I grew up in central Pennsylvania, amid that stultifying stretch of Route 80 where truckers doze themselves right off cliffs, in a small college town conveniently located four hours from every major American city in the Northeast. If James Carville's famous description of Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between," still holds true, then I grew up in Tuscaloosa, and because of this unique geography, the first major decision of my life was one of sporting allegiance: Steelers or Eagles? Pirates or Phillies? The divide in my town was skewed approximately 60-40 toward Pittsburgh, and I went back and forth, for these were the glory days of Pennsylvania sports: The tail end of the Steelers dynasty; the emergence of the Pirates, of We Are Family, of those most excellent wedding-cake hats; the Jaworskified Eagles; and, of course, the 1980 Phillies. I remember watching Tug McGraw's glove blast off into the stratosphere at the end of that World Series, and for some reason, that turned me toward Philadelphia. It was a curious decision. I had never actually been to Philadelphia (I had been to Pittsburgh once, I believe). I had no family there, though I did have a mild affinity for Benjamin Franklin; several years later, my parents would take us to a doubleheader at Veterans' Stadium, get their car towed due to an arcane parking regulation, and vow never to return.
To this day, I can't say why I chose Philadelphia; I guess it was pure instinct, and one that I've actually come to regret over the years. Because if I'm being honest with myself, I've always liked Pittsburgh better. Pittsburgh is a weird city, full of consonant-laden ethnic enclaves and narrow streets and bridges and hills and warehouses. In Pittsburgh, they name major landmarks after squirrels. In Pittsburgh, they name their beers after metallic ores. In Pittsburgh, they serve the french fries in the sandwich. Pittsburgh is small and intimate; more than any other major American city I've been to, it feels like one big jumbled neighborhood, content with its intimacy. Whereas Philadelphia (and there are things I love about Philadelphia, other than the cheesesteaks) is a city with an inherent inferiority complex, too close to New Jersey, too far from New York; Philadelphia's identity is that it is constantly struggling to come to terms with its identity.
Don't get me wrong--I had a great time growing up with Philadelphia sports, and suffering through the meltdown of Mitch Williams, and the lingering tease of those Randall Cunningham Eagles, but they were never really mine, except by proxy, and the longer I've been away, the more I've come to realize that Philadelphia sports fandom is guided by a crude narcissism that tends to permeate most Northeast cities.* Whereas there's something honest about Pittsburgh: These are people who show up en masse for high-school football games; these are people who suffer through the hapless attempts to rebuild the Pitt football program; these are people who actually attend Pirates games. I've never seen a city where sports is more ingrained into the culture.** Even their overzealous gestures are endearing: I mean, in Pittsburgh, the mayor of the city changes his name from Ravenstahl to "Steelerstahl" in anticipation of a playoff game against the Ravens, and no one questions his sanity? If Bloomberg did this,*** we'd impeach him the next day.
I hope this doesn't change, as Pittsburgh experiences its renaissance moment: Hosting major global summit meetings, winning championships, and yesterday being been named the best sports city in America by The Sporting News. I hope Pittsburgh doesn't go big-time on us, because the best thing about Pittsburgh is that it never felt like it had any great aspirations at all. A beer, a sandwich, and a Super Bowl--that's all they've ever wanted.
UPDATE: Astute reader WCS also points out that Michael Chabon's early coming-of-age novels (including The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys****), as well as the excellent Greg Mottola coming-of-age film Adventureland, were both set in Pittsburgh, all of which probably have something to do with my feelings of warmth. Whereas the best form out of entertainment to come out of Philadelphia in recent years is (not coincidentally) the crudest show on television.
*To be fair, the same thing has happened with the Red Sox since I adopted them in 2000, which explains why I've pretty much given up on baseball altogether.
**Cleveland comes close, but it feels a little more diffuse, I guess.
****The criminally underrated movie version of Wonder Boys also features the best Michael Douglas performance since Wall Street. Better, even, than One Night at McCool's.