04 Sep

Farewell to Veterans Stadium

“Vet memories get him back to the old ball game” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (September 4, 2003).

After the 1994 strike, I pretty much stopped watching baseball for almost a decade. I was turned off by the constant power struggles between owners and players, the quips and sound bites from Barry Bonds and the like complaining about paying local taxes, and the renaming of ballparks for condiment manufacturers and office supply stores. As the green of the fields gave way to the green of the sponsors, I fled.

There’s nothing like the pouting of millionaires and the destroying of tradition to disenfranchise an entire sport.

Way back in 1971, a revolutionary stadium came to life through the support of the city it called home, the ball clubs it housed, and the taxpayers it would seat. It was something the whole region could rally around, and ownership fell under the umbrella of “Philadelphia” – from residents to city wage earners and from players to owners. It belonged to all, and its name reflected the deep sense of tradition that is so much a part of baseball: Veterans Stadium.

Not a bad little name for a ballpark, was it? It was a place where history was made, tradition was celebrated, and memories were created. Granted, I was four years from even being born when Larry Bowa made that first hit, a single, at Veterans Stadium on April 10, 1971, but that doesn’t prevent me from cherishing its history.

I don’t know how old I was when my father took me to my first Phillies game at the Vet, but I remember the experience as if it happened yesterday. Like a first trip to the circus, it was one of wonder, mystery, and magic.

I remember walking up ramp after ramp as we headed up toward the general admission section. That voice I had heard in the background on televised games, Dan Baker, the stadium voice of the Phillies, was announcing the starting lineup; I remember smiling. After each player was announced, there was a roar from the crowd. It seemed deafening to my young ears, and I smiled even more. Televisions on the concourse level showed Harry Kalas, Richie Ashburn and the rest in their pregame banter. The smile growing, I remember thinking, “Those guys are actually somewhere in here!”

Then the ramps ended. The 700-level was reached, and I had my first glimpse of that wonderful field of dreams. The lights were brighter than they ever would be, the field was greener than it ever would be, and the crowd was louder than it ever would be. A kid from Drexel Hill, just 8 or 9 years old, I had stumbled upon heaven.

Right down there in front of me, were the heroes I watched on television each night. Here were the guys whose baseball cards I guarded with my life. There was the box behind home plate where Harry and Richie called the game. There was the Phanatic dancing on the Phillies’ dugout! Here they all were – in real life!

Over the years that initial bonding experience with Vets Stadium only grew stronger. Whether in person, on television, or through radio, I accumulated countless memories. Michael Jack’s 500th, and later his retirement. Glenn Wilson pegging runners out at first base from right field. Terry Mulholland’s no-hitter. Ricky Jordan’s first-at-bat home run. Dave Hollins getting plunked by yet another pitch. Bobby Dernier’s inside-the-parker. Game 7 of the ‘93 National League Championship Series.

Aside from the 1993 season, I am sure my die-hard years as a devoted Phillies fan (1985-93) aren’t envied by many. It seemed like a decade of struggling to climb out of the National League East division’s basement. Such was my fate as a Gen Xer. Despite all that, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because of that first trip to Veterans Stadium, every memory that followed was special. Then came the strike…

I didn’t enter the stadium again until opening day this final season. I needed to revisit my old friend before she was laid to rest. Perched up in the general admissions section, I again experienced the stadium, and was reminded that the magic, and the memories, live on.

So long, Veterans Stadium, and thank you. You will be missed, but the ghosts of Broad Street and Pattison Avenue will continue to cheer – and, of course, boo – you.