Anyone who reads this blog knows that searching for and eating good food is my biggest passion. But that wasn’t the case when I was coming of age during the 70s and early 80s. I lived and died with the successes and failures of Philadelphia’s professional sports teams during those years. Unfortunately, there was more dying than living.
In actuality, the Philly teams won a lot more games than they lost between the mid 70s and early 80s. But they had a nasty habit of raising their fans’ expectations, only to let them down in brutal fashion when ultimate postseason glory was so close you could feel it. And there, my friends, is the genesis of my pessimistic nature.
To trace where this trend began, we need to go back a little further, to 1964, the year of Philadelphia’s most notorious sports collapse. The Phillies of that season held a 6½ game lead in the race for the National League pennant with 12 games left to play. A trip to the World Series for the first time since 1950 seemed so assured that the team printed tickets for the Fall Classic. Yogi Berra hadn’t yet uttered his famous phrase about it “not being over ‘til it’s over,” but I’m certain the one about “not counting your chickens before they’re hatched” was in circulation by then. The team proceeded to lose 10 straight games and had to watch the Cardinals represent the National League in the Series.
I wasn’t born yet in the early Fall of 1964. But I’ve done the math and determined that I was conceived in the midst of this epic collapse. While giving kudos to my father for keeping his eye on the ball during such a rough time, I have reached the inescapable conclusion that the bad mojo from this sordid affair set me on a path to expect the worst.
Fast forward 13 years to 1977 and the Phillies, who were still pennantless since 1950, seemed on the brink of going to the Series again. They set a team record for victories during the regular season and were tied one game apiece with the Dodgers in the best-of-five National League Championship Series. They appeared to have the third game in the bag. There were two outs in the top of the ninth. The Phils held a two-run lead and the Dodgers had nobody on base. It was just a matter of getting one final out. I watched the late innings of the game with my father and next door neighbor, Tim. As I started to celebrate a certain victory, they both warned me not to get too excited until the game was actually over and won. I didn’t take them seriously at that instant. But a few moments later, I understood what they meant as I watched the Dodgers score the go-ahead run. In what became known as Black Friday in Philadelphia sports lore, the Phils blew another likely shot at glory.
To make matters worse, that was the second notable Philly sports collapse in only a matter of months. The Dr. J led Sixers made it to the NBA Finals that year and won the first two games against the Portland Trail Blazers. Thousands of locals undoubtedly had visions of the coming victory parade on Broad Street. I hope they didn’t alter any plans to attend that celebration because Portland won the next four games.
That was the start of a six year run of postseason near misses for my beloved Sixers, with the tragic climax coming in 1981. They held a 3-1 lead against their archrivals, the Boston Celtics, in the Eastern Conference Finals that year. All they needed was one more win and they would move on to the Championship Series against the clearly inferior Houston Rockets. I hadn’t yet learned a key lesson and was certain they had the title in the bag.
In Game 5, the Sixers held a six-point lead with a minute-and-a-half left in the fourth quarter. They blew that lead and the game. But I was still confident, as they were returning home to the Spectrum for Game 6. And the game was going according to plan, with the Sixers looking sharp in building a double-digit second half lead. But Philly postseason leads are made to evaporate, and that’s what happened with this one. The series was tied at three games apiece and heading back to the Boston Garden for the decisive Game 7. Once again, the Sixers played well and had a seven-point lead with just a few minutes to play. And once again, they couldn’t hold on. The Celtics roared past them in the game’s final minute, leading to the Spring – and Summer – of my discontent.
That Sixers’ collapse came on the heels of another major postseason disappointment earlier that year. The Eagles first gave the city a taste of glory by defeating the hated Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. They were a solid favorite to beat the Oakland Raiders two weeks later as they went after their first Super Bowl title. You guessed correctly if you assume that didn’t happen. The Eagles came out flat, had a couple bad early breaks, and were never really in the game. As usual, we had to settle for second best when glory was within arms’ reach.
Those years were not totally title-free for Philadelphia. The Phillies did finally come through to reach and win the World Series in the Fall of 1980. And the Sixers put six years of frustration behind them to steamroll their way to an NBA title in 1983. I reveled in those championships, but they weren’t enough to overcome the damage done to my psyche by so many painful near misses. And to think, it all started when I was a cell swimming upstream.