|The Last Opening Day at the Vet||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on April 05, 2003
It was my first trip to the Vet, and ironically, the Vet’s final year in service. Although the ball game itself was not a great one, I had a marvelous time visiting this old ball field.
There is something very special about visiting a ballpark you’ve never been to. It’s a place of legends, of dreams and even history - even with the new parks, as their history has yet to be written. The Vet has seen its share of legends: players like Pete Rose, Tim McCarver, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Jim Kaat all played here. Even so, the Vet was home to only one World Champion team (in 1980), though the Phillies won the NL three times. Perhaps more important to all fans, and to players, these are the fields of dreams. I could compare this to a religious experience because without a question these old parks are grand cathedrals.
The Vet (Veterans Stadium) is an older park. Opened in 1971, it was one of the cookie cutter ballparks of the early 1970’s. Even now it’s a beautiful park, but one with flaws and very obvious signs of age. Still, considering how much baseball I’ve seen in the abomination known as Shea, I have to admit that the Vet was a well designed ballpark for watching a game.
Its flaws lie not on the field (well there is artificial turf), or even the views of the game, but in the adaptations to modern technology, lack of adequate public facilities (specifically restrooms) and terrible food (though the selection of adult beverages was impressive). Still, if your heart and eyes are on the field, it’s a wonderful place to watch a game. The Vet is an intimate park, even when sitting in the most distant seats (I climbed up there to take a look); it gives a feeling of being close to the action. It’s inevitable that the new stadium is coming, and from the 700 Level Ramp F you can see the new stadium well under construction (though it looks very far from completion).
The opening ceremonies were beautiful, and appropriate for both an opening day, and a time of war (sadly I did not have a camera but a wonderful Phillies fan offered to e-mail me some of his pictures for use with this piece, hopefully I’ll get them before I put this piece up so I can include them). The pre-game ceremonies kicked off with a choral performance and tribute to the armed forces serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Following that, Art Garfunkel took the microphone to sing “America the Beautiful” while the PA Army National Guard unveiled the largest American flag I have ever seen, stretching across the outfield from one foul line to the other.
Following this patriotic salute were team introductions and a video of the 1971 home opener, followed by the introduction of the 1971 Phillies Alumni, including the old Phillies mascots Phil and Phillis. Of course, the Phanatic made his appearance too.
However, part of the celebration had been canceled in light of the war. The re-creation of the 1971 first ball being delivered, or more accurately dropped from a helicopter into the glove of Tug McGraw, had to be canceled, as was the flyover of the stadium by jets of the 111th fighter wing of the PA Air National Guard. Instead we got a video of the original ball being caught by Tug McGraw, a stunt he was to repeat before both brain cancer and the war interfered, followed by his sons, Matt and Mike McGraw, running in balls from the bullpen.
Then they paid tribute to Tug, a figure beloved through baseball, but perhaps most of all in Philadelphia. In what was meant to be the world’s largest get well card, the crowd rose to their feet and waved their rally towels in tribute to Mr. McGraw and to wish him well in his recovery.
With baseball just moments away, twin opening pitches were thrown, first by Vietnam veteran Frank Mastrogiavanni, a Marine and double amputee from Philadelphia who also threw out the first pitch at the Vet’s opener in 1971, and then by Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, the winning pitcher for the Phillies in that game on April 10, 1971.
Then the fireworks began. Sadly for Phillies fans, the pyrotechnics all came from the bats of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who tagged Joe Roa for 5 runs in their first at bats including a grand slam by Reggie Sanders. In truth, it was never much of a game, but it was a hell of an opening day.
Wish you all could have been there.