The Five Most Underappreciated Athletes in Philadelphia Sports History
Although Philadelphia is known as the "City of Brotherly Love," the affection is not shared indiscriminately or equally amongst the athletes who have played there.
Philly fans are characterized as passionate and loyal, yet often reserve their harshest criticism and highest standards for some of the most talented sports figures ever to grace the city.
The love-hate relationships with some of the biggest stars often find roots and are perpetually nurtured by the notoriously critical Philadelphia media.
Sports pundits abound with a large contingent of newspaper sportswriters, a plethora of sports radio talking heads, and an ever-expanding blogosphere.
These media outlets provide a 24/7 landslide of opinion, analysis, and speculation that often sweeps public opinion along with it.
If a particular player's flaws are mentioned enough times, they surely must be true or fatal in scope.
Overall, the city has endured many years of futility and disappointments. This may speak to why patience may be a little less of a virtue than in some other more-celebrated sports cities.
Additionally, both the media and the fan base feel resolute that setting the bar high, especially for top athletes, is justified by players' large compensation.
This sentiment is deepened by the sizable personal financial and emotional investments expended by fans to follow them.
Philadelphia sports fans are intensely loyal to their teams and value demonstrative hustle and intensity over pure athleticism.
Accordingly, the greatest scrutiny is directed towards anyone not giving max effort and those possessing the greatest abilities—even if they are giving their all.
Whether the latter situation is a right or wrong perspective could be debated until the new millennium, but regardless of which side of the argument you fall on, it must be acknowledged that it is clearly part of the town's sports culture.
With this in mind, the following are the five most underappreciated sports figures in Philadelphia history.
One caveat, though—in order to be considered players had to wear one of the city's uniforms (so, Kobe, you're out of the discussion.)
5. Andre Iguodala
When the Philadelphia 76ers drafted Andre Iguodala in 2004, he was not on many people's radar screen. He quickly opened eyes, though, with his extraordinary athleticism.
Iguodala stepped into a veteran-laden lineup and played a supporting role to NBA scoring leader Allen Iverson and fading star Chris Webber.
He made his mark by playing tough defense, hitting the boards and displaying prudence in shot selection.
The new A.I. clearly knew his place with the original A.I. dominating the ball, but exhibited tremendous explosiveness, agility, leaping ability, hustling defense and well-rounded skills.
When Iverson wore out his welcome and Webber displayed rapidly declining skills, the Sixers moved the veterans and made Iguodala the de facto center point of the team early in the 2006-2007 season.
"Iggy" continued to fill up all columns of the box score in the lead role, but the team could not escape mediocrity. He teamed with Andre Miller to lead a young Sixers team to a step forward with two consecutive playoff berths, before suffering first-round exits.
Conventional wisdom was that the continuing maturation of young talent along with the return of a healthy Elton Brand would make this season's team take the next step forward.
As 76ers fans painfully know, however, the team performance dropped like a rock under new coach Eddie Jordan.
In Philadelphia, the debate has continued about Iguodala's deficiencies and inability to raise the team around him.
Having been placed in the lead role and re-signed to a lucrative contract a few years ago, the new A.I. is now the lightning rod for the team's failures.
The reality is that Iguodala would be ideal in a supporting role behind a true top echelon star, but in the absence of that, media and fans have centered on trading him in search of coming up with a winning formula.
And, despite some of the game's most spectacular dunks and athleticism, his overall skills and contributions unfortunately tend to get overlooked.
4. Dick Allen
The prodigious slugger began his career in a Phillies uniform in 1963 with a proverbial "cup of coffee" under the name Richie Allen, turned in a half dozen stellar seasons, departed for several years and returned in the mid-70s as Dick Allen.
One thing that remained constant was controversy, that combined with his undeniable talent, resulted in a classic love-hate relationship with everyone around him.
After Allen quickly established himself as one of the most talented players in baseball with a spectacular National League Rookie of the Year showing in 1964, his time in Philadelphia was increasingly marked with difficulties that drew fans' ire.
His infamous fight with Frank Thomas, off the field injuries, late arrivals, and disappearances pulled attention away from his spectacular skills and made him the No. 1 target of criticism amongst the media and fans.
"Crash," as he was nicknamed for the injuries that too often shortened his seasons, was eventually driven out of town by this derision and mutual agreement with the flustered Phillies brass.
Allen endured racial prejudice in the minors as the only black player in a very segregated Little Rock, Ark., that served to make him cynical and weary by the time he reached the big club.
Before being traded after the 1969 season, Allen averaged 30 home runs, 90 RBI and a .300 batting average in his six full Phillies seasons.
His raw power led to laser-like line drives and tape measure home runs that were legendary.
Allen continued his slugging on three different clubs, including an MVP season for the Chicago White Sox when he flirted with a Triple Crown.
Despite the controversy and bitterness in his first tour of duty, GM Paul Owens reacquired him in 1975 to help complement a talented young team on the rise.
Injuries had depleted his skills, but he still contributed to the Phillies 1976 National League Eastern Division championship. The resulting three-game sweep by the "Big Red Machine" turned out to be Allen's sole postseason appearance in an otherwise prolific career.
Because controversy was a constant companion, Allen's on the field contributions were often secondary.
A chorus of boos often rang down from the stands to voice displeasure with the player's failures—be it a strikeout or a misplay in the field.
Of course, then the slugger would proceed to launch an awe-inspiring rocket over the "Coke" sign on the left field bleacher roof in the old Connie Mack Stadium that would trigger a sudden rush of infatuation.
3. Randall Cunningham
Like Dick Allen and Andre Iguodala, Randall Cunningham possessed almost freakish athletic capabilities.
He was a "Pass, Punt and Kick" champion for the ages and once appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the moniker "The Ultimate Weapon."
Ironically, these phenomenal capabilities were possibly his ultimate downfall in the "City of Brotherly Love."
Cunningham's marvelous skills led coach Buddy Ryan to concentrate on accumulating defensive talent with the notion that his quarterback could almost single-handedly generate enough offense for the team to win.
Additionally, Randall played with a style that did not fit the traditional formulaic mold of the NFL.
Sports talk radio telephone lines and airwaves burned with the perpetual debate whether Cunningham's scrambling style could ever lead the Eagles to postseason success.
Similar to a more recent quarterback in team history, his ability to read defenses, not choke in the big moments, and to make accurate throws were also a constant topic of discussion.
The quarterback was often tormented by the mocking chant of "Raaannndaaall, Raaannndaaall" by Philadelphia fans despite being a "SportsCenter" highlight waiting to happen and accumulating some truly remarkable numbers.
Amongst them, he led the Eagles in both passing and rushing for four consecutive seasons, three of which landed the team in the playoffs.
Perhaps the most astounding season in silver and green was in 1990 when Cunningham fired 30 touchdown passes against only 13 interceptions—while at the same time accumulating 942 yards rushing with an 8.0 average per carry.
When he was benched in favor of the very pedestrian Rodney Peete as the team transitioned to the West Coast offense, and feeling unappreciated by fans and the organization, Cunningham retired after the 1995 season.
After sitting out one season, Randall joined the Minnesota Vikings in 1997 and went on to have his greatest season in 1998.
The team went 15-1 with Cunningham racking up a league best 106.0 quarterback rating on the way to leading the offense to an NFL-record 556 points.
The player unwanted in Philly averaged a career-high 247 yards passing per game with 34 touchdown tosses, while recording a career-low interception percentage with 10 picks in 425 pass attempts.
And, interestingly, Cunningham's delight in proving his critics wrong was enhanced by the fact that he only ran the ball 32 times for 132 yards and received a variety of MVP and "Player of the Year" awards.
2. Mike Schmidt
Michael Jack Schmidt was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995 and is largely recognized as the greatest third baseman in the history of the game.
To follow him throughout his 18-year career in Philadelphia—all in a Phillies uniform—those accolades would not have always been apparent by reading the newspaper, tuning into sports talk radio or listening to the Veteran Stadium crowds.
As Schmidt once put it in an interview: "Only in Philadelphia can you experience the thrill of victory one night, and the agony of reading about it the next day." And, early in his tenure he blurted out "I've just accepted my role as the guy the fans are going to take their frustrations out on."
For all the prolific statistics and majestic home runs, these two statements pretty much sum up how Schmidt perceived his existence in Philadelphia.
And although fans and the media recognize his greatness retrospectively, both would have to admit that he was often the target of their criticism for over almost two decades.
The numbers and the hardware do not lie. Three MVP trophies, 12 All-Star appearances, six Silver sluggers, and 10 Gold Glove awards provide ample testimony. And, of course, let's not forget in 1980 World Series ring that "Schmitty" complements with the MVP trophy for his efforts.
The numbers, un-inflated by small ballparks and performance-enhancing drugs, were among the best of his era. Thirteen times he clubbed more than 30 home runs and nine times he exceeded 100 RBI.
Today, he ranks 14th all-time with 548 home runs and is among the top 75 in many different offensive career categories (cheaters included).
All in all, his detractors interpreted his calm as being aloof and uncaring. They saw his fluid movement as nonchalance and possibly lack of hustle.
They viewed his discipline to work deep into the count as un-aggressive or even fearful. His own teammates even referred to him as "Captain Cool," which certainly didn't help his public image.
After his abysmal rookie season when he hit below the Mendoza line, Schmidt had a breakout year in 1974 that somewhat set the bar for future seasons. Fans now had high expectations that were measured one at-bat at a time.
While he played, his critics tended to remember his strikeouts and believe that he never came through in the clutch. Looking back now, though, the memories are somewhat reversed.
1. Donovan McNabb
As even casual observers know, Donovan McNabb is now a Washington Redskin. An Easter evening trade sent the Eagles' all-time greatest quarterback to their division rival for a couple of draft picks.
The reaction in Philadelphia has been mixed, ranging from pure elation to resolve that the team needed a change to bitterness that the star player was unceremoniously dumped.
Many believe that sending him to a team within the division and handing the starting role to unproven Kevin Kolb adds further insult to a tenure punctuated with disrespect throughout his days in midnight green.
From the harsh greeting he received from a small contingent of Eagles fans on draft day through the ongoing reaction to his trade, McNabb has not always felt the love from the Philadelphia community.
This is not to say that he has not enjoyed a supportive and sometimes adoring segment of the fan base, but the number of detractors has continued to grow as the Lombardi trophy continued to reside in other cities around the NFL.
And although McNabb's reaction was quite the opposite of Mike Schmidt's, it similarly exacerbated the situation.
Specifically, Donovan's perpetual smile and desire to focus on the positive was interpreted as nonchalance and lack of passion to achieve the same goal so desperately desired by the fan base—namely a Super Bowl championship.
From his first season as the acknowledged starter, McNabb led the team to unprecedented success. His 657 winning percentage is just short of spectacular and far superior to any other quarterback in franchise history.
McNabb has also filled the record books with stellar numbers that place him virtually at the top of all team records and high in the all-time NFL rankings. The list of accomplishment is almost endless—just pick the category and Donovan sits at the top by usually a wide margin.
The statistical evidence makes a strong case that McNabb it's clearly the best quarterback the organization has ever employed and arguably it's overall best player.
However, his critics continue to focus on only their own measuring stick of performance—the inability to win the Super Bowl.
The debate about No. 5 will continue to rage on for years to come without resolution. With his body of work in Philadelphia now complete, there is little that McNabb can do to turn sentiment his way.
Of course, a Redskins Super Bowl championship might highlight to many Philly fans that he was deserving of more credit.
The Final Word
Sports passions run deep and fans are highly invested in its professional sports teams in the city of Philadelphia. There is clearly an emotional connection far stronger than most sports towns that can make it a very special place to play.
Just visit Citizens Bank Park for any Phillies game to experience the electricity of a tremendously supportive fan base that is truly enamored with its hometown heroes. The atmosphere is almost magical.
However, knowledgeable and highly engaged fans, helped along by a very discerning media, expect supreme effort and winning performances from its sports teams. And, the highest expectations are assigned to its most talented athletes.
Some players exhibit qualities and performances that win the hearts of Philly fans and come close to leading a charmed life. Conversely, others never seem to make the connection and win the affection of fans that is commensurate with their talents and seeming contributions.
No player is without imperfection. However, the flaws of these five athletes were rehashed and embellished to the point of overshadowing what other fans outside of Philadelphia admired and coveted.