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Of veterans: One spit on, the other knocked down

Friday, September 26, 2003

The spittle from the third-base coach was wetting my cheeks pretty good. He was screaming at me from a distance of, oh, three inches, so some unpleasant method of moisturizing my face was probably inevitable.

"This must be what it's like to be an umpire," was my only coherent thought.

This was June 1981, in the middle of the Phillies' clubhouse in the leaky basement of Philadelphia's beautifully ugly Veterans Stadium, where they plan on turning out the lights for the final time tonight after 33 years of sports mania. It'll be day baseball for the Vet's final two shows, tomorrow and Sunday.

When a ballpark dies, especially one that was a principal workplace for a number of years, one is compelled to flip open some phantom mental scrapbook and leaf through, and to alert those with no interest in such a compulsion so that they may exit now.

As it happens, the closest exit to Veterans Stadium is for the Walt Whitman Bridge, which I was crossing one night to drive my friend and fellow Phillies beat man Mark Whicker back to his frightful apartment in South Jersey. I got pulled over by a Port Authority cop for doing 60 in a 45.

Ouch.

Years later, in a job interview at a California newspaper, I got asked, "Who is the best sports columnist in America?" "Mark Whicker," I said.

They hired Mark Whicker.

OUCH!

(Note to young professionals: When they ask who is the best, smile humbly and say, "You're lookin' at him/her.")

Anyway, back to the third-base coach, the heretofore affable Lee Elia, screaming now from easily within two inches. He'd go on to manage the Chicago Cubs, and I'd go on to be screamed at from a variety of distances by all manner of men in uniform.

He wasn't stopping and I wasn't backing up. He was mad about something in my story that day, spitting mad it turned out, but I think a good indication of how much we wanted to kill each other arrived in the next instant, when we were separated and I was shown the way out by veteran clubhouse man Kenny Bush. Lee and I each weighed about 220, Kenny Bush maybe 140. Yeah, we really wanted each other.

Veterans Stadium opened in 1971 as the third goal in a kind of architectural hat trick that included the late Riverfront Stadium and the late Three Rivers Stadium. Except for the hot pants. Remember hot pants? When the Vet opened, it had a Hot Pants Patrol, a platoon of nubile young fillies who brought concessions to your seat. Thus one of the first cogent questions of the new-stadium era was, "As the stadium ages, gracefully or not, do the members of the Hot Pants Patrol devolve into gin-soaked bar room queens in pumps and fishnets?" It wasn't my question. Just a question, OK?

I first visited the place June 27 of that year for a doubleheader between the exceedingly fearsome Pirates and the exceedingly awful Phillies. Willie Stargell, who two nights before had homered into Section 601, located approximately in Delaware, was in the middle of a 48-homer summer. In those earliest years, there was an enormous mock Liberty Bell mounted on the facing of the upper deck in dead center, maybe 40 feet above and behind the fence, which was and is 408 feet from the plate. Roberto Clemente lined a homer off that bell that afternoon, which was, pretty clearly, unforgettable. Stargell's homer 48 hours earlier will go into history as the longest in the history of the building, unless Jim Thome says otherwise rather quickly.

The Pirates, specifically Chuck Tanner, were the focus of another episode of enduring clarity, this one falling in late September 1979. Tanner's team was slashing its way to within a few hours of a National League East title when an apparent Pittsburgh homer wrapped itself around the left-field foul pole through a night's thickening mist. Third base umpire Eric Gregg signaled foul and Tanner sprinted from the third-base dugout and did the impossible. He talked Gregg out of it. Gregg reversed himself and ruled a crucial home run, and as the umpire would later explain it, his call had more to do with voluptuous left-field ballgirl Mary Sue Stiles than with his own conviction.

"I turned and saw Mary Sue jumping up and down and I thought, 'that's good enough for me.' Foul!"

The next summer, in what would emerge as a recurring Veterans Stadium theme of missed opportunity, I was standing on the steps of the Phillies' dugout talking with Larry Bowa while the Mets took batting practice. The batting practice pitcher was Mets' coach Joe "Piggy" Pignatano. He objected to some lights that had been set up by a television crew just in front of where Bowa and I were standing and demonstrated his displeasure by throwing a ball toward the lights. He missed the crew, but hit me square in the eye.

OUCHH!!

"Ooh," Bowa said, grimacing. "You better get that looked at."

"Thanks Bo," I remember thinking. "You think maybe as the best fielding shortstop of all time you could have maybe backhanded that one before it crashed into my orbital bone?"

Later in the pressbox, I was forced by Philadelphia Daily News interrogator Bill Conlin, my writing mentor, to explain why I was typing with one hand and holding an ice pack against my head with the other. I gave him the final totals and a recap.

"What are you doing about it?" he said.

"Nothing; it was an accident," I said.

"Are you crazy? That's $50,000 minimum. Have a dizzy spell!"

"Can't," I said. "I'm on deadline."

The implosion of Veterans Stadium is scheduled for February and there are a number of concerns among the civic authorities. One is that the falling structure will damage the Broad Street Subway line beneath it, and another, that it will release into the South Philadelphia neighborhood enough rats to break all of the Vet's previous attendance records. Still for many of us, there are fewer rats than memories.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

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