"More Than Concrete and Steel": A Goodbye to Veterans Stadium
By Ethan M. Lewis
September 28, 2003
Philadelphia and I paid tribute to our heroes this afternoon, and bid a fond farewell to the site where they gave us so many memories. Veterans Stadium opened for business in April, 1971 (four months before my 1st birthday) as the most modern multipurpose sports arena in America. The Vet boasted an AstroTurf surface, unimpeded sight lines, ample parking and a clean, comfortable place to watch a game. And of course, it wasn't just designed for baseball. Designed in an octorad shape (like a circle, but with many small facets), the stadium could be reconfigured to be the home of the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL, the Philadelphia Fury of the MLS (the short-lived Major League Soccer), and the site of rock concerts and other large events.
My hopes were not disappointed. The Phillies played well this year (finishing in 3rd place), and all season long the team worked to celebrate the great memories of the Vet. They organized reunions of the championship clubs of the past; gave away souvenirs to commemorate the teams of the 70's, and each day they had a member of the community or of the team change a number on the right field wall counting down the tally of games remaining to be played at the Vet. Philadelphia fans are not mawkish, overly sensitive, or sentimental, but all season long the changing of the number became a moment to celebrate. It is a great tradition, and I wish that it could be continued.
The Phillies were eliminated from post-season contention two days before beginning the final series at the Vet versus the Braves. While this was unfortunate for the Phillies, for the fans it meant that the games would derive their meaning not for their impact on the standings but as a chance to say goodbye to the home of the Phillies. The Saturday game was an odd experience: due to heavy, sporadic rain the pregame ceremony introducing the "All-Vet" Phillies team had to be hurried along, and most people were too busy holding umbrellas to clap. The Phillies managed a thrilling come from behind victory in the bottom of the ninth, to send the fans home happy. The final game on Sunday did not have a happy ending, as the Phillies lost to Atlanta , 5-2. Pat Burrell, the Phillies' star left fielder struggled mightily this year, barely hitting over .200, but he managed the final hit at the Vet, a line drive single to center in the bottom of the ninth. The biggest ovation in the game came when Hall of Fame announcer Harry Kalas took down the last number on the outfield wall, to signify that the Phillies' history at the Vet was over. In a classy touch, Major League Baseball let Jerry Crawford umpire home plate; his father Shag Crawford was the home plate umpire the day the Vet opened.
For the next part, the Phillies starting lineup for the season opener was called out to take their place. Then, to huge ovations, Phillies legends joined them. Jim Thome was met at first base by Dick Allen and John Kruk. At second base, Mickey Morandini and Manny Trillo joined Placido Polanco. Jimmy Rollins had Kevin Stocker and Larry Bowa for company. David Bell had Dave Hollins and Mike Schmidt with him at the hot corner. In the outfield Bake McBride, Lenny Dykstra, Greg Luzinski, and Garry Maddox were among the guests. Bob Boone and Darren Daulton stood with Mike Lieberthal at the plate, and Kevin Millwood was met by Steve Carlton. There were even more legends besides the ones I've mentioned. The thrill we fans received from seeing our former idols back in pinstripes was inspirational. To be able to thank these men one last time for the joy they gave us at the corner of Broad and Pattison was a special moment.
But the Phillies weren't done. First, each of the players filed around the field, finally touching home plate one last time. Then, after the cheers died down at last, Harry Kalas took the mike, and told us that the Phillies wanted to give us three more memories. Steve Carlton trudged to the mound, picked up a glove that had been left there, and for the final time at the Vet wound up and mimed delivering a pitch while Kalas repeated his call of Lefty's 3000th strikeout. After Carlton left the field, Mike Schmidt walked to home plate and picked up a bat. Once again, Phillies fans got to see his famous swing and as Kalas repeated his call of Schmidt's 500th homerun, the greatest third baseman of all time ran around the bases of Veterans Stadium for the last time. The applause was deafening.
Kalas then came back to the microphone, and said that there was one more memory left to deliver, and said that when the Phillies needed one more out, there was only one man they could call. At that moment, a limousine drove in slowly from the Phillies' bullpen in right field, and out of it stepped Tug McGraw. McGraw, the star reliever for the 80 World Champs, and an idol of the Philadelphia area, was stricken with brain cancer in March of this year, and has slowly been regaining his health after brain surgery. The roar of the crowd could have been heard in New Jersey as the Tugger walked to the mound, wound up, and (to the accompaniment of Harry Kalas' call) mimed the delivery of the final pitch to Willie Wilson that brought home the Phillies' only Worlds' Championship 23 years ago. He ran into the arms of Bob Boone at home plate, and every other member of the Phillies, past and present, ran to McGraw to hug him and shake his hand. Finally, with an amazing daylight fireworks display the Vet closed for good.
I feel so lucky to have been able to experience this moment in person. Athletes make so many sacrifices for the public, and when their careers come to a close, rarely receive any more public thanks for the joy they give us. And for me, an ardent fan, I felt like so much of my life was standing there on the field right before me, and that it was the best possible way to bid a fond farewell to what was, for me anyway, always the Field of Dreams.
©Ethan Lewis 2003 All Rights Reserved