Column: This Philadelphia tradition is rising in the poles

No sooner had Bryce Harper hit the home run that propelled the Philadelphia Phillies into the World Series than the text message came, one fan to the next, three words of joy.

“Grease the poles,” read the message.

Only in Philadelphia: a Crisco-inspired civic rally cry. Also unique to Philadelphia, fans celebrate the success of their sports teams by climbing a light pole.

“That’s just how this town is,” said Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins. “It’s a beautiful thing, in my eyes. That means a lot of good things are happening in this city.”

Said outfielder Nick Castellanos: “It’s kind of comparable to the city of Philadelphia, isn’t it? If they get excited about something, all bets are off.”

Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University, is the fan who received the “Grease the poles” text message. The Philadelphia Inquirer traced the roots of the pole climbing phenomenon to a local Italian festival dating back to the 1960s. However, Simon said, what is now considered a ritual as indigenous as Santa’s booing only grew in popularity with the Phillies’ back-to-back appearances in the 2008-09 World Series.

“The interesting thing about it,” says Simon, who studies pop culture, “is how quickly it was imagined as a tradition.”

In doing so, the city took creative steps to try and stop him. Climbers could slip and fall off a pole, injuring themselves and fans gathered below.

In the name of public safety, the city lubricated the bars — first with Crisco in 2009, then with hydraulic fluid during the Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl run, and again for this year’s National League Championship Series.

“Greased bars are not to be viewed as a personal challenge,” said city spokesman Kevin Lessard. “We encourage fans to celebrate responsibly.”

That may be for the best, but the Philadelphia fan doesn’t readily yield to authority.

“Philly fans will find a way,” said Alyssa Kress, who lives in Los Angeles but flew here to see her hometown team in the World Series. “The fat won’t work. You can’t get over the spirit of a Philly fan who just won a championship.”

Maura Quint, a Phillies fan and comedy writer, said, “Philadelphia celebrates everything it loves with a little bit of aggression, like someone who really likes you pats you too hard on the back and never thinks to see if you’re okay. Philly will be tearing himself up in celebration and not disturbing the mess because it just shows how much he cared.”

This caring is encouraged from an early age. Angels television analyst and former major league pitcher Mark Gubicza grew up here and recalled celebrating a big Eagles win by going outside to play football with his friends.

“Tackle football,” Gubicza said. “On the streets. I just get crushed. Driven into stop signs.”

The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after the NLCS win over the San Diego Padres.

The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after winning the NLCS against the San Diego Padres October 23 in Philadelphia.

(Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Even the bravest fans here are still Philly fans. Gubicza said he couldn’t imagine climbing a pole and said he only skipped school one day in his life.

“That,” he said, “was the 1980 parade for the Phillies.”

Of course, as the Phillies seek another championship, Kress and the rest of the fans here mocked the Houston Astros, but with shrewdness and selective hostility.

The Astros in the lineup who were left over from the 2017 sign-stealing team — José Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yuli Gurriel — were scorned with “cheaters!” chants. The Astros, who were absent in 2017, were serenaded with a hearty dose of boos.

Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola said: “It’s a madhouse out there. They love their teams. You love the city. We also. We want to win this thing and celebrate with them.”

If the Phillies win, well, the players wouldn’t dare risk their professional livelihoods for a moment atop a light pole.

But what if they could just do like a fan for once and climb a pole in the midst of a civic triumph? Would you?

“That’s not me,” said Castellanos. “I would be very happy. When my hometown teams in South Florida won, it was a celebration. But I’ve never fought my way up a light pole.”

How about Hoskins? Fun runs in the family. His wife was immortalized online after buying 50 beers Fans at Game 3 and 100 in game 4.

Could he imagine climbing a pole one day?

“Sure,” he said. “If I’m here, yes.”

So would he do it after he retired?

“Okay,” he said, laughing. “Let’s go with that.” Column: This Philadelphia tradition is rising in the poles

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