On August 19, a reunion of the 1964 Phillies was held at Veterans Stadium in the City of Brotherly Love. The 1964 Phillies are the choke artists who pulled the biggest tank job in history, permanently enshrining themselves in the Pooch Pantheon by blowing a seemingly insurmountable 6½-game lead with 12 games remaining.
As a result of their efforts, a generation of otherwise pleasant Philadelphia youths (myself included), who might have grown up to be civic-minded, sensitive human beings, were instead transmogrified into warped, cynical brutes who instinctively boo popes and pelt newlyweds with rotten tomatoes. Yet when the 1964 Phillies showed up at Veterans Stadium, a sellout crowd of 30,000 paying fans showed up too. And none of them brought bazookas.
Something is very wrong here.
It is nostalgia, of course, the most sinister threat our society faces today. Nostalgia for anything and anybody, so long as it or they once had a heyday. However, the Phillies incident highlights an ominous twist in the nostalgia craze, because we have now reached the point where fans no longer confine their fond memories to authentic legends such as the '27 Yankees, the '30 A's, or the Celtic and Packer teams of the '60s, but hark back with dewy eyes to chokers, bums, and clowns whose ineptitude has been shrouded by—you guessed it—the mists of time.
The proliferation of "fantasy" baseball camps illustrates this point. When these clever weekend packages started out, they offered affluent little-boys-who-never-grew-up an opportunity to hang out with retired, potbellied heroes such as the 1969 Mets. Paying to shag flies and quaff a few beers with these guys made perfect sense, because they'd won World Championships. But what are we to make of fantasy camps reuniting the Cubs of Yore (1969)—who choked away the pennant to the Mets? Why would anyone pay good money to spend a weekend with a gaggle of unregenerate losers who took the apple and finished a distant second?
And where will it lead? If marketers can repackage the clownish Cubs and the pathetic Phils, what's next for fantasy camps? The unforgettable sixth-place Indians club of 1983? That never-to-be-forgotten third-place Houston Astros squad of 1982? The legendary Utah Jazz club that finished in a tie for fourth in 1984? If our standards have fallen off this much, why not go outside professional sports and open fantasy camps allowing fans to mix and mingle with the guys who finished second at Gallipoli? Or Dien Bien Phu? Or the Little Big Horn?
Most astonishing is the speed with which today's disasters can be repackaged as tomorrow's fondly recalled memories. Weeks before the ruinous 1989 baseball season was over, the New York Mets were already marketing a videocassette lionizing the guys who ruined it. Or take the New York Rangers—please. The Rangers, whose very name is interchangeable with "ignominy," have been very successful in selling a videotaped team history entitled "Tradition on Ice."
As everyone familiar with ice hockey knows, the Rangers have no tradition on ice: Their tradition is off the ice, where they tend to spend all or most of the playoffs watching the good teams compete. It's been 50 years since the Rangers won a Stanley Cup; it's been more than a decade since they fielded a bona fide contender; and the year the video was produced (1988), they didn't even make the playoffs-in a league where everyone makes the playoffs. The videotape cost $24.95—and sold like hotcakes.
The moral of all this is clear: It doesn't matter if a team wins today because tomorrow they can pretend that they won. But to be aided and abetted in this delusion by the paying public is a dangerous development indeed. A society that will pay good money to buy videotapes immortalizing the New York Rangers is a society with big problems. A society that will pay good money to bring back the '60s-era Cubs is a society with big problems.
And when it gets to the point where even people in the City of Brotherly Love have gone all soft and sappy and have forgiven the 1964 Phillies, I fear for the good old U.S. of A. A society capable of bringing back the '64 Phillies is a society capable of bringing back Jimmy Carter. Think about it.
Joe Queenan is a free-lance writer in Tarrytown, N.Y.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Pretensions: Heroes Without Heydays".