April 16, 2004

Philly's new sports stadiums

Staff Writer

Things have improved in Philadelphia sports over the past year.

Citizens Bank Park opened its doors to major league baseball this week as one of the sport's great new venues. Just seven months ago, Lincoln Financial Field, just across the street, became the spectacular new home of the Eagles.

Both took over for a stadium that was once considered one of the best in the country.

For nearly two decades after its gates first opened in 1971, Veterans Stadium was as good a venue as there was in sports. But the passage of time, and the year-round beating from two sports teams, took their toll on The Vet, driving it into disrepair.

In addition, the attitude of sports administrators and team owners changed. Instead of one stadium being converted for two seasons, individual stadiums, each designed to house either baseball or football, came back into vogue.

Veterans Stadium opened 33 years ago last week (April 10, 1971) with a Phillies win over the Expos, managed by Gene Mauch. The guy who got the first hit that day managed the Phils in this week's opener at Citizens Bank Park. Larry Bowa also delivered the first triple in The Vet.

A guy who later coached baseball in the Cape-Atlantic League, Don Money, hit the first home run at The Vet. The winning pitcher was future U.S. Senator and future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning.

Before 1971 the Phils played at Connie Mack Stadium, which was built in 1909 for $450,000. That wouldn't get you a beachfront condo in Ocean City nowadays. It was the first concrete and steel stadium in the league and was completed in just one year.

When the last game was played at Connie Mack Stadium on October 1, 1970, fans were told they could take parts of the stadium with them when they left. Many fans didn't wait until the game was over, walking out with seats, signs and other mementoes (one fan was seen carrying a urinal) throughout the final innings. Deliverance Evangelistic Church now stands where the stadium stood, at 21st Street and Lehigh Avenue.

They took home plate from Connie Mack Stadium (the fans couldn't get to it) and planted it at The Vet a few months later.

There is more of Connie Mack Stadium than The Vet in Citizens Bank Park. "It looks like what our generation thinks a baseball park should look like," said Bud Rinck, part of The Sports Team at 1490-The Game and well-known newspaper sports correspondent, who attended the cold, rainy opening on Monday. "I am a baseball purist and the park gives you the feeling of an old-time ball park, despite all its modern conveniences.

"The light standards look like something you would see at Connie Mack Stadium or Wrigley Field and the outfield seats are close, not separated from the field like they were at The Vet. The grass (installed by Tuckahoe Turf Farms) is just beautiful, it really makes you think of baseball."

And the Phillies are determined to keep things that way. "We weren't even up the aisle at the end of the game when the mowers were out cutting the grass," said Joe Fussner, area sports statistician, who attended both Monday's opener and the exhibition game with Cleveland on April 3. "There are a few things that haven't been completed yet but you can see what a great place it will be to watch baseball."

Comparisons with Baltimore's Camden Yards, Atlanta's Turner Field and Cleveland's Jacobs Field are inevitable. "They all have their own personalities," Fussner said, "and each does a great job of being local, emphasizing the city it's in. In Citizens Bank Park, you get a great view of the Philadelphia skyline."

There is also a lot to do if you aren't the type to sit and watch nine innings of baseball. "There are areas that will appeal to the kids," said Rinck, "plus plenty of good places to eat. The great thing is, you can see the field no matter where you are on the concourse."

There are rooftop bleachers in right center, which may remind older fans of the battle Connie Mack had with residents of 20th Street, who would watch the games free from their windows. Some even sold seats to friends. Eventually, Mack increased the height of the right field wall to block their view.

From behind left field through center field you can stroll down Ashburn Alley, with restaurants and shops, including Harry the K's Broadcast Bar and Grille, a two-level eatery with fantastic views of the field from below the left field scoreboard. The restaurant is dominated by three large murals - of Citizens Bank Park, The Vet and Connie Mack Stadium. No word on whether waiters shout "You're outta here" when you've paid your check.

Other food options include McFadden's, a popular Philly restaurant, inside the third base gate; the upscale Hall of Fame Club and Diamond Club; and Bull's BBQ. The latter, located in Ashburn Alley, is owned and operated by Greg "The Bull" Luzinski, who was a coach with the Atlantic City Surf last year and seems destined to be the Boog Powell of the new stadium. Powell, a former Oriole great, has become a legend at Camden Yards with Boog's Barbeque Pit.

Ashburn Alley also includes the four statues of players who are probably symbolic of Phillies baseball over the last 50 years - Rich Ashburn, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Mike Schmidt.

In center, at field level, Memory Lane sits behind the batters' sight walls. It is a museum, of sorts, with an illustrated history of not only the Phillies and the Athletics, but also the Philadelphia Giants, Pythians, Stars and Tigers from the Negro League era.

The South Philadelphia sports complex has always been something special, with reasonably easy access for fans from Philly, the suburbs, South Jersey and Delaware. The Wachovia Center and The Spectrum are now joined by two beautiful new parks. And, when the Veterans Stadium lot is cleaned up this summer, all will have improved parking.

Citizens Bank Park is a welcome addition to baseball and to Delaware Valley sports fans. But a great ballpark will only go so far with Phillies' fans. It took them six innings before they started booing the home team, which lost its opener to the Reds to drop to 1-6 after the first week of the season.

Some things will never change!