|It's so hard to say goodbye|
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This is the 15th report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.
PHILADELPHIA -- "I'm going to miss this place."
That's an unremarkable statement, said so often by so many in so many different spots on the globe ... until you consider the context: Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. And until you consider who said it: a Phillies fan making the almost-vertical trek to the 700 level seats behind home plate.
As I, too, reached the highest deck in the stadium, I gazed out beyond the First Union Center, Lincoln Financial Field (the new Eagles stadium) and Citizens Bank Park (the Phillies' new yard), beyond the blue-gray field of enormous oil tanks to the Philadelphia skyline in the north.
And I could understand. Veterans Stadium is an eyesore, but it's Philadelphia's eyesore.
The Vet has one of the worst playing surfaces in all of sports, but it's Philadelphia's playing surface. Like Philly itself, the Vet gets no respect. It oozes Philadelphia character in a way you can only understand if you know Philly.
If the Phillies don't make the playoffs, the ballpark has about 30 more games of life. Next year, Larry Bowa & Co. will move across the street, into their new digs.
And the Vet will be stripped of everything that can be sold, from lockers and seats to escalators and turf and even parts of the outfield fence. And then it will be demolished.
So have a last look, if you get a chance. It's among the last of a breed.
1. Seat comfort: I recall the old seats, pre-1995, in hideous hues of orange, yellow, and brown (the red ones didn't look so bad), being uncommonly uncomfortable even when the stadium first opened in the early 1970s. Newer, dark blue seats, installed in 1995, are just fine, and the end seats have a little Liberty Bell engraved on the side, a nice touch. Site lines are excellent. Points: 3.5
2. Quality of hot dogs: Lukewarm. Small. Cold and bland. I couldn't stomach the thought, and the folks I approached to ask about the quality of the dogs were either drunk, or stoned, or both. In other words, they were unreliable witnesses who probably ate the wrapper first and didn't notice. 1
In other words, the food is lousy. There's plenty left over for the feral cats who live at the Vet and, as Donovan McNabb has observed, "just get bigger and bigger." On the plus side, it could be the least expensive food in the majors, with individual items tending to be a half-a-buck to a buck less than at other parks.
Chickies and Pete's Café, with Eric Gregg (yes, the large former umpire) as proprietor, is a pregame hangout. It's a fine addition -- a real sports bar with live music and multiple TVs, right inside the stadium. Try the crab fries. 1.5
4. Signature concession item: You think Philly, you think cheesesteak. But you gotta wonder what's up when you see a) not a single person ordering one; and b) not a single fan eating one. Funnel cakes (popular, even at $4 a pop) and Campbell's chicken noodle soup (unusual) are worthy of note. 1
5. Beer: They've got it. 1.5
6. Bathrooms: On one big concourse, all the bathrooms were closed, at least for a time. That's not good. In the fifth inning, the men's room I found was clean even during a busy time, and had plenty of soap and paper towels. There were some long lines at the women's rooms mid-game, but these disappeared by the later innings.3.5
7. Scoreboard: Video's fine, and all the out-of-town scores are posted (including scores for Phillies' minor-league affiliates). The thing is, you have to play connect the dots to read them. Lots of light bulbs are missing, which not only makes scores (and innings) hard to decipher but also lends a minor-league ambience. C'mon, we know the Vet's closing, but a few more bulbs won't break the bank, will they? 2.5
8. Quality of public address system: It's loud. And there seems to be a slight bowl-echo effect. Think Greg Brady as Johnny Bravo. It made the early and frequent warnings about what could get you arrested (or, as the P.A. man put it -- close paraphrase here -- "ejected, arrested, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law and face jail time") doubly ominous. 3
9. Fun stuff to do besides the game: Let's hope the new ballpark comes with a new playlist. Led Zeppelin and other "Classic Rock" fare are the sort you've already heard way too often. That's what they play between innings.
Unfortunately, the music's the only thing to boo between innings. But you can go to the lower level and look at the nice, prominent display of the new Phillies ballpark, and throw three pitches at high speed for $1.
The Phillie Phanatic is one of the few great sports mascots, and earns a point just for being his own, wild self. 2
10. Price/selection of baseball souvenirs: All kinds of goodbye-to-the-Vet memorabilia is available -- pennants, shirts, even a ceramic collector's plate ($39) of the kind you see advertised in Parade Magazine. There must be great nostalgia for the Vet. Who knew? Also, a thumbs-up for the good selection of Phillies-themed DVDs, including one of Kevin Millwood's no-hitter, at reasonable prices.
Jim Thome shirts are definitely a fan favorite. 4
11. Ticket price/availability: Ten bucks gets you a seat anywhere in the upper (700) level. Bring your oxygen mask. Leave your mitt at home. Willie Stargell is gone, and it's just impossible to figure how he once launched a homer nearly that far and high. 4
12. Exterior architecture: Here's an idea for what to do when the last fan has left the stadium: Fill it up with Rice Krispies and milk. Put an enormous spoon in it. Call it modern art. Take lots of aerial photos. Record the snap and crackle. Then: Pop! Blow it up.
Seriously, the lack of imagination that went into designing the thing is staggering. Although the name for the rounded rectangle -- an "octorad" -- is cool. 1
14. Access: It's right off the Interstate, alongside the other Philly arenas and stadiums. Getting there on Septa is a cinch. Parking is cheap. But be prepared to wait for a long time to park. 4
15. Ushers: They'e plentiful, even in the least-populated areas of the stadium, and seem friendly enough. 4
16. Trading-up factor: Despite an announced crowd of 28,000-plus for a Saturday night game in which the 1993 National League champion Phillies were honored, there were plenty of empty seats down low. By the fifth inning, I was comfortably close to the action along the first-base side. 5
17. Knowledge of local fans: Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg recently called Philly "the most negative sports city in America," and there's something to that. Philadelphia fans have become famous for showering loud, sustained verbal abuse on the great players (including Mike Schmidt) as well as the very good (poor Del Ennis, for example, who never understood the hatred). It continues with the current crop, and of course, poor performers get it worst. Pat Burrell is the favorite boo-bird target this season. He surely can figure out why.
Schmidt took it hard. "You're trying your damndest, you strike out and they boo you," he said. "I act like it doesn't bother me, like I don't hear anything the fans say, but the truth is I hear every word of it and it kills me."
But when Phillies fans put aside their strange pride in booing, they know how to appreciate good baseball. They're even nice to fans of the opposition, one phan giving a hale and hearty "Welcome to Philadelphia!" to an Expos fan sitting nearby. The guy was donned in full Montreal regalia (expensive warmup jacket, cap), and the Expos were winning at the time. That's very cool. 4
18. Seventh-inning stretch: Altogether forgettable. 1
19. Pre-and-postgame bar-and-restaurant scene: The City of Brotherly Love has its good sports bars, some even in the general neighborhood of The Vet. But the acres of parking lots and eight-lane ribbons of freeway that surround the sports complex just don't invite you to hang in them. 1
20. Wild-card: It's hard to enter the Vet without the lowest of expectations. The stadium is better than bad, despite its reputation. So, these are its bonus points:
a) Good move, putting in those dark blue seats in '95. They're a great improvement over the old orange, yellow, and brown ones. 1
b) You know you're in Philly when you're there. Inside the ballpark, there's that Rocky-ish, we're-underdogs-but-we're-tough aura. 1
c) So long, Vet. You will be missed. Sort of. 1
TOTAL SCORE FOR VETERANS STADIUM: 53.5