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

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