Fans, idols, and managers

(Published in The Philly Soccer Page on April 2, 2012.)

When I was about eight years old, my mother took my younger brother and me to Yankee Stadium and introduced us to third base coach and future general manager Gene Michael. As two boys growing up just outside New York City, we should have been thrilled to meet our hometown team’s coach, but we didn’t really care.

We just wanted to meet Donnie Baseball.

It was 1985 or so. Don Mattingly was the best baseball player on earth for our hometown team.* He’d won the batting title in 1984 and MVP in 1985, and his 145 RBIs in 1986 were the most in nearly half a century. He was so good a fielder at first base that he filled in at third base despite being a lefty, a rarity in baseball. Even people who hated the Yankees liked Mattingly. His nickname, “Donnie Baseball,” showed how he reflected what was best about the game.

Every sports fan has a childhood sports idol. For us, it was Mattingly.

Legends, heroes and Philadelphia Union

I thought of this story before driving to Saturday’s Philadelphia Union game to see Sebastien Le Toux return to PPL Park for the first time since Union manager Peter Nowak stunningly sold his best and most popular player to Vancouver two months ago.

Last week, fans debated how to greet Le Toux. Some called him a Union “legend” and wanted to give him a hero’s welcome. Detractors scoffed. One said he’d rather burn Le Toux’s jersey than honor it.

The truth should have been — and turned out to be — somewhere in between.

In these early years of pro soccer’s renaissance in America, we lack the vocabulary that builds up over decades of a professional sports culture. “Legend” and “hero” are stolen from the English game, and they’re both inappropriate hyperbole. A sports legend is when Babe Ruth calls his shot before hitting a titanic home run in the 1932 World Series, and the facts are disputed for 80 years. The closest thing to a sports hero in American soccer was Landon Donovan after his goal against Algeria in the World Cup.

Le Toux was neither legend nor hero. After just two seasons in MLS, the Union are too young to have either. Had he stayed with the Union, he might have become a sports idol to a generation of soccer-playing kids in the Philadelphia area. But he didn’t.

Instead, those kids saw what they saw Saturday.

In just the team’s second home game of 2012, empty seats abounded at PPL Park. The cold, wet weather surely played a role, but if the Union were playing well and the team’s off-season hadn’t soured so many, it likely wouldn’t have kept as many fans away.

The Califf cheers, the Nowak jeers

We can talk and talk about Le Toux and the cheers he received upon being announced, and how fans still called out the signature “Touuuuuuuuuux” refrain before and during the game.

But more significant was the announcement of the Union starting lineup. The announcer introduced the first 10 players to varying levels of applause.

Then he announced captain Danny Califf. Fans responded with their loudest, most extended cheer, which reverberated with support for Califf after his two-week benching for an injury that few believe exists.

Nowak’s name was then announced. A chorus of boos and jeers greeted the Union manager, rising to a crescendo that echoed throughout PPL Park.

The message was clear: Union fans are not happy with their manager.

Based on his post-game comments, in which he humbly said all the right things, Nowak may have finally gotten the message. (Of course, that followed a game in which Nowak left Roger Torres off the game day roster, Danny Mwanga on the bench till the 86th minute, and poachers Chandler Hoffman and Jack McInerney in a position more approximating a left winger, so as usual, time will tell.)

Kids don’t idolize coaches or root blindly for a shirt. They idolize players, because those players live the dream so many kids have: Maybe one day you too can be on that field and live the glory. You may grow up, but that residual feeling never fully goes away. When my brother took me to a Yankee game for my birthday a few weeks before they knocked down Yankee Stadium, he bought me a throwback Mattingly batting practice shirt. I still wear it, even though I don’t follow the Yankees anymore.

It’s one thing to lose a few games. Life goes on.

What’s been happening with the Union has been something else altogether. Le Toux isn’t coming back. Everyone gets that. Now it’s time for Nowak to repair the breach he created with Union players and fans. Otherwise, replicating the sustainable fan culture that surrounds the Eagles, Phillies and Flyers will be just a pipe dream.

* NOTE: Yes, born in NYC, raised in north Jersey, moved to the Philly area in 2000. Deal. 😉