the most passionate and loyal fans,” he says. “A lot of other places … especially Florida and California and Arizona and other warm places, have so many other things to do in the fall and winter. Sports are the big thing that we have here during the cold months.

“Philly has some of the hardest-working people in the country, and they were raised by their families on sports. It is passed down from generation to generation, and a lot of Philadelphians stay here in Philly. Sports are so important in Philly because it connects all of us as family and friends and to others in the community.”

While South Jersey and the Delaware Valley of course have their share of Dallas Cowboys fans—especially when that team is doing well—by and large, sports fans here stay true to the Philly teams.

“I think the transplant theory is somewhat accurate, and it’s also a culture thing,” says Steve Costa of Washington Township. “I didn’t have a choice—my dad didn’t ask me, ‘Who do you want to root for?’ We were rooting for the Eagles and that was it. But I love it and I embrace it, and my kids are old enough to embrace it now too. They’re into it, they talk about it with their friends, and they love going to games.”

The pull is so strong that it even stays with locals who move to other cities. ESPN’s Max McGee, an anchor on SportsCenter, has lived all over the country due to his television career. But the Cherry Hill native has never stopped rooting for Philly teams, and at ESPN he is joined by other devoted fans like Kevin Negandhi.

“I think there’s just a different type of vibe to it and it’s ingrained in us since we were born here,” McGee says. “I have a little nephew who’s not even 2 years old and he was decked out in Eagles green for the Cowboys last week, because we’ve been teaching him since he opened his eyes as a human, ‘You don’t like the Cowboys. Even though you don’t have any idea who Michael Irvin is or Troy Aikman is, you hate the Cowboys. It’s in your blood, it’s going to be passed down from me to you to your kids’ kids.’ That’s just how life is.”

Not only does fandom get taught to young children, but it can get shared with spouses as well. Mantua resident Steve Mignogna and his college sweetheart, Amy, moved to Philadelphia in 2008, and since she is from Roanoke, Virginia, she didn’t know much about the local sports scene. Needless to say, the Phillies’ march to the World Series that year converted her pretty quickly.

“Her first experience of Philadelphia was that World Series run in 2008: going to the games, the streets flooded with people, partying after the World Series, going to the parade,” he recalls. “I was trying to tell her, ‘This is not normal. We don’t do this all the time.’ Honestly, I think it helped cement the relationship. We’ve been married 13 years now and we’ve got two beautiful kids. It certainly got us off on the right foot and it was a cool way to welcome her to this area.”

A Bad Reputation

Somewhere along the way, the passion of Philadelphia sports fans turned into a national reputation for being too demanding of the local teams and athletes. From the constant jokes by other cities’ fans to the bad press from out-of-town media members, it just never stopped, whether warranted or not. The story of Eagles’ fans booing Santa Claus is the prime example—it’s been told over and over, even though it happened before many of today’s fans were even born.

“Sadly, that’s never going to go away,” Didinger says. “Look, the Santa Claus thing happened—I was at Franklin Field in December of ’68 when they threw snowballs at Santa Claus. I wasn’t throwing any of them, but I was there. It’s not a proud chapter of our sports story, but it is a chapter and it’s not the whole story, and I think that’s the problem. All of the great things about playing in this city and the way the fans have supported teams kind of gets lost in that whole broad-brush look at Philadelphia as terrible fans.

“In my years in the business … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stand up and defend Philadelphia fans. It’s such a lazy, knee-jerk kind of thing, and a lot of it is from the national media guys. They’re good guys, I like them, they’re my friends, but they’re just so quick to say, ‘You Philadelphia fans are the worst. You run your great players out of town.’ I never believed that was true and I always argued against it. But then they would come back with, ‘You threw snowballs at Santa Claus, you fired a flare gun in the upper deck at Veterans Stadium, and you threw snowballs at Jimmy Johnson.’ All of that stuff, I can’t say it’s not true, because it is. But if that’s all you’re going to talk about, then you’re missing the bigger story.”

As a member of the national media, McGee often comes across people who trot out the same old narrative about Philly fans.

“Every once in a while people will come to me and say, ‘You guys booed Santa.’ Not many people know that Santa was drunk and that’s why he got booed. People outside of the city don’t know these core stories,” he says. “I don’t have any excuses for why fans threw batteries or booed Michael Irvin when he had a neck injury—but we don’t condone that and there’s always going to be one or two idiots in the crowd.

“You can see the idiots in other rivalries, like LA and San Francisco, and you see a bunch on social media. I feel like every time you see one of those fights and you read the comments, it always gets brought back to Philadelphia or compared to a Philadelphia fan. We catch a bunch of unnecessary strays and it’s like, ‘What did we do? We’re just sitting here keeping our mouth shut.’ When you become a Philadelphia fan or you are a Philadelphia fan, you get used to the national media throwing strays at you.”

Of course, some of that talk is deserved. Voorhees resident and area Realtor Anne Koons is a longtime season ticket holder for the Eagles and the Sixers. Her brother has lived in Dallas for 40 years and now roots for the Cowboys, and when he brought his grandson to a recent game at the Linc, they learned that it’s not wise to wear apparel supporting the opposing team, especially Dallas.

“He took the train from Rittenhouse Square to the game, and he had his 12-year-old grandson with him. It was a very eye-opening experience,” Koons says. “There is nothing like going to an Eagles or Sixers game. I’ve been to a lot of games all across the country, and nobody, particularly for the Eagles, gets the crowd that Philadelphia does. Whether that’s good or bad, I’m not sure, because at times it can be pretty frightening with some of the people. But they are totally diehard fans, more so than other places.”

Changing The Narrative

Philadelphia’s reputation for having unhinged fans who love to boo will likely never fully go away, but there has been a shift in recent years as to how they are perceived. When Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons were still members of the Sixers and struggling with their shots, the crowds at the Wells Fargo Center were known to go out of their way trying to build up their confidence. But the narrative really changed this summer thanks to several sports talk hosts at WIP, who came up with the idea for fans to give Phillies shortstop Trea Turner a standing ovation before his first at-bat during an August game against the Royals.

Turner, who had signed a massive free-agent deal to join the Phillies the previous offseason, was in the throes of the worst slump of his career. But he was clearly touched by the gesture, and ended up turning his season around to help the Phillies reach the playoffs.

Marlton resident Mike Maronski was in attendance that day and was happy to stand up along with his wife and two daughters.

“I was 100% for it,” he says. “You always go back to, does sitting there and booing a guy really help? Does that really do much? No, it just adds to his frustrations. Getting out there and trying to pick somebody up when they’re down is a great thing. I thought that moment was awesome. I always thought Philadelphia took a little bit of a bad rap for being so rough, so it’s cool to see how this team really bonded with the city.”

As part of his broadcasting duties, Murphy often speaks to Turner and his teammates. He believes the ovation hit home with all of them.

“I think that whole national narrative that maybe we’re not the most awful people on the planet started with the Trea Turner ovation,” he says. “That was a real thing … and I think it helped the entire clubhouse at that point, because there was a lot of pressing going on and they were still trying to find their footing, and they did. The national media picked up on it, as they often do, and it just became a narrative at that point. It was great to hear. I don’t want to speak for the organization, but I do think the organization was really proud of that narrative and proud of how home-field advantage helped the team.”

Maronski, who was a season ticket holder when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, also attended a playoff game this year and could sense a difference.

“I was at the clincher against Florida and it was awesome,” he says. “I went to a couple last year too, including a World Series game, which unfortunately they didn’t win. It felt like it was a whole new generation of people who maybe didn’t get to experience that 2008 run. I think it was a lot of people’s first time getting to experience what playoff baseball is all about.”

The Impact Of Successful Teams

Although Philadelphia still only has two championships in the four major sports since 1983—the Phillies in 2008 and the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory in 2018 following the 2017 season—there have been plenty of memorable moments in recent years as well, including the Phillies reaching the World Series last fall, and the Eagles returning to the Super Bowl this past February while also looking like contenders this season. The Flyers have been rebuilding, but even with the Sixers still struggling to advance far in the playoffs, they have the reigning NBA MVP in Joel Embiid and a budding star in Tyrese Maxey.

For Mignogna, who attended several Phillies playoff games this year and also roots feverishly for the other teams, whenever one is doing well, it changes his whole mood.

“As you get older, obviously you want your team to win, but the best part for me is when your team’s in the playoffs, you have something to look forward to every single day that there’s a game,” he says. “It gives you reason for family get-togethers, for friend get-togethers. Everyone in the Philadelphia area who put a man cave in their house or threw a TV outside or anything like that, the ultimate dream when you’re putting those projects together is, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have my friends over for a Phillies playoff game or World Series game, or for an Eagles playoff game or Super Bowl?’

“This year, one of the parties we had at our house, it felt like it was someone’s birthday. My wife went out and got Phillies balloons and Phanatic cupcakes; I was downloading a playlist early in the morning of the up-to-bat songs. You’re making it an event, which is super cool.”

Those playoff runs also give a significant boost to local businesses. Bellmawr resident John DeMaria is the vice president of purchasing/retail operations for Pro Image Sports, which has its home offices in Runnemede and 13 stores in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, including locations in the Cherry Hill and Deptford malls. He is in charge of ordering the products for the shelves—such as the playoff clothing that is in such high demand when the teams are doing well.

“This whole year has been a whirlwind because the Eagles were in the Super Bowl and had a really good chance of winning it, so our business was tremendous through February,” he says. “The Phillies signing Trea Turner led to a tremendous amount of interest from late Christmas last year all the way through early spring. And our Phillies business throughout the spring and summer was tremendous—45,000 people every night at Citizens Bank Park equates to a lot of people who need jerseys and T-shirts and hats. We really thought that run was going to continue—the playoffs were magical, and then it ended pretty quickly.”

Fortunately, the interest has just shifted to the Eagles, and the return of Kelly green—the Birds are wearing their old color in two games this year—has created a boom in the apparel industry.

“In 38 years, I’ve never seen anything like what’s happened to the marketplace with these Kelly green jerseys and the whole Kelly green fever,” DeMaria says. “They launched the jersey on Aug. 1, and the last couple of months have been really lean because the demand far outweighed the supply. It’s just now that we’re getting back into a really sound inventory position on the Kelly green jerseys. It’s just not stopping; the customer can’t get enough of it.”

Sports bars experience a similar jolt when the teams are successful.

“We definitely get more people and the vibe is a lot stronger, especially during a baseball game because people are so intensely watching each pitch,” says Dan Barbara, a bartender for more than 30 years who works at Ott’s in Washington Township. “We get the same crowd sitting in the same spot and doing the same routine. As a bartender it’s good because there’s not a lot of turnover and it’s the same people every week, so you know what they’re drinking. Some of our customers even brought a boombox so they were playing music in between innings, just to keep the hype going.”

With the Sixers off to a strong start this season under new head coach Nick Nurse, Mount Laurel resident Joe Canataro is excited to bring his wife and 12-year-old daughter to games. His daughter became interested in basketball a few years ago, and they’ve had season tickets ever since.

“We’ve been to some great games over the past couple of years, like when Embiid had 59 points or when they beat the Nuggets and he had a dominant game over [Nikola] Jokic,” he says. “It’s an exciting atmosphere with the team they have, and they do a great job with the kids too, which keeps them interested the whole game with all of the fanfare.”

Canataro is also a longtime Eagles season ticket holder and traveled to Minnesota to watch the Birds win the Super Bowl in 2018. He had wrestled with the decision because of the financial commitment, but ultimately knew he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“It’s definitely a commitment, and it was in Minnesota, which is not the best place to go in February,” he says. “But my wife said, ‘You should go. You’re a huge fan and it’s not like they make the Super Bowl every year.’ I debated back and forth and decided it was going to be worth the investment. I’m obviously glad I went, because they won and it was one of the most incredible Super Bowls ever, not just because it was the Eagles but because it was a great game and I got to see Tom Brady. And beating New England, there’s nothing sweeter than that.

“I would go to another Super Bowl, because it was such a great experience,” he continues. “Not to put the cart before the horse, but if they are fortunate enough to get there this year, it’s in Las Vegas and I think that would be a cool place to watch a Super Bowl. So I have it in the back of my mind that if they make it this year, I might try to find a way to make that work.”

Didinger was in Minnesota to cover Super Bowl LII as part of Eagles Postgame Live on NBC Sports Philadelphia. During the show, he shared a famous moment with his son David, who was working for NFL Films and showed up on set to celebrate with his dad. The plan was to wait for a commercial break, but host Michael Barkann waved him over on live TV, and father and son shared an emotional hug. Didinger was moved to tears thinking about his childhood and his late father, a huge Eagles fan.

“When I sat down, Gov. [Ed] Rendell was sitting next to me, and I think he saw that I was a little uncomfortable with it,” Didinger recalls. “He leaned over and whispered, ‘Don’t worry about it. That moment you just had with your son is happening in every living room all over the Delaware Valley, so the people get it.’ And he was absolutely right.

“When I came home the next day, there were so many calls and messages and emails that poured in from people saying how much they loved it. I still hear about it to this day. A guy just stopped me yesterday and said, ‘In Super Bowl LII, next to the Philly Special, to me the highlight was that moment between you and your son.’ So obviously, it meant a lot to the people, because as I wrote in my book, David and I thought we were putting our arms around each other, but we really put our arms around the entire city. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I know it now, and in that context it’s actually a pretty cool feeling.”

Koons was also in Minnesota, one of several trips she’s made to the Super Bowl both for the Eagles and other teams.

“I’ve also been to the NBA All-Star Game and to the NBA Draft,” she says. “I’m a diehard fan and I just love it.”

Murphy and his colleagues constantly see Phillies fans on the road throughout the summer and he believes they travel as well as any fan base in the country. The Eagles are at the same level.

Costa has seen many games for both teams in visitors’ stadiums. The highlight was when he took his teenaged son to last year’s Super Bowl in Arizona, a decision he stands by even though the Eagles came up short against the Chiefs.

“I’m hoping that it wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but given the history of my lifetime, it’s only been once so far,” he says. “I’ve only had one opportunity in my life to go see the Eagles in the Super Bowl, and yes, it was a lot of money. But I don’t regret doing it. I had a fun trip with my son and the only negative was the final score. It’s still a lifetime memory, either way.”

The Future For Philly Fans

Didinger believes Philadelphia fans are the best in the country and will continue to be moving forward, not just because of their passion but also for their knowledge of the sports they follow. He notes that the excellent coverage from beat writers, columnists and broadcasters that goes back decades has played an instrumental role in that.

“Without even realizing it, the fans are going to school every time they read a story or watch a game, and it just deepens their knowledge of what’s happening on the field,” he says. “The fact that you’ve had years and years and years of exceptional sports coverage, both in print and on the air, has resulted in a highly educated, very refined and strongly opinionated fan base. The fans and the media are part of the same story here. I don’t think people even realize it: They just watch the games, they read the paper and they listen to sports talk, and they just kind of absorb it. The whole time they’re doing that, they’re enjoying it but they’re also they’re also learning. They take that into the stands with them on Sunday for an Eagles game; as a result, it makes them smarter fans, and I think it makes them better fans. The really high level of sports journalism in this town is part of what makes it so great here.”

Murphy thinks the current ownership groups are also feeding into the high level of interest from the fans. Sure, the Phillies’ loss to the Diamondbacks’ in this year’s NLCS was crushing after they held a 2-0 lead in the series, and he has seen some negative pushback. But for the most part, he senses an optimism that hasn’t always been part of Philly sports.

“Most of what I’ve seen since the end of the season in talking with folks at Wawa and being out in the supermarket is, ‘The best part about this is we know we’re going to be good for years to come,’” Murphy says. “This organization has proven that they’re all in, just as the Eagles organization has proven that and to an extent the Sixers too. I think people are realizing that the teams in this town are trying to win. It’s hard to win, but they’re trying, and really that’s all you can ask for out of the organizations.”

And when they don’t win, Philly fans are used to picking themselves back up and moving on quickly.

“It’s devastating when they lose,” says Maronski, who admits that he didn’t really watch this year’s World Series because he was still hurting from the end of the Phillies’ season. “You put so much passion and energy into each team every year, and when they lose it kinds of takes it out of you for a little bit. But then the beautiful thing about sports is there’s always that next sport waiting for you. You wait a week or so and say, ‘Well, we’ve still got the Eagles and the Sixers are off to a good start.’ The beautiful thing about sports, especially in this area where you have four teams, is that you can always move on to the next one.”

And who knows? Maybe that next team can make a run that is just as electric, magical and thrilling.

“It helps everyone [when the teams thrive],” Mignogna concludes. “Families get closer, businesses do better. It brings everyone together, people are happier and it gives people something to talk about. That’s the beautiful community of sports.”

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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 20, Issue 8 (November 2023)
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Author: Matt Cosentino


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