Monday, August 29, 2011

Veterans Affair

For over three decades, Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium represented all that was wrong with American sports architecture.

Veterans Stadium was functional, but lacked beauty

Multi-purpose stadiums were all the rage in the 1960s and early '70s, and somewhere along the way, the Vet became the poster-boy. Circular in shape, devoid of aesthetic personality, and liberal in its use of AstroTurf -- Veterans Stadium hosted the Phillies, Eagles and a number of other events from 1971 through 2003.

Baseball purists railed against the Vet -- much like they protested Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and the original Busch Stadium in St. Louis. All four were similar in stature...and only the trained eye could tell what stadium they were looking at on first glance.

Some "cookie-cutter" stadiums -- can you tell which one's which?

For all of its criticism from outsiders, Philadelphians loved Veterans Stadium...not for its beauty, but rather for the personality that it exuded. Hatred of the Vet from the media, opposing teams, players and fans bonded area residents in a way that only civic pride could.

Growing up as a Mets fan, I could sympathize with Philly sports fans and their defensiveness. Shea Stadium was largely derided over the years as a "dump," but it was also "home" to the millions who passed through its turnstiles every year. It's quite remarkable how a combination of concrete and steel can connect with a person.

The stadium's original dedication plaque

Over the years, Veterans Stadium found its way into my heart as well. It represents a time when life was more carefree and innocent...where some poor, teenage baseball fans could pile into a car on a spring or summer weekend morning, head to the ballpark, and return home with plenty of fun stories and memories.

During high school, my friends and I had the routine down to a science. Following a morning stop for breakfast in South Jersey, we would arrive in Philadelphia at roughly 10:30 am...but instead of paying for parking at the Veterans Stadium lots, we would park across the street at the Holiday Inn for free, then climb through an opening in the gate.

We used to take advantage of the nearby Holiday Inn for free parking

Phillies' tickets were not the hot items that they are now. With the club stumbling to consecutive last-place finishes in the NL East in 1996 and 1997, the Phillies averaged 20,323 fans in the over-62,000 seat ballpark. As a result, my friends and I would either get tickets for free from season-ticket holders...or we'd purchase the cheapest tickets available on the day of the game.

Would we actually sit in the 700-level? Of course not. During batting practice, we would make our way to the field-level seating, garnering autographs from players or trying to catch home run balls. Then, as long as the actual ticket holders didn't show up, we would stay there...and enjoy the ballgame from an up-close spot.

A good, cheap way for some teenagers from New Jersey to enjoy MLB games

To a bunch of high school kids, this was "gaming the system" at its best. For $10 each -- at most -- we were able to watch Major League Baseball in close proximity. It didn't matter who the teams were -- we loved the game.

Despite their disappointing records in 1996 and '97, the Phillies had some good players -- including Curt Schilling, Scott Rolen and Darren Daulton. But 15 years later, it's the not-as-recognizable names that produce the biggest smiles for me. During (and after) games, my friends and I repeated names such as "Rick-eeeeee Ohhhhh-ter-ohhhh" and "Meeeee-drayyyy Come-ingsssssss" in the familiar tone of longtime public address announcer Dan Baker. For us, it was part of the Vet's charm.

Ricky Otero used to capture our imaginations in high school

Several years later, I returned to Veterans Stadium...but in a different capacity. My first job in radio had me working with the Phillies, assisting in the broadcasts of their games. While the players' names had changed during that time, the ballpark remained virtually the same.

Its plastic blue chairs glistened in an otherwise drab and gray seating area. The grass on the field was still an artificial surface...although now it was upgraded to FieldTurf. The main concourse was still dark and dingy...with cracks in the red-and-cream tile flooring.

The Vet's concourse didn't have much visual appeal

Despite the Vet's numerous flaws, I still enjoyed being there. It brought back memories of those fun trips during high school, even though some things had changed. The Holiday Inn had become wise to the growing popularity of parking there, and started charging for use of their lot. The tickets were a little more expensive -- although mine were usually free, thanks to the radio station. The Phillies were also better -- at-or-above .500 in 2002 and '03.

Veterans Stadium during its final season

My final game at Veterans Stadium was on September 21st, 2003, when the Phillies took on the Cincinnati Reds. This time, I wasn't there in a working capacity...just as a fan. With only 4 games remaining in the ballpark's existence, a sellout crowd of 57,883 packed the Vet for a mini-stadium item that is still displayed in my house.

A keepsake from my last game at the Vet

With an 85-70 record coming into the game, the Phillies were competing for a NL Wild Card spot with a number of teams -- the Marlins, Cubs, Astros, Dodgers and Cardinals among them -- so every game took on critical importance in the standings.

The Reds were looking to be a spoiler. At 66-89, Cincinnati had been out of contention for a couple months. Their motivation now was to keep other teams out of the postseason.

The Phillies and Reds met with only a handful of games remaining at Veterans Stadium

It was an ugly start for the Phillies and pitcher Vicente Padilla. An error and two infield singles helped the Reds to a 1-0 lead in the 1st inning. The massive crowd, already on pins-and-needles over the tightness in the Wild Card standings, groaned and booed at each play.

Vicente Padilla spotted the Reds an early lead

The score would remain that way until the 4th inning. With Placido Polanco and Bobby Abreu on base, slugging 1st baseman Jim Thome walked up to the plate. The red-clad crowd was buzzing with anticipation of what might happen next.

With one big swing against Cincinnati starting pitcher Aaron Harang, Thome crushed a home run to right field, bringing the sellout crowd to its feet! It was Thome's 44th homer of the season -- a new franchise record among left-handed batters -- and the Phillies suddenly held a 3-1 edge.

Jim Thome's 3-run blast put the Phillies ahead

As I watched the game from Section 651 -- way out in the upper deck in right field -- I couldn't help but chuckle to myself. There were a few occasions where I had bought tickets for that area of the ballpark...and never had to sit there. It was kind of fitting that my last game at the Vet would serve as payback for all the times I beat the system.

Section 651 was a long way from home plate

The Phillies maintained their 3-1 lead into the 6th inning, and the game was revealing itself as a true test of character for the Reds. When teams have little incentive to win, many fold when faced with a deficit. Cincinnati, however, decided to fight back.

The Reds showed their heart after trailing the playoff-contending Phillies

A run-scoring double by 1st baseman Sean Casey cut the Phillies' 6th inning lead in half, to 3-2. Then in the top of the 7th, a pair of Cincinnati rookies dealt the hometown team a serious blow. With a tiring Padilla still on the mound, pinch-hitter Dernell Stenson doubled home a run...and 3rd baseman Tim Hummel followed with an RBI single, giving the Reds a 4-3 advantage.

The score would remain the same through the bottom of the 9th, as Cincinnati closer Chris Reitsma worked around a 2-out double and walk to convert his 11th save of the year.

Veterans Stadium clears out after the Reds' win

The sold-out Veterans Stadium crowd was crestfallen, shoulders slumped as they headed for the exits. They knew that a golden opportunity to move one step closer to the postseason had just been squandered. For me, it was a different kind of sadness that I was feeling...stemming from the knowledge that I would never set foot inside the Vet again.

An era in Philadelphia sports ended in 2003

All that remains of Veterans Stadium in 2011 are some markers in Citizens Bank Park's "Western Parking Lot U." The Vet was imploded on March 21st, 2004...leaving behind a pile of rubble as the Phillies began a new era in the ballpark across the street.

The Vet's remains following its 2004 implosion

I will occasionally visit the Veterans Stadium site before Phillies games, and think back to half-a-lifetime ago. Every time I'm there, the memories that are hidden in my brain come rushing back to the surface. It wasn't the best ballpark. Hell, it wasn't even a good ballpark...but I will defend it for the fun times it provided me over the years.

Standing behind home plate at the former site of Veterans Stadium

Philadelphia fans can relate with that sentiment. They know the Vet won't win any historic building beauty pageants...but an outsider's verbal attack on the stadium is -- in their proud minds -- akin to berating the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Ben Franklin or cheesesteaks.

Good, bad, or somewhere in-between...Veterans Stadium certainly left its mark on the Philadelphia sports landscape.

Veterans Stadium, despite its criticism, hosted some significant sporting events

Sunday, August 14, 2011

An Uphill Battle

It is inevitable -- at some point in everyone's life, adversity will strike.

Whether it is a medical condition, trouble with a relationship, family issue or job can present us with various challenges to test our mettle. How we respond to them can determine one's physical and mental toughness.

On the Major League Baseball diamond, adversity shows itself in various ways. Injuries, slumps, losing streaks, issues with playing time and controversial umpire calls all contribute to making a long, 162-game season even longer.

The Mets have dealt with their fair share of controversy this season

The 2011 New York Mets have been dealing with adversity all season long. At various points, their depleted roster included an injured starting 1st baseman, 3rd baseman, shortstop, center fielder, and ace starting pitcher. During the last month, the Mets traded away their closer and All-Star right fielder.

In addition, the Mets were mired in financial controversy...thanks to the Bernard Madoff scandal and resulting lawsuits from his elaborate Ponzi scheme.

The Mets have found it difficult to escape Bernard Madoff's shadow

As a result, baseball experts wouldn't give New York a chance of contending in the National League this season.

Despite those obstacles, the Mets had battled their way to a 56-56 record -- and sat just 8 games out of a playoff spot -- as they entered last Sunday's (August 7th, 2011) game against the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves, meanwhile, carried some big expectations wherever they went. At 65-49, Atlanta had the 2nd-best record in the NL -- trailing the Philadelphia Phillies for the East Division lead, but holding a 3 1/2 game edge for the Wild Card.

The Mets trailed Atlanta by 8 games for the NL Wild Card as they entered Sunday's game

The threat of rain forced the two teams to abandon batting practice on the field before the game...and as a result, kept many fans from arriving at the ballpark early. For those who did show up during the morning, however...they were treated to quiet, uncrowded walks along the Citi Field concourse, and virtually no lines at the concession stands.

The rain held off...and as the crowd of 29,853 settled into their seats for the game, the Mets' starting lineup read like this: Jose Reyes - SS, Justin Turner - 2B, David Wright - 3B, Scott Hairston - RF, Jason Bay - LF, Angel Pagan - CF, Ronny Paulino - C, Nick Evans - 1B, Dillon Gee - P. Unfortunately for manager Terry Collins, though, he would soon be forced to improvise.

The Mets' starting lineup wouldn't remain intact for very long

The game was scoreless in the top of the 2nd inning, when Braves' outfielder Jason Heyward connected on a long, solo home run into the right-center field bleacher seats. The big story, however, occurred in the bottom-half of the frame, when -- during a Mets' rally -- Willie Harris was announced as a pinch-hitter for Jose Reyes.

Willie Harris pinch-hits for Jose Reyes in the 2nd inning

Suddenly, Mets' fans were distracted. As Harris blooped a single into center field, giving New York a 2-1 lead...many in the Citi Field crowd were searching for information about Reyes on their smartphones. Was it an injury? Illness?

Not only was the Mets' present game affected by this development, but potentially their future. With Reyes becoming a free agent at the end of the season, many were left to wonder what effect another injury would have on the star shortstop's open market value.

Any Jose Reyes injury could have lasting effects beyond 2011

The game forged on...and after the Braves tied it at 2 on a Michael Bourn fielder's choice in the 4th inning, a power surge gave them the lead in the 5th.

After Dillon Gee retired the first two Atlanta hitters in the inning, he walked Heyward. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez then blasted his 9th home run of the season, a 422-foot bomb that hit the facing of the 2nd deck in left field. That was immediately followed by rookie outfielder Jose Constanza's 1st career homer into the right-center field bullpen.

Jason Heyward greets Alex Gonzalez after his go-ahead 2-run homer

As some scattered Braves' fans did the "Tomahawk Chop" in celebration of the 5-2 Atlanta lead, Mets' fans groaned. Gee -- a rookie who entered the game with a 10-3 record -- was suddenly getting knocked around.

Dillon Gee was knocked out after the 5th inning

Meanwhile, Atlanta's prized pitching prospect, Mike Minor, was holding his own against the Mets. Called into duty after starter Jair Jurrjens went on the disabled list, the lefty Minor had allowed just 2 runs in the first 5 innings.

Atlanta rookie Mike Minor did relatively well in his emergency spot start

The Mets would make a move in the 6th, scoring 2 runs against Minor to cut the Braves' lead to 5-4. Pinch-hitter Daniel Murphy came through with an RBI infield-single, and that was followed by Harris' 2nd RBI hit of the day. Citi Field was buzzing once again.

Willie Harris produces his 2nd run-scoring hit of the day

In the top of the 7th inning, the Mets were dealt a bad break. Murphy, who went into the game at 2nd base on a double-switch, had to leave the game after Constanza unintentionally slid into his leg during a stolen base attempt.

Suddenly, the Mets were in a bind. They had already lost Reyes to what was later reported as a hamstring injury, and now Murphy was forced out with an apparent knee injury. Murphy had just replaced Harris on the double-switch, meaning that New York was now without 3 middle-infielders!

Manager Terry Collins was forced to get creative. Scott Hairston moved from right field to 2nd base, while Lucas Duda entered the game as the new right fielder. It was a stop-gap measure, and it was only the beginning in a series of moves.

Daniel Murphy is helped off the field following his 7th inning injury

Still trailing 5-4 and now undermanned, New York rallied in the home-half of the 7th against Atlanta reliever Eric O'Flaherty. A two-out single by Bay, followed by a double by Angel Pagan tied things up, 5-5. Mets' fans clapped and cheered, appreciative of the grit that their team has showed all season.

Angel Pagan's 7th inning double tied the ballgame

As the game shifted into the 8th inning, Collins' defensive creativity was taken to a whole new level. Third baseman David Wright moved to shortstop...his first game there since high school. Justin Turner, who moved to short after Reyes' injury, moved back to 2nd base. Hairston went from 2nd base to right field. Duda moved from right field to 1st base. Finally, Nick Evans moved from 1st to 3rd base. It was reminiscent of the rotation during a gym volleyball game.

The Mets' lineup had taken on a decidedly different look by the 8th inning

Later in the inning, backup catcher Josh Thole replaced Paulino on another double-switch. In a series of moves that were mostly borne from necessity, partly borne from strategy...the Mets had used almost every available position player -- and it was only the 8th inning!

During that frame, Braves' 2nd baseman Dan Uggla hit a clean single to right field. While it had no impact on the game's outcome, it extended a personal milestone. Uggla now had a career-long 28-game hitting streak.

Dan Uggla's opposite-field single extended his hitting streak to 28 games

The game remained 5-5 into the 9th inning. With Bobby Parnell on the mound for New York, the Braves came through in the clutch. A leadoff single by Gonzalez, a sacrifice bunt, and a pinch-walk by Eric Hinske set the stage for Atlanta.

Striding to the plate was Chipper Jones, the Mets' longtime nemesis. In 224 career games against New York, Jones had amassed a .318 batting average, with 47 homers and 147 RBI's. On a 1-1 count, he laced a Parnell pitch through the hole on the right side of the infield, scoring Gonzalez to give the Braves a 6-5 lead.

Gonzalez slides in with the go-ahead run on Chipper Jones' 9th inning single

Atlanta would close things out in the bottom of the 9th, as Braves' closer Craig Kimbrel notched his 34th save of the season.

The Braves celebrate a hard-fought win

For the Mets, it was a heartbreaking loss. Despite being shorthanded for much of the game, they had battled back from a 5-2 deficit. Moral victories are only worth so much, however...especially when a team is desperately trying to hold onto their faint playoff hopes.

So close, but yet so far for the Mets

Still, the moral victory has been part of a Mets fan's enjoyment of the 2011 season. Yes, it can be maddening at times...but for a team that was written off by the pundits during Spring Training and suffered significant injuries along the way, a .500 record in August is quite an accomplishment. Sunday's game was a microcosm of the journey.

Will this season's stumbling blocks lead to more success for the Mets in future years? While that answer is unknown, this much is certain -- good, bad or mediocre, it's been a memorable 2011 for the franchise and its fans.

The Mets (mostly out of necessity) used 18 of their 25 roster players in this game

Friday, August 5, 2011

Voted Off The Island?

By arena standards, it is a dinosaur.

Opened in 1972, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York is showing its age. Armed with only 32 luxury suites, a narrow concourse and one of the smallest seating capacities in the National Hockey League, New York Islanders officials claim that the building is hindering efforts to field a competitive hockey club.

Questions surround the future of Nassau Coliseum

They want a new, state-of-the-art that the Islanders can comfortably call home until 2045. This week, however, Nassau County residents put a wrinkle in that down a proposal that would publicly fund the new arena. It is the latest hurdle in a more-than-decade-long saga to construct a new building for the Islanders.

Without a new Coliseum, the Islanders' future is anything but assured. Their lease at the current Coliseum expires in 2015...and owner Charles Wang has publicly stated that the team will not play there once the time is up.

Artist's rendering of a new Nassau Coliseum

While Wang issued a statement this week indicating that he remains committed to staying on Long Island, other options do exist. A new arena under construction in Brooklyn for the NBA's Nets franchise could house hockey as well. Another New York City borough, Queens, has expressed interest in building an arena for the Islanders. Or, once the lease expires, the Islanders could opt out of the New York area altogether.

It is that final possibility which scares Islanders' fans the most. The franchise has suffered through instability since the mid-1990s, both on- and off-the-ice. Despite the roller coaster ride, the fan base doesn't want it to end altogether. Those who have stuck with the team through the tough times want to be around as the Islanders begin a run of success once again.

Islanders fans hope their team can stick around for another 40 years

Without the guarantee of a new arena, however, the question will continue to linger in both players' and fans' minds...what happens after the 2014-15 season? When I attend an Islanders' game during the next couple of years, it will be part-game, the past, present and future all converge in my thoughts.


My last trip to Nassau Coliseum was on February 26th, 2011...a chilly Saturday night in Uniondale. The Islanders were struggling through their 4th consecutive non-playoff season, entering the game with a 23-31-8 record. Their opponent, the Washington Capitals, were hovering near the top of the Eastern Conference standings with a 32-20-10 mark.

The Capitals and Islanders were at opposite ends of the Eastern Conference standings

Despite the on-paper mismatch, the fans came out in droves...partly to watch the Caps' superstar forward, Alex Ovechkin, in action. Before the game, a large crowd gathered on the Washington side of the rink during watch a player who -- at only 25-years-old -- had amassed nearly 300 goals in his NHL career.

Capitals' star forward Alex Ovechkin takes a shot during warm-ups

Although the Islanders were the decided underdog, they took the game to the Capitals in the early stages. Perhaps they were energized by the sold-out crowd of 16,250 -- the first sellout of the season at Nassau Coliseum. The Isles peppered Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth with numerous shots, but the 22-year-old goalie was up to the task.

Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth made some big saves in the 1st period

Midway through the 1st period, the Isles broke through. Forward Kyle Okposo carried the puck into the high slot, firing a wrist shot that eluded the traffic in front of Neuvirth, as well as the goalie himself. As the puck kissed the back of the net, Islanders' fans in attendance leapt to their feet and cheered. New York had grabbed a 1-0 lead...and carried it into the 1st intermission.

Kyle Okposo's wrister gave the Isles a 1-0 lead

Wandering the Coliseum concourse in-between periods, it becomes easy to see why the Islanders want a new building. Cramped walkways lead to pedestrian congestion, making it tough to visit with friends in other parts of the arena. Lines for the bathrooms and concession stands are long, taking the entire intermission (and sometimes longer) to dissipate. The inconvenience to fans may discourage some people from returning to the Coliseum...costing the Islanders revenue and hurting future attendance numbers.

The Nassau Coliseum concourse gets crowded -- especially when there's a sell-out

Following the 17-minute break, the Islanders added to their lead in the first minute of the 2nd period. Before some fans had even returned to their seats, a harmless-looking shot by defenseman Travis Hamonic found its way past the Islanders a 2-0 advantage.

Travis Hamonic's goal put the Islanders ahead 2-0

Looking to provide a spark for his team, Capitals' forward Matt Hendricks stepped up the physical play...dropping the gloves with Islanders' forward (and fighting expert) Zenon Konopka. As I looked on from nearby Section 208, the packed Coliseum screamed in delight at every punch that was thrown.

Zenon Konopka and Matt Hendricks mix it up in the 2nd period

After the fisticuffs, the Islanders continued their assault on the Capitals' defense. At one point in the 2nd period, the Isles had outshot Washington by a 19-9 margin for the game. Neuvirth was keeping the game within could the offensively-gifted Capitals make a comeback?

A sold-out Nassau Coliseum in late February

It didn't take long for that question to be answered. With just over 10 minutes remaining in the 2nd period, forward Brooks Laich scored his 13th goal of the season...beating Isles' goalie Al Montoya to cut the Washington deficit in half.

The Capitals celebrate Brooks Laich's 2nd period goal

The score would remain 2-1 through the end of the 2nd period. For those who showed up at the Coliseum to see Alex Ovechkin pad his season stats, they were disappointed to this point. The Islanders' defenders had kept the explosive left winger to the perimeter of the offensive zone, limiting his scoring opportunities.

Ovechkin takes a shot from the left wing

During the 2nd intermission, I looked around the Coliseum rafters and soaked in the Islanders' history.

Throughout the early 1980s, the Islanders were the envy of the National Hockey League. Four consecutive Stanley Cups, a collection of Hall-of-Fame players, a legendary coach, a Hall-of-Fame general manager. At one point, the Islanders had won an unprecedented 19 straight playoff series. Even as the dynasty faded in the mid-to-late '80s, the Islanders still fielded competitive teams...capturing Patrick Division titles in 1983-84 and 1987-88.

The Islanders were once one of the great dynasties in NHL history

The Islanders' fan base is getting antsy. No division championships since playoff series wins since playoff appearances since 2007...and now, there are questions about the team's long-term future.

The Islanders have a rich history -- but questions remain about the future

As the 3rd period got underway, the Capitals quickly added to Islanders fans' frustrations. With 17:36 remaining in regulation, forward Mike Knuble's 15th goal made it a 2-2 game. Then, just over three minutes later, forward Alexander Semin broke the tie...with an assist from Ovechkin.

The Capitals scored two goals early in the 3rd period to take the lead

Now faced with a 3-2 deficit, the Islanders had to find the offensive rhythm that they enjoyed during the first half of the game. Those players dressed in blue, orange and white regained their focus...selling out their bodies to try and score the equalizer...but it was all for naught. Neuvirth stopped 29 of the 31 Islanders' shots for the game, and after trailing 2-0 in the early 2nd period, Washington answered with 3 goals of their own...then held on for a 3-2 victory.

Close, but no cigar for the Islanders

After the game, I sat and waited as the Coliseum emptied, looking around at the dejected Islanders' fans...and those dressed in Caps' jerseys who had smiles on their faces. Yes, I was disappointed that the Isles didn't win...but I would be much more heartbroken if I had no Islanders' games to attend at all.

When a team's future is in question, it puts individual games in perspective

That's the most disconcerting thing about this week's failed referendum in Nassau County -- the great unknown. A couple years ago, a proposal was made to privately finance a new Nassau Coliseum -- the ill-fated Lighthouse Project. Now, a proposal to publicly fund the new arena has come-and-gone. What other options are there?

Throughout Nassau Coliseum's interior and exterior, there are signs that boldly declare "We're All Islanders." But for how long?

Will this statement be made beyond 2015?