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Vet Cemetery The impending destruction of Philadelphia's aging stadium will mark the end of an era. And maybe an error

March 15, 2004
March 15, 2004

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March 15, 2004

High School Sports
  • Thanks to a selfless coach, the sons of Mexican migrants in a dirt-poor California town turned their backs on drugs and gangs and built an athletic dynasty. But what would they do without him?

Vet Cemetery The impending destruction of Philadelphia's aging stadium will mark the end of an era. And maybe an error

At 7 a.m. on March 21, Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium will be
imploded. The 33-year-old structure has already been almost
completely dismantled and will be a concrete skeleton when it is
destroyed....

This is an article from the March 15, 2004 issue Original Layout

We are called on to speak well of the dead, so on the verge of
its formal execution, let me find some nice things to say about
the much-reviled former home of my Philadelphia Phillies and
Eagles.

I'm thinking.

Ah! It had symmetry. It formed a clean and monumental circle on
the city's southern skyline. If you walked around the outside, it
looked the same, north, south, east and west. It was like a giant
concrete dog-food bowl on Philadelphia's back porch, and that's a
nice image. Almost everybody likes dogs.

It had size--for a while, the largest seating capacity (56,371)
in the National League. When they added seats for football--you
might remember the temporaries that collapsed during the 1998
Army-Navy game, sending cadets tumbling into the outfield--it
could hold even more. Former Eagles head coach Richie Kotite
jogged around the 300 level in the early afternoon. Buddy Ryan,
his predecessor, didn't jog. He sat in shadows underneath the
stands, spitting tobacco juice into little paper cups and
thinking of new ways to maim quarterbacks.

... Vet fans were famously obstreperous. During a 1997
Eagles-49ers game, 60 fights broke out in the stands. A municipal
court was set up in the stadium's basement....

The Vet was practical. Admittedly, this virtue was not always
obvious to baseball fans. On a sunny afternoon in the 700-level
outfield seats one could not actually see the ball. You could
watch, off in the distance, thumbnail-sized Steve Carlton go into
his leggy windup, you could see his smooth and beautiful throwing
motion, and you could hear (at a slight delay) the smack of the
ball in Bob Boone's mitt. But you might as well have been
watching one of those pantomime games of Shadow Ball performed to
amuse fans before old Negro leagues games.

Remember, the Vet was designed to allow Philadelphia to stage
rock concerts, evangelical crusades, Monster Truck rallies--often
on consecutive nights, with a green plastic rug to absorb the
abuse. It wasn't a ballpark, it was a venue, and as a venue it
sort of worked.

Here are two other nice things about the Vet.

--The seats were set farther away from the field than at most
stadiums, so when people tossed batteries and beer bottles it was
often without consequence. For instance, when Eagles fans threw
snowballs at Santa Claus, no one actually hit him.

--The ramps were nice and wide, so when guys threw up, there was
plenty of room to step around it.

... Though it was considered state of the art when it opened, the
stadium was eventually derided for its similarity to "cookie
cutter" parks in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh....

The Vet was built when the word ambiance would not have appeared
in a sports article. It was built before baseball had been
elevated to its current quasireligious Field of Dreams status and
before seats to NFL games were corporate perks. It was built when
a game was still a pastime for the common man.

That said, there can be no excuse, ever, for plastic turf.

Last but not least, the Vet helped the Phillies win their only
world championship: In 1980, Game 6 against the Royals, top of
the ninth, bases loaded, one out, Frank White fouls a Tug McGraw
pitch toward the Phillies' dugout. In one of your designer
stadiums, the ball would have been way foul, but at the Vet,
which had enough foul territory to accommodate an amusement park,
there was space for Boone to flub the catch and for Pete Rose to
make it. Another Willie Wilson whiff, and the Phils won it all.

We probably won't will live to see another such moment. So let us
take this time to reflect, wipe a tear from our eye, express our
appreciation.

O.K.?

... The site will be a 5,500-space parking lot....

Now, let 'er blow.

... The implosion will take 58 seconds.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNERCOLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. (MCGRAW)TWO B/W PHOTOS: AP (WALLENDA)COLOR PHOTO: TOM MIHALEK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (IRVIN)COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/WIREIMAGE.COM (MCNABB)TWO COLOR PHOTOS: EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES (CHEERLEADERS, ARMY-NAVY GAME)

Mark Bowden is a longtime Philadelphian, national correspondent
for The Atlantic and the author of Black Hawk Down. A collection
of his magazine writing, Road Work, will be published this fall.

Memories, Set in Concrete
Since 1971, the drama was real even if the grass wasn't

1980
PLUCKY TUG McGraw helped the Phillies to their only World Series
title.

1972
KARL WALLENDA made the 640-foot walk across the field on a steel
cable between games of a doubleheader.

1999
THE ARMY-NAVY game was played at the Vet 17 times, starting in
1980.

1999
PHILLY FANS CHEERED when Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin suffered
a career-ending neck injury.

2002
EAGLES CHEERLEADERS sued, claiming they were spied on while
dressing.

2003
QB DONOVAN McNabb led the Eagles to the NFC title game, their
last in the old park.

"I would call her periodically just to say hello because we were friends."
--ERIC DAVIS ON MARGE SCHOTT, PAGE 20