Can an athlete find peace in Philadelphia?

By Phil Sheridan

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 6:20 p.m. MST

PHILADELPHIA _ It can be electrifying to play professional sports in Philadelphia. As with real electricity, there are negatives and positives involved.

When it means being energized by sellout crowds and a playoff atmosphere every night in Citizens Bank Park, that is a positive thing. When it means stepping on the figurative third rail by complaining about those same paying customers, that's usually a negative. Although, if handled right, the polarity can be reversed on that.

Players either embrace the passion and excel, or they are cowed by it and wind up having to exit.

Right now, the Flyers are going through a classic case of this Philadelphia rite of passage. The Eagles and the Phillies have wrestled with it in the past. The Sixers, on the rebound from years of self-created fan apathy, are still trying to get back to the point where the passion is hot enough to burn.

As the Flyers begin a much-needed break from playing in the Wells Fargo Center, coach Peter Laviolette was asked about his team's uninspired home record of 14-10-5.

"We'd certainly like to win at home," Laviolette said. "We haven't been able to do that the way we want to. Now we get back on the road, get on a road trip, and that can be a good thing at times."

One good time is when the players have stepped near or on that third rail. After fans booed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov _ and frankly, Bryzgalov's play has warranted the criticism _ he said he was being made a "scapegoat."

"I will try to find peace in my soul to play in this city," Bryzgalov added.

Teammate James van Riemsdyk came to his goalie's defense.

"Yeah, you know what, I think those guys (fans) need to kind of keep quiet up there," van Riemsdyk said after Saturday's 6-4 loss to Pittsburgh. "I know they pay their money to see the team, but you win as a team and you lose as a team."

Since it is 2012, van Riemsdyk later tweeted a clarification: "never said it wasn't ok for fans to do that! My issue was with one guy getting singled out! It's a team game and the best way to make someone feel comfortable/confident is with support."

Now van Riemsdyk is as decent and good-hearted a guy as comes along in pro sports. It would be unfortunate for fans to make too much of his knee-jerk defense of a teammate.

But just a couple months ago, fans were less than thrilled when a couple of new-to-Philadelphia Eagles got into it with some fans. Offensive linemen Evan Mathis and Jason Kelce grazed the third rail by confronting fans who had hung a banner critical of Andy Reid across from the entrance to the NovaCare Fortress.

That was one example of how the negative charge can be turned into a positive. Mathis and Kelce were open to having a dialogue about the issue, and you really got the sense they learned something about fans and fans got a glimpse of the players' humanity, too.

But it must also be noted that the Eagles' home record was 3-5 last season and 4-5, including a playoff loss, the season before. You could argue that they, too, need to find some peace in their souls to play in this city.

The Phillies, for the most part, have found the secret to harnessing that raw energy. But it was a process, and it required a few jolts along the way. Most notably, shortstop and oracle Jimmy Rollins called the fans "front-runners" in a TV interview.

"When you're doing good," Rollins said, "they're on your side. When you're doing bad, they're completely against you."

Rollins was the reigning National League MVP when he said that in August 2008. Two months later, he and his teammates delivered a World Series title. Some fans may never forgive those comments, but you can make an argument that by addressing the issue and making himself the lightning rod (there's that electricity metaphor again), Rollins defused the pressure and helped make that championship happen.

The Phillies went 7-0 at the Bank in the 2008 postseason. Their overall home record since Rollins touched the third rail: 165-100. That's a winning percentage of .623.

That tells you it is possible to win, even thrive, in front of Philadelphia fans. It helps to be a really good team, of course. But we've also seen good teams fold under pressure here; a couple of Eagles teams of the last decade come to mind.

It's a matter of players getting their own competitive heart beating in sync with the city's. Of course, that assumes the player has a competitive heart. If not, this is probably the wrong city for him, and peace is going to be very hard to find.

(c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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