Remembering The Vet: The Concrete Giant

The drive of just over an hour seemed to last an eternity. As a kid, it seemed that Dad never quite drove fast enough when we were going to a Phillies game. Almost the entire length of the trip, my child's eyes would look for that giant concrete place that my beloved Phillies called home. Eventually, it would come into view and as the adrenaline kicked in, the chance to watch my heroes in person drew closer and closer.

Ironically, Veterans Stadium wasn't the first major league stadium that I saw a game at. That would be Shea Stadium. My mother's uncle was a Mets fan – he came from the dark side of the family – and pushed and prodded until we all piled on a bus to go see the Mets and Cardinals sometime around 1972. The place seemed amazing and the golf carts with the giant baseball hats on them that brought relievers into the game seemed to be the coolest things.

Soon after that, Dad made sure that the Phillies influences kicked in. Just the size and grandeur of how Veterans Stadium looked to a kid used to baseball fields squeezed in amongst the rural cornfields of Allentown, Pennsylvania was absolutely amazing. That green stuff sure looked like grass and not anything like a giant version of that welcome matt that Mom had outside the backdoor. Remember those?

Back then, picking which games to go to could be tough. Forget seeing Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. The key was finding the right give away to go to. Posters, baseballs, bats, it was a never ending line of freebies. Even as I got older – okay, I admit that even today, a lot of the giveaways are a huge lure as I look at my Whitey and Harry bobblehead – the giveaways played at least a tiny part in the decision.

Like a lot of kids, I had my after school paper route to attend to. Those were the days of evening editions of papers. Somehow, I don't quite remember how, I won a contest for the carriers that entitled me to go with a group of other carriers to a Phillies game. The real draw was that we got to sit in the picnic area. The big draw to that was two-fold. One, there was the chance to get autographs from players and two, was Mary Sue Styles. For those that may not remember, the picnic area was along the left field foul line past the dugout. The seating consisted of picnic tables and folding chairs. As a pre-pubescent teen, my folding chair was situated right near Mary Sue. She was the Phillies ballgirl along the left field line and had become somewhat of a star in her own right. The Farrah Fawcett look-alike wore a tight Phillies top with pinstriped hot pants. Good ole Mary Sue was popular enough that she even had pictures of herself – 8 x 10 glossies – that she gave away and autographed for those of us lucky enough to be in her presence.

As the years went by and my collection of free Phillies stuff grew, so did the memories. Eventually, it was about seeing the great players. Realizing how special it was to actually see greats of the game play right there in front of you. On my last day of high school, my Dad, my brother and I piled in the car to go to a Phillies game. It was also my Dad's birthday. Before the game, there was a concert by Pat Benatar, who was somewhat of an unknown quantity at that time, but I remember how good she was and how I bought her album just days after the concert.

My career aspirations drove me into broadcasting. From there, it was a short trip to covering sports and that led to having media access to the Phillies. Finally, there was the chance to see behind the scenes of Veterans Stadium. The places only few people get to see. It also meant meeting and interviewing Phillies players and the great opposing players who came to Philadelphia. It meant hanging out, waiting for press availability to Mark McGwire as he chased the homerun record. Of all of the players that I had the chance to meet and interview, there was one person who stood out.

Being in broadcasting and loving baseball, meeting Harry Kalas for the first time was like being in the presence of royalty. I had met his broadcast partner Richie Ashburn a few years earlier at a TV station that I worked for. Ashburn was a guest on a talk show that they did and was great to be around. I remember that he sat for some time after the show just talking baseball with a bunch of us. Kalas had a true feeling of royalty, though. There was no arrogance connected with it, just a feeling that this was a special man. He was the one that made the Phillies come to life and put a voice to the team. He and Ashburn brought the game home and you could sense that they felt the same ups and downs that you did as you watched on television or listened on radio. Now, the Phillies broadcast booth at The Vet is officially known as the Richie Ashburn Memorial Broadcast Booth. A plaque outside the door sets the designation.

Behind the scenes is perhaps where you realize most of all that Veterans Stadium was literally crumbling. Pipes leak, elevators are always a gamble as to whether they'll actually get you where you want to be without a sometimes lengthy, unscheduled stop somewhere between the levels of the stadium. Chips in the concrete grow slightly larger over time.

Times change. Things change. Veterans Stadium doesn't seem to be the intimidating place now that it did to a young kid. Giveaways are fun, but they're not the main reason for attending a game. The people are now the main reason. That last visit to The Vet with my Dad before he passed away. The date with that someone special, who has never been to a major league game. Of course, the trips with nieces and nephews, giving them their first glimpse at major league baseball and the men who play it – not to mention, the giveaways. It's of course, also the stars. Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Jim Thome. They all made the place come alive.

Times change. Next season, those memories will likely seem a little more vivid as memory tries to hold on to every last drop of them even as Veterans Stadium is reduced to a pile of rubble that will simply be towed away and forgotten. Citizens Bank Park looms larger and closer every day. It's sort of sad watching Veterans Stadium fade away. That concrete giant is being replaced by a cozier and friendlier new home. Suddenly, those leaking pipes and chipping concrete seem a little more comfortable as The Vet – but not her memories – start to fade into history.


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