My Favorite Ballpark…

Being a life-long fan of baseball and the Phillies, Citizens Bank Park should be my favorite park, except…“Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice.”

Connie Mack Stadium gets no vote here either. I went just once as a first year minor leaguer with my local Rec Council. Phils lost, kids stole the Cookie Rojas autographed program I had waited in line for him to sign. Older little leaguers I think. I promised myself if I ever pitched against any of them, they would get plunked. Depending of course on the game situation. I never did. Pitch that is.

My favorite stadium, the one with the greatest memories, and one sure not to get very many votes, was Veterans Memorial Stadium. I was in left field on April 10, 1971, the day the stadium opened. As an 11 year old baseball fan I was in amazement. I had been to Connie Mack Stadium in 1970, and it looked old. The Vet was a cement marvel of ramps and concourses with its bright new field of Astro-Turf and multiple levels of different colored seating used around the stadium. There was also a state of the art scoreboard (for 1971) that played funny cartoon videos. The Phillies even gave us 2 new “mascots”, Philadelphia Phil and Phillis, the colonial kids who along with the giant Liberty Bell were part of the Phillies new “home run spectacular” which went something like this…

When a Phillie would hit a home run, Phil would appear in center field and hit a baseball. It traveled toward the message board in right center and struck the Liberty Bell. The bell glowed and its crack lit up. The ball continued and hit little Phillis in the fanny and she fell down. As she fell, she pulled a lanyard on a cannon causing the cannon to explode. After some smoke and sound effects, a Colonial American flag dropped down. And, if that wasn’t enough, dancing waters would come to life to the tune of Stars and Stripes Forever.

As for the game, every Phillies fan can tell you that Boots Day made the first out (who doesn’t love a good Boots Day memory), Larry Bowa got the first hit and 3rd baseman Don Money the first home run in stadium history. More important, the Phils beat the Expos 4-1 and were in first place. And in an exciting pre-game stunt, catcher Mike Ryan caught the first ball after being dropped from a helicopter. The ball, not Mike Ryan. And the Phils were in first place…

I saw many games at the Vet over the years. In 1972 my dad took me to the Vet with the gang from Skippers Seafood Restaurant and Sports Bar when the Phils were the best team in baseball…but only on the days when Steve Carlton pitched. His 27 wins that season were almost half of the team’s total wins and made it easier for us to forget we gave up Rick Wise to get  him.

 In 1983, I went with some other inebriated friends to see the Phils finally beat the Dodgers and win the National League pennant. Gary Matthews hit a 3-run homer in the first inning that night giving the Phillies all the runs they would need to win the game. We almost missed it thanks to the time it took to ascend to our 700 level seats. Seats so high even a good Sherpa Guide would advise against going there. It didn’t matter that we were too high up to see anything, it was more about being there and taking in a moment that was a long time coming. The rest of the night was spent caught up in the post game drunken revelry of South Philly. I also had a ticket to Game 5 of the World Series against the Orioles. I was smart enough to scalp the ticket prior to the game. You didn’t have to be Joe Garagiola to know the Phils were done. Looking back on it though, I wish I would have gone to the game. I may never get a chance to go to a World Series game again.

In 1984 I sat with my girlfriend, now my wife, in the 700 level drinking melon balls from a thermos we brought in with us. That was back in the era of the Vet where you could bring in a thermos, you just had to promise there was no alcohol in whatever concoction you were smuggling into the park. And you could also bring in sandwiches as some thrifty fans on a budget did. How many cans of beer came into the park each night disguised as hoagies?

I saw the spectacular fast pitch softballer Eddie Feigner and his 4 man team, The King and his Court play an exhibition between games of a doubleheader. To be honest, he probably could have won with just himself and a catcher. Even against the home team.

And in 1993, baseball came full circle for me when I finally went to a game as a Dad. I took my daughter to a couple of games that season so she could see her favorite player…the Kruker. And the Phanatic. In ’93 the team also banned smoking from the seating areas and limited it to just the concourses. The Phillies had finally begun to remove Big Tobacco from the Vet.

The tradition of delivering the first ball led to one of  the great moments in Vet history as Kite Man crashed with his kite after falling from a ramp in the outfield seats prior to the opening day game of the 1972 season. In all fairness, he was a last minute replacement for the actual Kite Man, and after he crashed he did try to throw the ball, believing he could reach the pitchers mound. It ended up in the Phillies bullpen and the fan base booed him for his efforts. The Phillies continued the tradition of unsuccessful Kitemen until 1980 when a ball was finally delivered as planned. Oh, and in August of that year Karl Wallenda walked 640 feet across a tight-rope that was 168 feet above the concrete and plastic grass surface of the Vet. Without a net. He did take a break during the walk, to do a headstand over the second base cut-out. I’ll take this kind of world class entertainment over a CB Park bobble-head or bucket hat giveaway any day. I think most people would.

The Vet has been called a toilet, and in many unintended places such as the 700 Level and the bathroom sinks, it lived up to that billing. But for many of us Phillies fans, it was the proverbial toilet where we wallowed with our favorite baseball team from April to September. It was where we went on hot summer days for an over-priced, watered down, flat beer or soda, ball park hot dogs boiled in that gray-colored water in boxes and carried by vendors to all parts of the park, except the 700 Level. If you wanted food there, your best bet was to buy it on the way in and haul it up to your seat. No wonder they were always so pissed-off up there.

 And finally, the opening of the Vet in 1971 coincided with the first year of the greatest broadcast team we as fans had the pleasure of listening to, Harry and Whitey. Sadly all three are gone, but we will always have the memories.

“Hard to believe Harry.”

My Favorite Ballpark…

The Foods…of my Americana

Part 3 in a never-ending attempt at defining my Americana.

A true part of Americana, my Americana were Sunday family dinners and since it was Sunday, that meant my mom’s roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy and whatever vegetable they forced on meI could stomach the canned green beans and peas, but never those vile lima beans.  A quick trip to the bathroom with a mouthful of those disgusting beans destined to be spit into the toilet was pretty much guaranteed to be replaced with a fresh serving when I got back to the table, along with the parental edict, “I don’t care how long it takes, you’re not getting up until that plate is clean.”

…couldn’t get anything over on them.

I enjoyed the fresh Jersey tomatoes and corn in the summer, and who doesn’t like a nice, light cucumber salad, heck I could even swallow the Green Giant creamed corn, but Lima beans were just one of the foods I swore I would never eat again once I moved out of my parents house, the same for baked beans, cream chipped beef on anything, eggplant, milk bone dog biscuits (that was on my own, nobody made me) and a whole list of other foods, mostly vegetables, too long for this space. Surprisingly, Scrapple is not on the list. And to my credit, I never made my kids eat anything I wouldn’t eat, no matter how much nutritional value Joe Carcione ( the Green Grocer) claimed it had. I’m many things, but I am not a hypocrite.

Growing up in my own little Americana, there was one food that ruled them all, King Sugar. It bordered on addiction, and probably was. It didn’t matter in what form I got it, Tastykakes, Hostess fruit pies (the glazed ones, my favorites), or by the spoonful right from the Dominos Sugar bag. I wanted it in or on anything I ate, still do, still addicted, I just don’t eat it from the bag anymore. My wife puts it into a Tupperware container as soon as she brings it home from the store. And all those Tastykakes, and all those Hostess fruit pies were bankrolled by early collections on my paper route…

…remember when kids delivered your paper, to your door (mostly)…

…it didn’t matter which paper I was delivering, the Philadelphia Bulletin or the Burlington County Times, I knew which customers tipped, how much, and if it was okay to collect on Tuesday and not Friday, (“Because my family is going on vacation, sir.”) thereby fueling the addiction. With money in hand, it was off to that fancy new 7-11 on the corner downtown, across from Mr. Jones’s clock store, where my only choice was cherry or blueberry. Or should I get a Slurpee?

If I had a great week delivering newspapers, and maybe had some extra money, I used  it to purchase a different kind of  junk food. McDonald’s or Gino’s Hamburgers (what many now know as KFC) were the fastest and cheapest, and yes, maybe the worst, food I could get my hands on. And if my mom and dad knew I was riding my bike around the Marlton Circle they would have killed me, faster than the food I was eating. Even today, for many always on the go Americans (I’m just too lazy to cook) McDonalds still dishes out those same burgers. I would think, to our dismay, that would have to put them in the Americana class of food.

Just about any kid who attended public school in the 1960’s and the 70’s probably had a school lunch at one time or another. Who could forget those lovable lunch ladies spooning out whatever was the creation of the day. Fish sticks, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza like none you’ve never tasted at any pizzeria, or hot dogs. imageMore concerning than what’s this made out of, was the question of who were these women, and why, if I lived in a small town, did I not know any of them? None of my friends ever claimed to have a mom who worked in the cafeteria. Mine never did. Don’t you find that a bit troubling as well? For me and my sisters, lunch was usually simpler, PB&J or some kind of lunch meat with cheese on white bread, bruised fruit, and if we didn’t already eat them all at home, a Devil Dog. Placed with love by our mom in a brown paper bag or one of those cool metal lunch boxes. Remember, they came with a thermos bottle, guaranteed to break after just a couple of weeks, but mostly after you dropped the box for the first time.

Many of the foods we eat I would define as regional Americana. That is, foods created in other countries but now popularized in an American city. Pizza is probably the most recognizable of this group. New York City is credited with having the country’s first pizzaria and in 1905, we were introduced to coal-fired pizza. Chicago gave us deep dish pizza while in New Haven, Connecticut, thin crust pizza was the popular choice.

In Philadelphia it’s the cheesesteak. The debate over who makes the best Philly cheesesteak is carried out every night in South Philly by two of the oldest shops in town, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, which sit across the street from each other.

Speed and simplicity are the rule when ordering a cheesesteak at these locations. Three simple words, one, whiz, with, gets you a cheesesteak with Cheez-Whiz and fried onions. Just an opinion here, but any food that ends in the word –Whiz, is probably pretty low on the nutritional value scale, and therefore not good for you.

Much like pizza however, you don’t have to live in Philly to get a good steak sandwich. Whether in PA, as I am now, or the NJ suburbs where I grew up, I’ve always found a shop who makes a good one. And put some fried onions on it and now you can say you’ve had a vegetable for the day.

And, what is probably the most popular appetizer anywhere, especially on football Sunday’s, buffalo wings, now come in just about any restaurant, tossed in a number of different sauces, as well as my personal preference, boneless (why get your hands dirty?)Buffalo wings gained attention back in the early 1980’s thanks in part to the Buffalo Bills, losers of 4 straight Super Bowls. No nationally televised Bills game comes without a sequence of a cook somewhere in Buffalo mixing up an order of wings.

Are you a fan of eating contests? Buffalo wings and hot dogs are the key staples in two of the largest and most popular eating contests anywhere…

…Wing Bowl in Philadelphia and Nathan’s Hot Dog  eating contest at Coney Island. 

At this past Wing Bowl? The winner received a Harley Davidson Fatboy motorcycle along with a $10,000 championship medal and ring.  The runner-up took home $5,000 and the winner in the Local Division claimed a 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe. Even this year’s Wingette of the Year pulled in a cool 5 grand. The winning eater? She ate 420+ wings and at 5’7″ and just 120 lbs., the last thing she looks like is a competitive eater.

Holiday dinners were always among my favorites growing up. Thanksgiving and Christmas were always the best, a turkey filled with my mom’s stuffing was the beast of the day. And it was one of the few times a year when you could get a good slice of mince pie or fruit cake, if you believed in such things. As a kid my parents were involved with the local V.F.W. Around Thanksgiving they would have a Turkey Shoot, they shot at targets, not turkeys, with the winners getting a nice Butterball turkey for their family dinner. My dad let me and my sisters shoot when we were old enough, and it was here I discovered I was unable to close (blink)my left eye, which is kind of important when you’re trying to line up the target. After failing to get the desired results by just covering my eye with something, one of the well-meaning vets barked, “Teach the kid to shoot left-handed!” It was after that first left-handed attempt that they took back the shotgun and told me to go in and get a Coke and a bag of Cheez-curls. So ended my chance at a career as a sniper.

It wasn’t until I met my wife that I was introduced to the tradition of The 7 Fishes on Christmas Eve (6 of which I disliked intensely), and lasagna on Christmas Day. It was imageabsolute culture shock, although after 27 years of marriage I’ve finally come to grips with lasagna on Christmas. The fishes, still not so much. My family usually hides at home now on Christmas Eve, like I said earlier, I would never make my kids eat something I wouldn’t eat myself,  and after attending Mass, we have a dinner of pizza or some kind of sandwich. Not much of a tradition, but it’s ours.

The backyard barbecue is a slice of Americana observed by many families during the summer, especially on the holidays.These events feature all-American favorites like barbecue ribs, smoked chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, corn on the cob, and macaroni and potato salads. When my son was going through scouting, our troop would have a “family day” on the last Saturday of summer camp. Families would contribute their own side dishes and desserts, and the troop would cook a pig to be shared by all. I attended many camps as the troop Quartermaster Advisor, (or Adviser, your choice) and the smell of that pig cooking all day made the hot summer days making sure scouts attended their merit badge classes well worth it. That and watching 2 grown men having a friendly disagreement on how it should be cooked. How many different ways can you cook a pig?

Many townships, counties, and boroughs will often have a large celebration each year where everyone is invited. Fun I guess, until it gets held in the field behind your house. Two of the better traditional events held at these neighborhood picnics were the pie eating contest and the always fun, and somewhat violent, catch the greased pig. Can there be anything funnier than adults, some who may have enjoyed a beverage or 10, chasing a pig around a field. As a teen in the early 1970’s, I was old enough to participate in a couple of pig chases. Think of it as the kids game of Dog Pile, the game where everyone jumps on top of the kid with the ball. I was never lucky enough to catch one of those pigs (you have to get it by the legs, wrap it around the body and it will slide away because of the grease) and after the second year I stopped doing it when I asked myself “What the hell am I going to do with a live pig anyway?” And to be honest, it really is kind of a cruel thing to do.

Finally, I’ve mentioned many different foods and even some of the events that are tied to them. So let me end it here with my Top 10 Favorite Candies…in no particular order…

  • Hershey bar w/almonds
  • Chunky Bar
  • Goobers
  • Raisinettes
  • Almond Joy bar
  • Peanut M&M’s
  • NonPariels
  • Reese’s Peanutbutter Cups
  • Strawberry Licorice
  • Turkey Hill Banana Split Ice Cream…I know it’s not candy, but I had to fit ice cream in here somewhere.

As always, if you’ve been able to make it this far without falling asleep, thanks for reading, and I hope you can find time to read some of my other posts.