One phrase, more than any other, defines the past year in Philadelphia sports: pleasant surprise.
Actually, make that: pleasant surprises.
Nobody expected the Eagles to win the Super Bowl. Most people thought it would be a stretch for them to just make the playoffs after they went 7-9 in 2016 and finished in last place in NFC East, and most Eagles fans thought coach Doug Pederson was in over his head. The despised Dallas Cowboys were predicted to cruise to a second straight division title while the Eagles chugged along with a .500 record.
Nobody expected the 76ers to win 52 games and an NBA playoff series. Most people would have been happy just to see the young foundation of the team – Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons – get through an entire season without getting hurt, since both of them missed most or all the previous season with injuries. This is a team that went 10-72 just two years ago, and even though everyone expected the Sixers to be better, hardly anybody thought they would be good.
And nobody expected the Phillies to be well over .500 and in first place in their division this close to the All-Star break. After all, this is a team that lost an average of 95 games the previous three seasons and went into this season with a bunch of unproven young players.
But the Phillies are sitting in first place and they’ve earned it, even though most of those young stars have scuffled at the plate and the defense hasn’t always been good. But somehow this team has managed to win a lot of games in a lot of different ways, and you have to wonder how good the Phils can be if some of those young studs start hitting.
Delaware has always had a special relationship with the Phillies, which were once owned by people from Delaware (the Carpenter family) and managed by a guy from Delaware (Dallas Green) when they won their first World Series back in 1980. Those Phillies also had a bunch of First Staters in various roles, including team trainer Jeff Cooper, public relations guru Larry Shenk, top scout Brandy Davis and even the stadium organist (Paul Richardson) and team mascot (Dave Raymond, aka the Phillie Phanatic).
Those Phillies were part of the last really great era of Philadelphia sports — the Phils won the World Series in ’80, the Eagles went to the Super Bowl in 1981 and the Sixers won the NBA title in 1983. But professional sports are cyclical and those heady days didn’t last for long. The Phillies went to the World Series in 1993 and the Sixers made it to the NBA Finals in 2001, but Delaware Valley fans were forced to cheer (or boo) mostly for losers for more than a decade. The Phils changed that with their World Series team in 2008, but that wonderful era didn’t last long and just two years ago this team lost 99 games.
Now the good times are back and there’s no reason why they can’t hang around for a while. As we mentioned previously, the Phillies roster is loaded with young players and potential stars, including Rhys Hoskins and the team’s only All-Star, pitcher Aaron Nola. And if a couple of their other potential stars – J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams and Scott Kingery – live up to that potential, this team could be in the pennant race for years to come.
The Sixers, meanwhile, have perhaps the best one-two punch of young stars in the NBA in Embiid and Simmons, and if Markelle Fultz lives up to his status as the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, that would give the Sixers three budding stars under the age of 24. And the Eagles have the best young quarterback in the world in Carson Wentz, who was recently voted as the third best player in the entire league by other NFL players, ahead of future Hall-of-Famers like Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
So, this is a good time to be a local sports fan, and we didn’t even mention Villanova, which has won two of the last three NCAA basketball titles, or the Flyers, who always seem to disappoint in the playoffs. But the other pro franchises should be championship contenders for the foreseeable future, and Philly sports fans need to enjoy what appears to be a golden age, because we all know that the good times don’t last forever.