So they belch a lot -- what about it?

JOHN EISENBERG

October 19, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

PHILADELPHIA -- Front offices don't set out to build teams that symbolize the cities in which they play. It doesn't help them win, and it's almost an impossible task under the divisive influence of free agency, which changes the face of every team every year, rendering any personality temporary.

Occasionally, however, the sporting moons are aligned and luck is a lady and there comes along a team that, unintentionally, becomes such a perfect reflection of its hometown that you can only shake your head in amazement.

You know who we're talking about, right?

Yo! The Phillies, knucklehead.

Not to suggest that the nation's fourth-largest city is composed entirely of overfed, under-coiffed, loose-cannonish scruffballs in pursuit of the perfect belch. Hardly. This is a city, like any other, with poets and percussionists, doctors and architects, Beamer madness in the 'burbs. There's an Ivy League school, a first-rate symphony, splendid parks.

At its essence, though, it's a tough place. You tell someone you live in South Philly, they go, "Oooh, tough." You tell someone you live in North Philly, they go, "Oooh, tough." You tell someone you live in West Philly, they go, "Oooh, tough." And there isn't an East Philly. Get the picture?

This is a town where people shrug at headlines about mob hits and garbage strikes, a town where the mayor once bombed a neighborhood. Who was the defining politician of the past quarter-century? Frank Rizzo, a burly ex-cop. What's the famous local dish? Gut-busting, artery-clogging cheesesteaks, with a mound of onions and peppers. Are you tough enough?

It's a town that thrives on the blood lust of football and ice hockey. Baseball has a history, but these days it usually rides in the back seat. Football's Iggles own the talk shows. The good, old days were the days when the Broad Street Bullies ruled hockey with their elbows. They once drew a colossal crowd to a championship parade. A tough team for a tough town.

This was the place that had the snowball fight at a Cowboys-Eagles game a few years ago. The place that staged a picket-crossing riot before a replacement game during the last NFL strike. The place with, bar none, the toughest seats in sports, the nosebleed 700 level at the Vet, where you're liable to get hit with an egg if you root against the Iggles. (Speaking from experience.)

The city's defining athlete? Rocky Balboa, of course. And, as they might say on "Saturday Night Live," a girlie-man he wasn't. Remember the riveting dialogue:

"He's too tough, Rocky."

"Yo. No way."

Phillies general manager Lee Thomas was, of course, not concerned about building a team to represent such a city. He had more pressing concerns. After fielding miserable teams for the past half-decade, he just wanted a team that wouldn't get him fired.

He wound up with the swaggering, profane, iconoclastic Broad Street Bellies, who just might win the World Series. The perfect Philly team. Tough guys for a tough town. Polar opposites of the briefcase-toting, portable-phone-dialing, modern yuppie ballplayers. They even scare themselves.

"What do you make of John Kruk?" someone asked Kevin Stocker, the gee-whiz rookie shortstop.

Pause. Longer pause.

"He's the first guy I've met like him," Stocker said, somewhat tentatively. "I don't know that many people ever come across someone like him."

They are Kruk and the Wild Thing and Inky and Dude, and they don't suffer fools and don't care if they offend. They are, if you will, seriously attitudinal. Standard reply to a question: "What about it?"

Ballplayers no longer connect with fans in an age when even bums make seven figures, but this is as close as it gets. Much as Rick Dempsey looked like every cop in Baltimore a decade ago, the Phillies have clones walking the streets. Isn't that Pete Incaviglia behind the counter at Pat's, the cheesesteak landmark? ("Whaddyawant? Cheese wit?") Isn't that Mitch Williams jaywalking across Market Street?

Actually, what they appear to be are outrageous scammers, dudes from the 700 level who have left behind a head-banging tailgate party, somehow finagled their way into the clubhouse and gotten onto the field. Outrageous, dude!

Whether this collective character has anything to do with winning ballgames is debatable, although clearly the team has no fear. The random spin of the free-agent dial could have brought them together in New York or L.A. or Chicago, but it's a Philadelphia story, and it's only perfect, and if you don't like it, well, that's your problem, pal.

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