These are usually the dog days of summer when it comes to sports, unless you like hot dog eating contests or getting up at dawn to watch tennis. But around here we’ve gotten an unexpected lift from two unlikely sources, the Phillies and 76ers, who were the worst teams in their respective sports just a little while ago.
Neither is going to win a championship anytime soon and there’s no guarantee that either ever will. But at least now the fans of those two teams have a little hope for the future and, as Andy Dufresne tells Red in The Shawshank Redepemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things…”
And that’s all we want around here – a little hope and the belief that better days lie ahead, maybe even a few days that include championship parades. For too long, it seemed as if the Phillies and Sixers would be bad forever, or at least for the rest of our lifetimes. And they weren’t just bad, they were laughing-stock bad, and the worst thing that can happen to a professional sports team happened to both of them – their fans simply stopped caring.
It was depressing to tune into a Phillies game and see the bleachers at Citizens Bank Park – which used to be filled every day with adoring fans cheering for Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins – practically empty. It was even more depressing to see them lose game after game after game, and it was hard to believe that the motley crew we were watching (until we stopped watching) wore the same red pinstripes that all those great Phillies teams of the mid-2000s wore when they were annual World Series contenders.
It was even more depressing to watch a Sixers game on television, although, frankly, I don’t think I sat through an entire one the last two years. The bleachers that used to be packed when fans couldn’t get enough of Allen Iverson were practically empty and I challenge you to name four players on their roster in 2015-16. They were so bad, the NBA commissioner stepped in and “persuaded’’ them to change their tanking ways and start looking like a real pro sports franchise.
Well, it didn’t happen overnight, although it seems like it did, and things have dramatically changed for both teams. The Phillies are playing pretty good baseball right now, at least considering how bad they were last year when their biggest accomplishment was not losing 100 games (they lost 99, the most in the majors). The Phils finally have some exciting, gritty young players that you want to watch develop, guys like Maikel Franco (just 24 years old), Odubel Herrera (24), Cesar Hernandez (26), Tommy Joseph (25), Zack Eflin (22), Jerad Eickhoff (26), Cody Asche (26), Aaron Nola (23) and Vince Velasquez (24).
I’ll save you the time and trouble of doing the math – the average age of those nine core players is just 24 years old. And that’s not counting other young, potential stars in the minors like J.P. Crawford, Jake Thompson, Nick Williams and Mickey Moniac, the high school outfielder they just selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the major league baseball draft.
The Sixers are even younger, especially their core group (and, granted, we don’t know how many will still be on the roster when the next season begins) that they’ve acquired the last couple of years — Ben Simmons (19 years old), Jahlil Okafer (20), Joel Embiid (22), Nerlens Noel (22), Dario Sarcic (22) and Timothy Luwawu (21). Those six players, all first-round draft picks, have an average age of 22.
Of course, just because you get older doesn’t mean you’ll get better and there have been countless blue-chippers who never panned out – although in today’s NBA they’d still make about $20 million a season. But for the Sixers and the Phillies, the odds are certainly in their favor, and it’s realistic to figure that many of those young building blocks will eventually form the foundation for championship teams.
Most importantly, there is finally hope. Now, if Carson Wentz can just lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl…