You talking to me?

Legend has it that rookie Scott Rolen once left the Phillies clubhouse at the Vet after getting hit repeatedly by Dodgers’ pitcher Hideo Nomo, strolled over to the visiting clubhouse, and called out the pitcher. Essentially, according to the legend, Rolen told Nomo that the beanballs stopped now, only not so nice.

From that point on, Rolen always hit well against Nomo.

This apparently occurred back when there weren’t TV cameras everywhere or guys with BlackBerrys ready to put the TwitPic online.

Yes, those were simpler times.

Nevertheless, when Prince Fielder left the visitors’ clubhouse at Dodger Stadium to go into there were teammates, cameras and security guards on the scene. The next thing you know, voila, there’s a YouTube video.

Like this one:

(Late) Morning appreciation

CusackThere is a line in the movie High Fidelity (it’s probably in the book, too) where John Cusack’s character, Rob, defends the highly refined tastes of he and his pals Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso) by declaring that they are “professional appreciators.”

Isn’t that a nice sentiment? An appreciator… that’s like a fan only better. An appreciator accepts the effort and understands nuance. They search for the sublime and revel in it whether it’s a tiny strummed chord of a guitar, an understated sense of style or an unspoken acknowledgment.

It’s kind of like that scene in Pulp Fiction where Winston Wolf turns and gives Jimmy a quick nod after the first sip of coffee that was crassly called the “gourmet [bleep]” by Jules.

I’ve always believed that the success of something like “American Idol” was because Americans, generally, are not appreciators. Instead, we enjoy watching the failure of others. We enjoy feeling like we are better than others and laugh at people when they put themselves out for public consumption and fail.

That combined with spiraling, out-of-control credit card debt, low-brow culture and all-you-can-eat buffets are what Americans do better than almost anyone else.

I’d say Americans do sports and sports fandom better than any nation in the world, too, but that would just be crass jingoism. The fact is that most of the world has caught up with us in athletics, but then again I usually just base this notion on how well the U.S. team performs in Olympic basketball. Charles Barkley said prior to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona that the U.S. can play basketball and drop bombs better than any country in the world. Sadly, I don’t Sir Chuck’s boast holds up any more.

But it appears as if Charles is singlehandedly proving the buffet theory.

Nevertheless, the rest of the world has seen our version of football and baseball and, frankly, they aren’t very impressed. American Football, as it’s called everywhere else, appears to be the one sport that captures no imagination whatsoever. They all have their own football and all the ancillary stuff that go along with it, thank you very much. In fact, a good old soccer hooligan makes the standard 700-level Eagles’ fan look like a choirgirl.

Certain soccer fans actually are detained at the border when attempting to enter most foreign countries. The fear is that if soccer fans go to, say, Belgium, an international incident could occur, leaders will stop talking to one another and the Euro will drop lower than the dollar.

All that for what? Soccer?

Meanwhile, certain Eagles fans are sometimes prevented from purchasing more than two $8 beers at a concession stand at the Linc. As a result, Joe Banner won’t be able to make the numbers work on the spreadsheet and the team won’t be able to afford that much-needed wide receiver.

So drink up, folks, but do it with a certain decorum. That means when you are sitting at the tax-payer funded football stadium, compress your opera hat and put away the monocle before attempting to dry heave on the patron in front of you.

After all, we are a society and the team needs that special receiver with the ability to dig out passes thrown to the shoe tops.

But you know what else we can do better than anyone else? We can wax on about baseball. Yes, it’s true. It’s also true that there are companies that exist solely to produce that saccharine sweet baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life bullbleep. You know, that NPR/Field of Dreams tripe about ghosts walking out of the corn or holding your dad’s hand as you walk into Fenway or something like that. Man, it just makes me want to throw up.

implosionWhy, you ask (or even if you didn’t I’m going to write it anyway)? Perhaps it’s because the reality of life has made a bigger impression than the fairy tale. For instance, my first exposure to baseball came at Veterans Stadium and Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. At the Vet the design was so bad that nearly every seat in the house sucked. I can remember walking in there for the first time in 1976 and thinking that we’d be better off watching the game at home on TV – at least then I’d be able to see what the players looked like. At least then I wouldn’t have some jackass spill beer down my back as I nursed a nose bleed brought on from the altitude of the crappy seats.

Or in Baltimore, a neighborhood stadium with sardine-styled parking, National Bohemian beer ads everywhere, and drunk cab driver on the dugout leading the cheers for the weeded crowd that needed to yank out the ganja one last time so that the he would be numb for when the police billy clubs rained down on him after being tackled for running out on the field.

You’re crazy if you think going to places like that doesn’t have an affect on a kid prone to over-thinking everything.

Even now it seems as if baseball is personified by odd behavior. Like Billy Wagner exposing himself after being asked about throwing a slider or Brett Myers just being Brett Myers.

The truth is I prefer the reality to the produced fairy tales. I appreciate it. Just like the put on part – you know, the crap about how time starts on Opening Day – the truth is so different from real life. Accepted behavior and norms are pulverized with a fungo and no one goes to jail for it.

Who doesn’t appreciate that?

So let’s wax on…

A few years ago the Vet was closed and mercifully blown up. Personally, I think the park got off easy. I would have preferred torture instead of implosion, but it all worked out in the end. Nevertheless, Yankee Stadium is closing at the end of this season and already the odes are hitting the ether. Here, Tyler Kepner of The New York Times gets into the off-limits areas of The Stadium.

Ron Guidry played the drums before taking the mound? Cool.

Meanwhile, The Times has a whole page for Stadium stories.

Also in New York, former Phillie (and all-around solid dude) Nelson Figueroa’s Quixotic or Coste-ian (yes) journey across the globe to find work as a baseball could end with a gig in the Mets’ bullpen. If Figgy doesn’t start the season at Shea, it could be New Orleans, which, obviously, is better than Taiwan.

Finally, CBS college hoops announcer Billy Packer doesn’t care much for… well, anything. Especially sports.
Top 5 songs mentioned or heard in High Fidelity
Suspect Device – Stiff Little Fingers
Janie JonesThe Clash
Let’s Get It On – Barry Jive & The Uptown Five
Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam – The Vaselines
Walking on Sunshine – Katrina & The Waves

One last ode to The Vet

The VetFor those of us who grew up going to the Vet and had dreams of one day playing for the Phillies on that endless sheet of green carpet, Sunday’s last game was a very bittersweet day. On one side, we recognize that a modern ballclub cannot continue to operate with that place as its home ballpark. It’s worn down and obsolete with all the charm and personality of a toilet seat. The second one walks through its gates, the closed in feeling and imagery of a dungeon pervades the atmosphere. Being in the Vet is like that trash compactor scene from Star Wars. Any second now, and the walls are going to flatten you like a pancake on top of Chewbacca.

But the Vet is our dump. It’s where we wanted to play if we ever became big leaguers. It was a schoolboy point of reference, as in: “He hit it so far, I bet it woulda gone out of the Vet!”

More than the Liberty Bell, or Independence Hall, or the Art Museum steps, Veterans Stadium was Philadelphia. Like us it was imperfect, was too big and clumsy, and needed to get with the times.

Heck, the Vet was the place no corporation ever wanted to buy the naming rights for. There is something very admirable in a place like that.

OK. Here it comes. I’m going to inject that dreaded personal pronoun and write gush about how the Vet is my kind of place. You know, the kind of place where a guy, after a $5 beer bender, can buy salty, stale pretzels in brown paper bags out of a shopping cart in the parking lot after a ballgame for a buck.

Talk about a good deal.

You see, I’m not like Billy Crystal. Although I do have that romantic, NPR, baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life buried deep in the locus of my mind, I only bring it out when I’m watching The Natural or Field of Dreams… alone. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen the real side of baseball and know that the romanticized view doesn’t exist except for on Old-Timers Day or in Cooperstown. Baseball is curse words, a hot grounder that misses a glove and turns the shin purple, spitting and an obstructed-view, upper-deck seat next to a drunk who just spilled another beer on your shoes…

At the Vet.

No, unlike the way Billy Crystal describes his first game in every interview he’s ever done about the subject, I don’t remember holding my dad’s hand, walking through a tunnel and seeing a sea of green at my first game. Mickey didn’t “hit one out” and the Yankees didn’t win.

I’m not like John Updike either, although we both come from the same part of the country. Updike wrote that magnificent ode to Ted Williams where he described Fenway Park as that “little lyric of a ballpark” with its idiosyncratic dimensions, high wall in left and acre of green grass, walls and seats. Unlike Shillington, Pa.’s most famous native son, I didn’t spend my college days contemplating the asymmetry and greenness while watching Teddy Ballgame or Yaz.

I’m not like Bob Costas or Mike Lupica. I don’t have Mickey Mantle baseball cards nor have I indignantly purchased bleacher seats for poor kids in the Bronx. Unlike Costas or Lupica, I don’t know how, or even want to make the game better because like the Voice of Summer, Harry Kalas, says, “It’s such a beautiful game.”

No, for people my age who grew around here, we were robbed of that saccharine-sweet romanticism Billy Crystal, John Updike and Bob Costas all possess. It’s as if we truly can’t be a real baseball fans because we didn’t experience baseball as a child like they did. At my first game on a summer night in 1976, I didn’t walk through the tunnel at a baseball cathedral to a scene so green that it could burn my eyes out.

That’s because my first game was at the Vet.

Yep, old Veterans Stadium… it opened the same year I was born and if it were a person, it would have graduated high school the same year I did. It would have gone off to college at the same time too, although it probably would have graduated before me. We would have played little league together, watched the same TV shows and grown up experiencing issues like school busing, the energy crisis, Jimmy Carter, the Iran Hostage Crisis and Ronald Reagan. We would have been teenagers when the Space Shuttle blew up and when Buckner missed the ball. We could speak the same language, hold the same values and have the same status in life.

And we would always ask each other where we were when Tug threw that last pitch. Weren’t we so lucky that our parents let us stay up to watch the very end? Wasn’t it so cool watching them dump champagne all over each other?

And man, didn’t Mitch jump so high after striking out Bill Pecota? It looked like they were going to trample him when the whole team rushed to the mound.

If a private group owned the stadium instead of the city of Philadelphia, it would have been condemned a long time ago. Feral cats now own the place, having long ago taken over after a brief turf war with the rats. In the summertime, the biggest moths seen outside of the Everglades fly in and out of the lights and shadows like a dizzy kid who has been spinning around in circles for five minutes straight. Then there is what attracts these creatures: cracks in the walls, exposed pipes on the ceiling with what one can only assume could be equal parts rust and asbestos clinging like a lemming to a cliff.

There are cob and spider webs the size of batting cage nets in every corner and dripping water every where — on the floor of the bathrooms, corridors and dugouts. Why would anyone want to come here for 81 games every season? It is, as Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie unceremoniously tagged it in arrogant and snobby derision, a “dump.”

But it’s our dump, right?

“This isn’t a grass field like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field or Yankees Stadium that they are never going to tear down because of the memories.” Mike Schmidt said on Saturday. “[The media] is trying to make it like we should be crying because they are going to tear down the Vet. It must not have that much significance if they are going to blow it up.

“We all leave with our memories. But I think we all agree that we need to take our memories and get the hell out of here.”

The Vet.

  Veterans Stadium during its implosion. (AP)

It’s where Gary Maddox ran like a gazelle to flag down a fly to center as smooth as silk. It’s where the Bull hit one so hard off the wall in left that he could only get a single out of it. It’s where Schmidty dug into the box, tapped the outer edge of the plate and did his little wiggle. In the field he’d charge a chopper as quickly as cat leaping out of a car before he caught it with his bare hand.

It’s where Bowa, with the bill of his cap always pointing in the air, made his heavy, three-quarter armed throws to first. It’s where his emotions were never held in check and the word “scrappy” came to life. It’s where Manny Trillo made every play and Bake McBride’s hair burst from underneath his cap like bread baking in an oven over its crock.

Tug slapped his glove against his thigh here. Lefty, with his high leg-kick, made the slider the nastiest pitch ever known to man here. Trying to hit it was like trying to eat soup with chopsticks, Willie Stargell said.

Everyone complained about the turf. The fans, players, announcers, coaches, owners and Wendell Davis hated it. In fact, Dick Allen said: “If a horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.”

But the turf was pretty cool, too. Remember how Pete Rose would spike the ball high off the turf after the third out? Or that zamboni that would clear the water from the outfield after it rained?

Remember how the place used to look? How about those two scoreboards beyond the outfield fence? And that fountain in center? It looked like Caesar’s Palace.

Remember how strikingly colorful the place was? How the green turf and green walls against the Crayola-perfect brown dirt in the cut outs where the bases were perfect? A deep red warning track and a bicentennial mural beyond the outfield fence and red, white and blue bunting hung on the facades were so beautiful that there really was no other place to be. It was like an Easter egg come to life.

Remember how excited you’d get as kid driving in for a game? The second you caught a glimpse of the lights your heart would beat faster. Then, just before coming over the bridge, there it was. Gigantic. With those swirling ramps and enormous statues out front — the football player kicking and the baseball player sliding. Remember how you couldn’t wait to get out of the car as soon as you knew you were near? And when you finally got out of the car, remember how it took all of your power and patience not to sprint to the turnstile?

Maybe once you got inside you see something amazing like Terry Mulholland’s no-no. Or Mitch’s game-winning hit at 4:40 a.m. Or Schmidty hit one out. Or Willie Stargell hit one to the 600-level.

Well,” said Jim Bunning, who served up the pitch to Stargell, “he could not have hit it any farther.”

For the lucky who got to go to the Vet everyday during the last few summers, there are enough memories to fill volumes. Watching Scott Rolen sprint out to third before the start of a game — elbows flying, legs churning like pistons — screamed baseball. His throws to second for a force out were hard poetry.

We saw Bowa become an extension of the fan’s frustration. He represented everything every fan ever wanted to scream at an authority figure, but somehow he still had the decorum to emphatically throw his gum away lest he spit it in an umpire’s face mid rant.

At the Vet we got to see Harry Kalas modestly enjoy his celebrity, where he earnestly made sure he gave every fan what they wanted.

Long drive, watch that baby… outta here!

We saw the old-timers happily return for a reunion and heard the Phanatic speak in his own voice along the corridors as if it were perfectly normal to wear a big green suit.

And we saw everyone rally together in that first game back after Sept. 11. When Rolen hit two out, we all got to think about something as trival as a pennant race for a little while.

We really laid out the welcome for old friends: D-sized batteries for J.D. Drew. Obnoxious boos for turncoat Rolen. Ambivalence for Schill. Screeches for Krukker and the Dude. And just in case, the K-9 corps and the mounted patrol to keep everyone off the green rug and in the blue seats.

Cal Ripken won his only World Series at the Vet. So did the Phillies.

And on Sunday we saw Schmidty pass the torch to Jim Thome, who will take it across the parking lot to a “ballpark” with real grass, luxury seating and a corporate name. It will have everything anyone could ever want in order to watch baseball, where, hopefully, we’ll all scream, “THO-ME! THO-ME! THO-ME!” instead of “BOO!” It will be better than Caesar’s Palace. Clean and shiny.

But we will always think fondly of our dump.

E-mail John R. Finger