America’s Favorite Pastime

Volume I: Underdog Cities

As an avid baseball fan who wasn’t born in the 19th century, for a long time I thought the game’s tagline of “America’s favorite pastime” was at best, corny, and at worst, out of touch with what American culture has become. The more I thought about it, and the more kinds of sports I watched, the more I began to see the ways in which we find our values, fears, desires, and priorities (for better or for worse) reflected back at us from the pitch. From baseball to Australian Rules Footie, fans have been interweaving sports and identity for as long as games and teams have existed. This new monthly series will spend time parsing out ways we see ourselves—as Americans, and as humans—in our sports, and what that might say about us.

Population of Philadelphia: 1,580,863; Median household income: $40,649; Price of entry to see the Liberty Bell: $0; Average travel time to work: 32.9 minutes; NFL Championships: one; Active Pro-Bowl Quarterbacks: two; 2018 Eagles record: 9-7-0; Number of bald eagles at the Philadelphia Zoo: two

Before last year, I never paid much attention to football.

The violence of the sport, the brute force of it, is certainly a feat of athleticism and no doubt a draw for many. But for me, it’s hard to stay invested without a through-line. After all, violence on its face is not a story, and the fits-and-starts momentum of the game—the play setups, the endless penalties—only exacerbated this problem. So while I’d watch a game in passing, and could be drawn in if others around me were invested, eventually I’d get bored.

Then, in 2017 after eight years in New York City, I moved to Philadelphia. It was one of the places I’d called home before, but it was the first time I’d lived there by choice. And it had changed. It wasn’t unrecognizable, not overrun by an ice blue wall of Chases or Citibanks, or Walgreens playing at being your friendly local pharmacy. But there was something in the air, heady—and it wasn’t just our garbage. It was, I think, a feeling of hope.

Meanwhile and perhaps not unrelatedly, the Eagles, led by surprise superstar quarterback Carson Wentz, were winning. Winning was a thing the Eagles never did, though this has never stopped Eagles fans from an extremely aggressive devotion to their team. Wentz had an unusual origin story—he played college ball at North Dakota State, a team only recently turned Division I, and a far cry from the likes of the Big 10 and Pack 12 NFL feeder schools.

Maybe, Philadelphians began to think, they are actually going to pull this off.

The universe’s response to the unfamiliar aura of optimistic Philadelphians was to promptly tear Wentz’s ACL, rendering him out for the season.

“What happens now?” I asked my friends.

“Nothing. Season’s over,” they said.

“But I mean, who’s the quarterback?”

“Oh,” they said. There was much sighing. “Nick Foles.”

Nick Foles, I quickly learned, was Bad. My friends told me this; the newspaper told me this; sports twitter was quick to point to his past as a nonstarter for the Rams and the Chiefs. So I braced myself when I tuned in the next week, cringing preemptively at the idea of watching this Bad Quarterback undo the hot streak the Eagles had worked so hard to string together.

But the thing was, Foles wasn’t bad. They won the next two games. He went 3-0 in the playoffs. The city was ecstatic, showering him with nicknames and catchphrases—”St. Nick,” “Nick Foles magic” and the Phillyest, “Big Dick Nick.”

It’s easy to map a metaphor of Philadelphia onto Foles from there. That February, Eagles showed up to the Super Bowl in sweatpants and underdog masks; New England’s Tom Brady arrived in a full-length fur coat. Days earlier, the internet had spun stories of Brady’s friendship with President Trump, the MAGA hat in his locker. Meanwhile, the Eagles were amplifying a campaign to free incarcerated Philly rapper Meek Mill, and ran onto the field to his music.

In the end, Foles beat Tom Brady and the Patriots with a trick play that capitalized on everyone’s low expectations. In the play, the “Philly Special,” the ball was snapped not to Foles, but to rookie Corey Clement who’d, who’d started the season an undrafted free agent. The rookie then tossed the ball to third-string tight end Trey Burton who, before this very moment, had never thrown an NFL pass. Burton then passed the hell out of his first pass to Foles, who’d never before caught an NFL pass. Foles was, unsurprisingly, wide open in the end zone to score.

Nick Foles’s reputation feels a lot like how people have been trained to think about this city—somewhere along the way, it was decided that Philly, is a Bad City, a nonstarter. We’ve been voted the fattest and least attractive, have for decades shrunken in the shadows of New York City’s frenzy and Washington DC’s political self-import. A recent survey found the majority of those asked incorrectly identified the Philadelphia skyline as New York’s or Chicago’s. Once the country’s capitol, most people have forgotten about us.

Despite all this, Philadelphia is the embodiment of what are objectively some of the most positive things happening in American politics and culture today. We recently elected the most progressive DA in the country. We have universal Pre-K and free lunches for all students. The Eagles themselves are some of the most prominent activists in the NFL—raising awareness about mass incarceration, police brutality, childhood sexual assault, and food deserts, advocating for restorative justice and community policing initiatives, and raising money for food banks, public schools, shelters, and physical education programs across the city and state—their agenda so rankling the current Administration they were disinvited from the traditional post-Super Bowl White House visit. An explosion of indie bookstores, literary collectives, and fine art co-ops are thriving in an affordable housing market. There’s a working class here, and not just one relegated to the city’s fringes. I’ve yet to be trapped in a fiery SEPTA subway car for hours (I’m looking at you, C Train). Meek Mill is out on parole. We’ve eked under the radar and Philly Specialed ourselves into a good place to live.

Our soft pretzels are actually soft! I can walk to two James Beard award-winning restaurants and eat there without having to put a lien on my house. Reader, believe it—a house, the whole thing, that this writer and long-time adjunct can afford to purchase. The last two places I lived in Brooklyn before my move here—an air mattress in the living room of someone else’s apartment, the (spacious) back closet of duplex whose foundations jangled with every passing J-train—now seem much farther away.

Of course Philadelphia has its problems, and its recent successes threaten to unbox a host of others. Going forward, we will have to work hard to avoid the harmful effects of gentrification that we’ve see ravaging cities nearby and looming over some of our own hipper neighborhoods.

Segregation and unequal distribution of wealth are Philly problems insofar as they are American ones. But my own neighborhood, at least, has proven to be a strikingly even cross-section between multiple races and ethnicities, a much more diverse mix than I ever came across in Brooklyn or (duh) in Boston.

In New York, where I was at best invisible, and at worst followed by a string of catcalls ranging from the gross to the deeply weird, here my neighbors and I say “hi” to one another, fawn over each other’s dogs, retrieve each other’s trash cans from the curb.

The rest of the country sees little of this, or chooses not to—it doesn’t fit the story. In the same way, Nick Foles, Super Bowl MVP and hero of the city, returned to ride the bench behind Wentz again this year. When Wentz again was injured, talking heads voiced their doubts about what might happen when the Bad Quarterback took over. But Foles stepped up to scrap out win after win, bringing the Eagles back to the playoffs, and much farther along in the process than anyone would’ve reasonably expected an injury-addled team to go, no matter who was at the helm.

Sometimes the popular story is wrong; the story of Philly certainly is. As for Foles—he isn’t flashy or fur-clad; he’s got no intriguing “found in a corn field”  Superman backstory, but he’s a good football player. I don’t know what’s next for him, but I hope someday he gets the reputation he deserves.

In the meantime, fingers crossed there’s someone as good as St. Nick on the Rams to take down Brady (and what he stands for) one more time.

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