Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Veterans Stadium
HOME TEAM: Philadelphia Phillies
FIRST VISITED: August 13, 1986
CHRONOLOGY: 4th of 34
RANKING: 31st of 34
There was nothing to like about Veterans Stadium. But repeated exposure to it made me like it just a little — just enough to recall it with a modicum of fondness.
Which makes no sense, considering that each of my three visits to the Vet was to see the Mets play, and the Mets lost each time. The Mets weren’t any good on those occasions and it wasn’t like the Vet was improving with age. Yet…damned if I know, by the time it was gone, I sort of felt bad about it.
Which makes no sense.
Speaking ill of departed ballparks seems rather insensitive (and you know what suckers for sensitivity Philadelphia fans are). Perhaps it’s because the Vet was the first park I visited that eventually disappeared from the landscape, I felt something for it in death that I’d barely detected in life. For years, it sat beneath the infinitely and objectively more pleasant Royals Stadium and Jack Murphy Stadium on my list. It was only when I had to face the fact that a place I got to know a bit better than most out-of-town venues was going away that it mysteriously floated up slightly in my affections.
Call it misplaced sentimentality. Call it the Dead Vet Bounce. Call it an appreciation of sincerity: The Vet sincerely didn’t care what you thought about it, and at the end of the day I kind of respected that.
Veterans Stadium was as unpretentious as a ballpark could get, which was appropriate because what could it possibly have pretenses toward? It was hard. It was plastic. It was numbingly round. You didn’t rush to embrace it and you wouldn’t dare hug it. If you tried, I suspect you’d come home with bruises on the inside of both arms, and maybe a jab between your shoulder blades. But it got the job done, no matter how unpretty the job. Your job, as the fan, was to watch the game. You watched the game at the Vet. There was nothing else to look at.
Also, it was there. Veterans Stadium appeared unmovable. I had come to count on it as the out-of-town ballpark that, if I wanted to be adventurous on a moment’s notice, I could be. A map showed me Philadelphia was very close to New York. When I was a kid, my idea of living it up would be to hop on Amtrak, buy one of 62,000 tickets and see the Mets in Philly. The whole thing couldn’t cost that much and I could be there and back in the same day. My exotic impulses have always been tempered by a limited desire to leave the house.
I followed through, at last, in the summer of 1986. It was almost spur of the moment — spur of the four days, at any rate. The weekend after my friend Fred’s first Mets game ever (as God was his witness, he had no idea one could just walk up to a baseball stadium and purchase a ticket), I upped the ante. Hey, I said, after a couple of beers at a barbecue, the Mets are in Philadelphia this week, we should just, like, GO.
And Fred was, to my gratification, YEAH! He’d had a few beers, too.
It wasn’t a big deal. Midafternoon on Wednesday, I picked him up and, save for a mysterious wrong turn that had us touring some unanticipated Pennsylvania precincts, we were at the Vet well before gametime. It wasn’t as easy as getting to Shea from the South Shore of Long Island, but it wasn’t that much more difficult, not when I was 23 and still had my driving legs. Fred and I always aspired to a ROAD TRIP! and this was pretty much it.
After we bought our tickets (along with a lot of other Mets fans), I insisted we walk the circumference of the Vet. A year earlier, on my first trip out of town for a ballgame, to Fenway, the walk around the park was fascinating. The walk around the Vet was less so. I think we gave up after discovering that no matter how much one walked, nobody ever saw anything different.
The theme followed inside. Circular is as circular does. Boy was that place round. And plastic. This was my first in-stadium exposure to artificial turf and it was not a shade of green found in nature. Not one found in ballparks prior to 1965, certainly. The Phanatic himself looked less synthetic.
This was the first time I ever sat in the outfield for a baseball game. The Mets helped the Phillies draw nearly 40,000. We were up there somewhere, PhillieVision breathing down our necks. No complaints, however, considering ten days earlier we were in the Upper Deck at Shea when Ray Knight singled home the winning run over the Expos. Not too many complaints over the Mets losing 8-4 given that the defeat trimmed our National League East lead over the Phillies to a trusty 20 games. If you were a Mets fan in the summer of 1986, your problems were few. It was very amusing to me that a home team fan sitting in front of us, oblivious to the scoreboard but probably mindful of the standings, kept declaring how much better the Flyers were than the Rangers since neither of those teams were participants in the sport taking place on that godawful carpet downstairs.
I was also endlessly amused by my own shtick of the moment, which consisted of popping out the bottom of a soda cup and blaring in what I thought was a hilarious voice, “MOOKIE WILSON, THIS IS YOUR CONSCIENCE SPEAKING — HIT A HOME RUN!” Fred laughed the first three or four times I did it. Then he told me to knock it off. Approximately half a lifetime later, I publicly apologize to Fred for overshtick.
Other nuggets that stay with me:
• Lee Mazzilli hit his first Mets 2.0 home run that night.
• The public address announcer sounded suspiciously like “Mr. Thompson,” secretary of the Continental Congress in 1776, which also took place in Philadelphia. This led to my other shtick of the evening, pretending that every batter he announced was one of the thirteen colonies: “NOW BATTING…DELI-WARE!” This didn’t grate on Fred as much for some reason.
• I bought a bootleg rubbery Phanatic in the parking lot after the game for Philadelphia expatriate friend then living in Florida. Five bucks.
• We stopped at a Roy Rogers on the Turnpike halfway to New York.
And then we drove the rest of the way home. Got in around 1:30 in the morning (technically the next day, but the convenience factor held) to find my parents up in the kitchen, eating cantaloupe and watching TV. How was it? they asked in earnest. I told them it was fun despite the loss. It’s also fun to remember that my parents were Mets fans in 1986. (Then again, who wasn’t?)
In the ensuing decade, I’d visit 13 more baseball stadiums, several of which redefined what fans could expect out of their ballpark experiences. The Vet was as much the norm as anything in the mid-’80s but was clearly was old hat by September 1996, yet I got the itch go again. I decided I wanted to make another trip to Philadelphia. The All-Star Game had been there in July and I’d inquired into FanFest tickets (unsuccessfully). Undaunted, I pitched an overnight trip to Stephanie, who had never been to Philadelphia, and she swung at it.
We chose the last Met-Vet series of the season, late September. This time the Mets’ lead over the Phillies was 5 games; sadly, it was the margin between fourth and fifth place in the N.L. East. Neither team was going anywhere but home, yet I still managed to secure lousy seats. Attendance — paid if not physical — was in the 27,000s, perhaps attributable to it being Phan Appreciation Day wherein everybody was handed a random premium that had gone unclaimed over the course of other 1996 promotional dates. We were the proud recipients of a pair of Phillies yearbooks.
The Vet may not have been completely empty that Sunday, but it wasn’t like the city was buzzing in anticipation of this Philly finale. The Inquirer was full of hype over the Eagles playing the Falcons on ESPN come evening. Yeah, I’m pretty sure we were the only ones who made a weekend out of the Mets and the Phillies.
Funny thing, though. With nothing on the line for either team, I sort of took to the Vet more than I had in ’86. Rain threatened — I’ve been very lucky never to have avoided a rainout on a ROAD TRIP! We took Philadelphia’s adorable version of a subway from our Center City hotel and, as was the case in ’86, got there very early. While the skies held out, we tried another walk around the premises. Found a few statues and trees and such this time. It wasn’t altogehter blah.
Up in whatever level I landed us, it was very quiet before the game. Eerily quiet. This wasn’t going to be an overly anticipant crowd. No ushers or anything like that up there either. Preparing for the imminent passing gullywasher, I grabbed about a hundred paper towels from the men’s room. Nobody in there either. It occurred to me one I could plant the Mets flag in this section of the Vet, claiming it for the descendants of Queen Isabella, and not a sole Philadelphian would raise an objection. Not a sole Philadelphian was in sight.
It cleared up eventually, and there would be Phillies fans on hand, as well as Mets fans. It was pretty mellow. Nobody who shows up on the last Sunday of the home season to watch a fourth-place team and a fifth-place team actively seeks trouble. By the time the Vet called it quits in 2003, it was best known for its internal criminal justice system — several holding cells and an actual courtroom for overly “enthusiastic” Iggles fans — but to be perfectly fair, I never had a problem with any threatening Phillies pholk there. I even found three things to like about it before we headed back to the SEPTA, our hotel and, ultimately, Amtrak:
1) Funnel cake. Advantage Philadelphia; beloved Shea had no such baked dessert option, unless you counted beer.
2) Blue seats and a fresh carpet, incrementally ratcheting down the hideousness factor
3) The revelation that this here is what my sister and people like her (not sports fans) must think a ballpark is. It had been four years since the opening of Camden Yards. Like a lot of baseball fans, it and the retro wave that followed it changed my perception of what a ballpark could be. But when the Vet was being squeezed from the same mold as Three Rivers in Pittsburgh and Riverfront in Cincinnati — two places I never checked out since I was assured they were basically Veterans Stadium — this was the standard. The standard had since been raised since the Vet opened in 1971. Thank heavens for Camden Yards, I thought. Too bad for Suzan (and her fellow non-fans) that they’d never appreciate the difference.
The cake, the blue and the conclusion all dulled the slight pain of a perfunctory 4-3 walkoff loss. Technically, we weren’t stung until later, for we had walked away in the eighth because we had to catch our Northeast Direct at 30th Street Station. One makes choices when one commutes to the old ballgame.
But we were back home the same night. All hail relative proximity!
My final trip to the Vet was not at my instigation. It was September 1999. My friend Richie’s birthday was approaching, his milestone 40th. He had never been to see the Mets anywhere but Shea. So how about it? he asked. I responded in the affirmative while he was still on “about”. He and his son picked me up early on Sunday, September 26, and, as with Fred and me thirteen years earlier, we were there in what felt like no time. The trip took easily less than two hours. Heck, we were so early, we drove around South Philly looking for brunch (settling adventurously on McDonald’s) and were still in the Vet parking lot before noon. It never occurred to me there was anything approximating a neighborhood there. In ’86, I was focused on not getting hopelessly lost. In ’96, all I noticed near the subway entrance was the Spectrum and the replacement for the Spectrum.
For luck, we parked under a lamp post with a sign that said 17. Gotta be lucky, I said: Keith! Alas, that was the only reminder of the 1986 Mets that day, except that it was yet another Mets @ Phillies loss for me. Unlike ’86 when we had all the cushion in the world, and unlike ’96 when the string was being played out, this one hurt a great deal. It was the sixth loss of a seven-game skid that saw the Mets tumble from fighting for the division title to just about blowing the Wild Card. Oh, it was not a happy birthday for Richie. I had to all but literally peel him off the floor of a Super Box, the Vet equivalent of a Diamond View Suite. Truth be told, it was about as luxurious in there as the Vet jail, and how we wound up inside it I’m still not 100% sure. Richie had bought us some nice Loge-ish tickets, but he had a friend, and she knew somebody and…let’s just say that no seat is a good seat when your team seems to be playing its way out of the playoffs.
If the Mets hadn’t come back one week later at Shea to forge a Wild Card tie on the timeless timeliness of Melvin Mora, I’d have nothing good to say about that last trip to the Vet (or Shea…or baseball). But with hindsight colored by the sweet victories of October 1999, that final September Sunday left me feeling simpatico with the Vet. It was kind enough to have a 17 in the lot. It must not have minded our presence too much.
Something about the ease with which we pulled in and pulled out of that parking lot, from and to Long Island in a veritable blink, and maybe the way we cheered for our team with impunity in a technically restricted area of the stadium (most of those on the “luxury” level were watching the Eagles battle the Bills on TV), gave me a sense of comfort at what was otherwise rightly considered an uncomfortable edifice. “Home away from home” would be too strong an endorsement — more like a change of pace rather than a totally alien environment. Less hostile than I understand its successor in Philadelphia has become, too, though that probably has something to do with the recent competitive composition of the National League East; the Mets may have lost all three of my games there, but the Phillies were never better than the Mets in any of those seasons. All told, if I didn’t exactly mourn the passing of the Vet, I didn’t curse it all the way to hell, either.
It was hulking and unapologetic. It was simple that way. It was Veterans Stadium.