The Hungover Gourmet

 

This Place Makes Me Want to Boo:
A Visit to Vet Stadium's Final Weekend

Players and coaches that called it home often referred to it as a "dump" (or worse) and it was regularly voted one of the worst stadiums in sports.

Its unforgiving turf felt like cement and had derailed more than one career. (In 1993, Chicago Bears receiver Wendell Davis blew out both knees simply running down the field during a game.)

The concrete bowl at Broad and Pattison had a notorious reputation for attracting vile fans and a court/jail was installed after the Eagle faithful fired flare guns in the stands during a nationally-televised 'Monday Night Football' game.

It sat in a South Philly "sports complex" where it rubbed elbows with one-story warehouses and other nondescript business establishments.

Yet for all these shortcomings and personality defects, I found myself getting misty as I made my final trip to Philadelphia's much-maligned Veterans Stadium.

To me, The Vet was something special. It was where I'd seen my first pro baseball and football games. I spent many summer nights in its hard plastic seats watching the Phillies battle for one of two things: superiority or mediocrity. Usually the latter.

It was where we'd go to catch a twi-night doubleheader, munching greasy Roy Rogers Fried Chicken as the fans rained boos down upon Von Hayes, Juan Samuel and future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. Unable to afford the NFL's rapidly-escalating ticket prices, we welcomed the Philadelphia Stars of the short-lived USFL with open arms.

I still follow the Phils, thanks to the 2001 hiring of Larry Bowa – my all-time favorite baseball player – as manager.

But professional baseball wasn't the game I remembered. Players switched teams with alarming frequency and interleague play was no longer reserved for the All-Star Game and World Series.

As my wife and I drove north from our home outside Baltimore – where I, like the Stars, had relocated – memories of The Vet came flooding back. The concrete walkways, the prison-like turnstiles, the watered-down beers, chewy pretzels and soggy hot dogs. Good times, good times.

With dark clouds overhead, we wondered if they'd get the game in. The Phils had wilted in the late-summer drive for a wild card playoff spot (another greed-driven abomination), and this game's outcome was meaningless. But, as we approached and saw people cavorting atop statues and posing for pictures in front of the stadium, we knew it still meant something to the fans.

Thanks to the final series hype, the best tickets we could get were $10 seats in the 700-level. It didn't matter where we sat – I was just pleased the was team treating their soon-to-be-former-home with a little respect. Not like the Eagles, who belittled the stadium for years, never realizing that – in the words of Eagles great Bill Bergey:

"It's a dump, it's a toilet and the field is horrible, but it was our field, our dump and our toilet."

With our penulatimate game booty in hand – a bobblehead featuring 1970s Revolutionary War-themed mascots Phil and Phillis – we made our way up the concrete ramps. As the 95% humidity drenched us, we passed Lincoln Financial Field (the Eagles' new home) and the under-construction Citizens Bank Park, the new, baseball-only home of the Phightin' Phils.

Crowds gathered around the railings to gaze at the new ballfield and a fellow fan remarked, "It's not finished and it already looks better than The Vet." Nothing like a little Philly pride.

Finding our section, we made our way to the concession stand for $5.50 beers and $3.00 hot dogs. As we wandered back to our seats, the tissue-paper food carrier buckled under the weight of our snacks, and watery beer cascaded onto my shirt and pants. A group of Philly cops laughed as I wrestled the dogs and brews back into the holder, (expensive) cheap beer spilling everywhere.
"You know, you can get arrested for that," one cop cracked as his buddies in blue snickered. Remembering the days when Philly cops cracked skulls for kicks, I laughed and kept walking. Frank Rizzo may be dead, but old habits die hard – like thumping the melon of some wise-ass.

We returned to our seats in time for the first thunderstorm to dump buckets of late-summer raindrops upon us. We scurried into the tunnel and waited for the storm to pass. Minutes after returning to our seats another storm drenched us as The All Vet Stadium Team was announced.

The game finally started and it wasn't much different than the last month of the season – first baseman Jim Thome delivered all the offense he could muster while the rest of the team stood and watched. With one eye on the game and another on the approaching storms we listened as people around us shared their memories of The Vet with friends and strangers.

It was a bittersweet moment, sitting in The Vet one last time with my wife of two weeks next to me. It'd been a busy month: we were wed during a monsoon and our honeymoon was shortened by Hurricane Isabel, so today's rains seemed fitting.

As more clouds moved in overhead and threatened to dump another deluge, a six-year-old boy sitting behind us turned to his father and quietly said: "Dad? This place makes me want to boo."

I laughed and felt more drops of rain.

Maybe the kid was on to something. Perhaps there was more to The Vet than just a physical presence. Maybe its weird aura would live on, even after the seats were ripped out and the concrete columns imploded into so much dust and rubble.



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