I first learned the word “postmodern” as an 8-year-old reading a sports story about the main piece of the Phillies’ 1970-1991 branding scheme:
It was 1988. The writer was talking about the sublime form that was the “postmodern lowercase P,” and even though I had no clue what he meant, I also knew exactly what he was talking about. To this day, it’s no small effort for me to actually see that symbol as a letter. I know it is one. I know it’s supposed to be one. But it’s also not one. It’s a solitary icon divorced by style from any alphabetic context and it stands for an ideal that can be summed up in a few phrases and names: 1980, World Series, Veterans Stadium, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw. That fact that it’s also a P only matters when you see it rendered as the beginning of “phillies,” as in this glorious logo from 1984:
Ah, Phil and Phyllis. The Phillies’ mascots before the birth of the most famous postmodern non sequitur of all time:
Look at him waving just like he knows it. When people forget about how awesome the 80s were, it’s because they forget the advent of things like the Phanatic. What is he? Who knows? Who cares? How does he intrinsically relate to baseball or to the Phillies? He doesn’t! Of course he does now. Of course he was a bigger draw at the Vet than those mediocre teams we followed over the years. When there was nothing good happening on on the field, we always had the funky P, the best broadcasters in baseball, and the Phanatic. Those are the institutions that held us together from Mike Schmidt’s 500th homerun to the 1993 pennant. And from the ’94 strike to, oh, I don’t know, the advent of Chase Utley?
My point here is this: in the 70s and 80s, most of baseball’s postmodern visual vibes came from the AL, but it was the stalwart fans of the Phillies, the most senior of teams on the Senior Circuit, who owned the aesthetic from sheer necessity. That strange p was pointless? So was our holding out hope. The Phanatic’s absurd? So were lots of those seasons.
In the lead up to the Phillies’ modern ascendence, many of us who were kids in the 70s and 80s began sporting the postmodern look at Citizens Bank Park and elsewhere. It was a way to recall three things at once: the glory of glorious times, the loss of that time and those heros, and the palpable belief that good times were returning. Like the man used to sing, we had the highest of hopes. And with good reason.
None of this takes away from the hey-day of Kruk, Daulton, and Dykstra, another era steeped in its own kind of awesome absurdity. Let’s just not forget that they all started their Phillies tenures in the postmodern P. Coincidence? Modernism says yes. Postmodernism says that’s all up to us. When your team is so bad for so long, fandom and irony blur at the edges. What made the Phanatic so funny was his lone ability to do to our tormenters what our line-up and pitching staff couldn’t. The outsized, outlandish enthusiasm this creature was able to muster through the worst sports luck of all time was, itself, a triumph of Being More Awesome, of laughing in the face of the meaningless futility of fandom.
Thank you, Phanatic and postmodern P, for teaching me that there’s nothing futile about what Nick Hornby calls “the value of investing time and emotion in things I cannot control, and of belonging to a community whose aspirations I share completely and uncritically.” (Hornby quote found via Phillies Nation).