AT RUTH’S CHRIS WITH: ED RENDELL, OUR QUINTESSENTIAL SPORTS FAN!

The former D. A., mayor and governor puts politics aside and picks the best owners in Philly history, dishes on the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers, Jay Wright and Jack Ramsay, Curt Schilling, Donald Trump, Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas and the proposed on-campus Temple football stadium. Not to mention waxing nostalgic about why Penn would have beaten UCLA for the national championship in 1971!

By Theodore N. Beitchman

It was Friday the 13th and my luck wasn’t bad — spending 90 minutes with the most passionate and prominent sports fan in all of this sports-crazed town and region.

If you doubt Ed Rendell’s passion, check him out in section 114 at the Palestra any night Penn is playing. You can’t miss him. His prominence derives from 24 years in elected public office — eight as Philly district attorney, eight as Philly mayor, eight as Pennsylvania governor — and he has somehow managed to persuade the Daily News and Comcast SportsNet to pay him for his opinions and uncanny knowledge of fun and games.

He also has paying gigs from MSNBC; as special counsel to his former law firm Ballard Spahr; a couple of investment firms, and from teaching at the Fels School at Penn. Not to mention a boatload of speeches.

I didn’t have to pay him but I did buy him lunch.

Since sports and food are two of Rendell’s faves, it wasn’t hard to get him going on a discussion of the state of play in Philly today.

Rendell grew up on the tony Upper West Side of Manhattan and graduated from the elite Riverdale Country School (Carly Simon was a classmate) before coming down to blue-collar Philly in September 1961 to go to Penn and Villanova Law School.

He became one of the most successful elected officials in U. S. history — winning 13 of 15 elections — by connecting with working class voters. By my observation — having worked for him for six years in City Hall and knowing him for 26 — a big part of that connection was based on sports.

It’s the default common denominator for a lot of black, brown, yellow and white people, women and men, urbanites, suburbanites, city and statewide.

That, and his everyman, self-deprecating personality, accentuated by his rumpled look.

So, as he waited for his T-bone to cool down from its 500-degrees at Ruth’s Chris’ beautiful new location at 18th and Market Sts., he couldn’t wait to dig in to Philly sports.

 

What about the assumption that a successful executive like himself who happened to be a sports nut would be perfect running a sports league?

“I used to hear that talk,” Rendell says, “and it’s one of those things that sounded better on paper than it really is. For me, the dream job would be MLB commissioner. I love baseball and love going to games. But I could see myself lying in bed and thinking, ‘What were you thinking? Why are you wasting your time?’ Can you imagine trying to govern a sport with all those egomaniacs as owners?”

When he arrived in town in 1961, Rendell was a boy without a baseball team, his New York Giants having moved to San Francisco in 1958.

“When the Giants moved I started rooting for the Chicago White Sox, a team I couldn’t see. So the Phillies became my team. And 1961 was a tough year to be a Phillies fan,” he says with a laugh. “They lost 23 straight games. And let’s not forget 1964!”

Many Phillies fans would love to forget 1964 — when they led the National League until late September, then lost 10 straight and blew the pennant to the Cards.

One of Rendell’s closest friends is David Montgomery, a fraternity brother at Penn and a Phillies’ lifer — from the ticket office in 1971 to president during the Phils’ glory days.

“I am biased, obviously, because I love David,” he says, “but the Phillies won five straight division titles under David. I don’t think any Philly team ever did that, not even Connie Mack’s great A’s teams in the 1920s!”

And he ranks Monty up there with Flyers owner Ed Snider as the greatest owners in Philly history.

“The other quality that David brought to the Phillies was as a corporate citizen. Until he became president the Phillies weren’t known as very interested in helping the city’s communities. Now they give a ton.”

And the Phillies under new president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak?

“They’re doing it right, and I am very happy with their offseason,” he says. “Trading for Clay Buchholz and re-signing Jeremy Hellickson should give fans hope. They are both good pitchers, which is obviously important, and they would be great trading chips in July if the team gets off to a good start and needs an extra bat for a playoff run.

“And it will be exciting to see how well all of their kids in the minors like J. P. Crawford do.”

 

rendell eaglesRendell used to go to New York Giants football games at the old Yankee Stadium.

“My dad had two seats for Giants games,” he recalls, “and I used to love going up to the Bronx with him. He died when I was 14, December 1, 1958, and one of my relatives made sure that my brother Robert and I got the seats for the incredible Giants-Colts NFL championship game, which Baltimore won 23-17.”

Not for nothing is that game called “the greatest game in NFL history.” The whole country was watching on December 28, 1958, and the NFL became must-see TV.

By the time he arrived on Penn’s campus, the Eagles had just won the 1960 NFL championship at Franklin Field and had begun a 15-year slide into oblivion.

He has been a big Birds fan ever since, and he has made news and gone out on a limb that hasn’t always pleased Birdland.

In 1999 Mayor Rendell recommended that the Eagles draft running back Ricky Williams instead of quarterback Donovan McNabb, who had a terrific career that many believe makes him the greatest Eagles quarterback ever.

And then there was that fateful night in December 2010, when the Birds-Vikings game at the Linc had to be postponed because of the “threat of snow.” Gov. Rendell said:

“My biggest beef is that this is part of what’s happened in this country,” Rendell said in an interview on 97.5 radio in Philly. “I think we’ve become wussies. … We’ve become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.”

rendell seatRendell didn’t back down, instead writing a book, “A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great.”

Sounds like a certain president-elect, who at one time tried desperately to buy an NFL franchise and had to settle for being the most powerful man in the world!

“Don’t get me started on Donald Trump,” he says. “He’s a brilliant marketer. That’s all I’ll say on the record!”

 

So, Guv, how do you think the Eagles are doing these days?

“If you consider that the Eagles were talent poor,” he says, “at wide receiver, cornerback, running back and linebacker, 7-9 looks pretty good. Especially when you remember that we lost so many close games. Now that’s on the coach, and I think that the jury is still out on Doug Pederson — especially his play-calling.

“But we had the third-best record in the NFL against playoff teams. And if we sign DeSean Jackson as a free agent and have a productive draft, Carson Wentz will have some weapons to play with.”

And do you trust big boss Howie Roseman to run the draft?

“I hope Joe Douglas not just sets up the draft board but makes the picks,” he says of the Birds VP of player personnel who was hired last spring after a very successful run as the Baltimore Ravens’ chief scout.

 

College basketball has a special place in Rendell’s heart, and like a lot of hard-core Quaker fans the memory of 1971 bubbles up at the slightest provocation:

The greatest of all Penn teams went 28-0 and was poised to go to the Final Four until Villanova blew the Quakers’ doors off in the Eastern regional 90-47.

“That was the year I thought we could have gone all the way,” he says. “Villanova took UCLA to the wire [before losing 68-62] but I think we could have beaten them. Don’t forget, that was after Alcindor and before Walton!”

So, Guv, how would you compare what Jay Wright has done at Villanova, winning a national title and making the Cats a national team, with Jack Ramsay, who many believe is the greatest coach in Big 5 history?

“Both created perennial powers,” he says of Wright and Ramsay, who coached St. Joe’s from 1955 through 1966 and got to the 1961 Final Four (though three players were charged with point-shaving and the Hawks’ 3rd place was vacated).

“The difference is that Ramsay did it with mostly smaller Catholic League players and some from the Public League. Jay has elevated Villanova into a national power by recruiting from all over the East coast.

“The other similarity is on defense. Ramsay was one of the first coaches — John Wooden was another — who used the zone press. And look at Villanova’s defense: I think they play perimeter defense as well as any school in the country.”

And how about the defending national champs who are currently 18-1 and ranked No. 1 in the nation?

“Jay has done a great job with only seven kids. They miss Phil Booth a lot, and we’ll never know how good they could have been if Omari Spellman had been eligible to play.”

So, make a pick: Ramsay or Wright as the best in city history?

“I think their accomplishments are equal.”

He is a politician, after all.

But not on the conventional wisdom that ex-Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling won’t make the Hall of Fame because of the incendiary statements he has made, especially joking about hanging all the writers!

“I loved what he did for the Phils in 1993, getting us to the World Series,” he says. “And how many pitchers have gotten three teams to the World Series — Phillies, Red Sox and D’Backs? I know he can be his own worst enemy, especially with the writers, but I think he belongs in the Hall. If only based on his postseason record.”

 

The Guv thinks that the Flyers are going in the right direction, and is also impressed with the rejuvenated Sixers, and he thinks Jay Wright might leave Nova if things don’t work out with Brett Brown.

“And did you see Joel Embiid dancing with the Sixers dance team after they beat the Knicks the other night? You gotta’ love that guy!”

And he is ambivalent about the proposed on-campus Temple football stadium:

“As governor, I would have had to approve it. And I think there are lots of reasons to be for it. But Temple’s program is on the rise and what happens if Temple hosts Notre Dame and there is only a 35,000-seat capacity? They would move that game to the Linc, theoretically. I think the remedy is for Jeff Lurie and Eagles to cut Temple some slack on the rental rate at the Linc.”

With that, this analog former-D.A., mayor and governor flipped open his phone and called his driver to get back to the office.

There were calls to make, work to be done, and, oh yes, that night’s Penn-Yale game at the Palestra.

Section 114 and his 50-year chums awaited, and all was right with the world!

 

 

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