John R. Finger
For those of us who grew up going to the Vet and had dreams of one day playing for the Phillies on that endless sheet of green carpet, Sunday's last game was a very bittersweet day. On one side, we recognize that a modern ballclub cannot continue to operate with that place as its home ballpark. It's worn down and obsolete with all the charm and personality of a toilet seat. The second one walks through its gates, the closed in feeling and imagery of a dungeon pervades the atmosphere. Being in the Vet is like that trash compactor scene from Star Wars. Any second now, and the walls are going to flatten you like a pancake on top of Chewbacca.
But the Vet is our dump. It's where we wanted to play if we ever became big leaguers. It was a schoolboy point of reference, as in: "He hit it so far, I bet it woulda gone out of the Vet!"
More than the Liberty Bell, or Independence Hall, or the Art Museum steps, Veterans Stadium was Philadelphia. Like us it was imperfect, was too big and clumsy, and needed to get with the times.
Heck, the Vet was the place no corporation ever wanted to buy the naming rights for. There is something very admirable in a place like that.
OK. Here it comes. I'm going to inject that dreaded personal pronoun and write gush about how the Vet is my kind of place. You know, the kind of place where a guy, after a $5 beer bender, can buy salty, stale pretzels in brown paper bags out of a shopping cart in the parking lot after a ballgame for a buck.
Talk about a good deal.
You see, I'm not like Billy Crystal. Although I do have that romantic, NPR, baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life buried deep in the locus of my mind, I only bring it out when I'm watching The Natural or Field of Dreams… alone. Maybe that's because I've seen the real side of baseball and know that the romanticized view doesn't exist except for on Old-Timers Day or in Cooperstown. Baseball is curse words, a hot grounder that misses a glove and turns the shin purple, spitting and an obstructed-view, upper-deck seat next to a drunk who just spilled another beer on your shoes...
At the Vet.
No, unlike the way Billy Crystal describes his first game in every interview he's ever done about the subject, I don't remember holding my dad's hand, walking through a tunnel and seeing a sea of green at my first game. Mickey didn't "hit one out" and the Yankees didn't win.
I'm not like John Updike either, although we both come from the same part of the country. Updike wrote that magnificent ode to Ted Williams where he described Fenway Park as that "little lyric of a ballpark" with its idiosyncratic dimensions, high wall in left and acre of green grass, walls and seats. Unlike Shillington, Pa.'s most famous native son, I didn't spend my college days contemplating the asymmetry and greenness while watching Teddy Ballgame or Yaz.
I'm not like Bob Costas or Mike Lupica. I don't have Mickey Mantle baseball cards nor have I indignantly purchased bleacher seats for poor kids in the Bronx. Unlike Costas or Lupica, I don't know how, or even want to make the game better because like the Voice of Summer, Harry Kalas, says, "It's such a beautiful game."
No, for people my age who grew around here, we were robbed of that saccharine-sweet romanticism Billy Crystal, John Updike and Bob Costas all possess. It's as if we truly can't be a real baseball fans because we didn't experience baseball as a child like they did. At my first game on a summer night in 1976, I didn't walk through the tunnel at a baseball cathedral to a scene so green that it could burn my eyes out.
That's because my first game was at the Vet.
Yep, old Veterans Stadium… it opened the same year I was born and if it were a person, it would have graduated high school the same year I did. It would have gone off to college at the same time too, although it probably would have graduated before me. We would have played little league together, watched the same TV shows and grown up experiencing issues like school busing, the energy crisis, Jimmy Carter, the Iran Hostage Crisis and Ronald Reagan. We would have been teenagers when the Space Shuttle blew up and when Buckner missed the ball. We could speak the same language, hold the same values and have the same status in life.
And we would always ask each other where we were when Tug threw that last pitch. Weren't we so lucky that our parents let us stay up to watch the very end? Wasn't it so cool watching them dump champagne all over each other?
And man, didn't Mitch jump so high after striking out Bill Pecota? It looked like they were going to trample him when the whole team rushed to the mound.
If a private group owned the stadium instead of the city of Philadelphia, it would have been condemned a long time ago. Feral cats now own the place, having long ago taken over after a brief turf war with the rats. In the summertime, the biggest moths seen outside of the Everglades fly in and out of the lights and shadows like a dizzy kid who has been spinning around in circles for five minutes straight. Then there is what attracts these creatures: cracks in the walls, exposed pipes on the ceiling with what one can only assume could be equal parts rust and asbestos clinging like a lemming to a cliff.
There are cob and spider webs the size of batting cage nets in every corner and dripping water every where — on the floor of the bathrooms, corridors and dugouts. Why would anyone want to come here for 81 games every season? It is, as Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie unceremoniously tagged it in arrogant and snobby derision, a "dump."
But it's our dump, right?
"This isn't a grass field like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field or Yankees Stadium that they are never going to tear down because of the memories." Mike Schmidt said on Saturday. "[The media] is trying to make it like we should be crying because they are going to tear down the Vet. It must not have that much significance if they are going to blow it up.
"We all leave with our memories. But I think we all agree that we need to take our memories and get the hell out of here."
Veterans Stadium during its implosion. (AP)
It's where Gary Maddox ran like a gazelle to flag down a fly to center as smooth as silk. It's where the Bull hit one so hard off the wall in left that he could only get a single out of it. It's where Schmidty dug into the box, tapped the outer edge of the plate and did his little wiggle. In the field he'd charge a chopper as quickly as cat leaping out of a car before he caught it with his bare hand.
It's where Bowa, with the bill of his cap always pointing in the air, made his heavy, three-quarter armed throws to first. It's where his emotions were never held in check and the word "scrappy" came to life. It's where Manny Trillo made every play and Bake McBride's hair burst from underneath his cap like bread baking in an oven over its crock.
Tug slapped his glove against his thigh here. Lefty, with his high leg-kick, made the slider the nastiest pitch ever known to man here. Trying to hit it was like trying to eat soup with chopsticks, Willie Stargell said.
Everyone complained about the turf. The fans, players, announcers, coaches, owners and Wendell Davis hated it. In fact, Dick Allen said: "If a horse can't eat it, I don't want to play on it."
But the turf was pretty cool, too. Remember how Pete Rose would spike the ball high off the turf after the third out? Or that zamboni that would clear the water from the outfield after it rained?
Remember how the place used to look? How about those two scoreboards beyond the outfield fence? And that fountain in center? It looked like Caesar's Palace.
Remember how strikingly colorful the place was? How the green turf and green walls against the Crayola-perfect brown dirt in the cut outs where the bases were perfect? A deep red warning track and a bicentennial mural beyond the outfield fence and red, white and blue bunting hung on the facades were so beautiful that there really was no other place to be. It was like an Easter egg come to life.
Remember how excited you'd get as kid driving in for a game? The second you caught a glimpse of the lights your heart would beat faster. Then, just before coming over the bridge, there it was. Gigantic. With those swirling ramps and enormous statues out front — the football player kicking and the baseball player sliding. Remember how you couldn't wait to get out of the car as soon as you knew you were near? And when you finally got out of the car, remember how it took all of your power and patience not to sprint to the turnstile?
Maybe once you got inside you see something amazing like Terry Mulholland's no-no. Or Mitch's game-winning hit at 4:40 a.m. Or Schmidty hit one out. Or Willie Stargell hit one to the 600-level.
Well," said Jim Bunning, who served up the pitch to Stargell, "he could not have hit it any farther."
For the lucky who got to go to the Vet everyday during the last few summers, there are enough memories to fill volumes. Watching Scott Rolen sprint out to third before the start of a game — elbows flying, legs churning like pistons — screamed baseball. His throws to second for a force out were hard poetry.
We saw Bowa become an extension of the fan's frustration. He represented everything every fan ever wanted to scream at an authority figure, but somehow he still had the decorum to emphatically throw his gum away lest he spit it in an umpire's face mid rant.
At the Vet we got to see Harry Kalas modestly enjoy his celebrity, where he earnestly made sure he gave every fan what they wanted.
Long drive, watch that baby... outta here!
We saw the old-timers happily return for a reunion and heard the Phanatic speak in his own voice along the corridors as if it were perfectly normal to wear a big green suit.
And we saw everyone rally together in that first game back after Sept. 11. When Rolen hit two out, we all got to think about something as trival as a pennant race for a little while.
We really laid out the welcome for old friends: D-sized batteries for J.D. Drew. Obnoxious boos for turncoat Rolen. Ambivalence for Schill. Screeches for Krukker and the Dude. And just in case, the K-9 corps and the mounted patrol to keep everyone off the green rug and in the blue seats.
Cal Ripken won his only World Series at the Vet. So did the Phillies.
And on Sunday we saw Schmidty pass the torch to Jim Thome, who will take it across the parking lot to a "ballpark" with real grass, luxury seating and a corporate name. It will have everything anyone could ever want in order to watch baseball, where, hopefully, we'll all scream, "THO-ME! THO-ME! THO-ME!" instead of "BOO!" It will be better than Caesar's Palace. Clean and shiny.
But we will always think fondly of our dump.
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