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© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003
PHILADELPHIA -- This place has a vibe. A definite historical tone. Stand on the field and you can sense it. Sit in the bleachers and you can feel it. Walk into the corridors and, whew, you can smell it.
It is Thursday afternoon at Veterans Stadium, a venue like no other in America. Other stadiums surely are older, some are more decrepit. But none is famous simply for being infamous.
A critic might say teams haven't exactly made history here. Pish posh. Imagine a place, instead, that actually has a history.
You see that section of bleachers? That's where a fan shot a flare gun in the middle of a Monday Night Football game.
That imperfection in the locker-room wall? A peep hole created so visiting teams could spy on the cheerleaders dressing room next door.
Over there on the field? That's the spot on the old, cheap turf where Wendell Davis blew out both knees simply running a pass route.
In the building's bowels? No, no, no. Not the holding cell. Over here, a little farther down the hall. That's where a municipal judge set up court to better dispense with the heavy load of drunken buffoons.
Yes, sir, as dumps go, this one is more colorful than most.
What's that? You don't think it's fair to call Veterans Stadium a dump? Take it up with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. He's the one who coined the term.
"Nobody wants to come to the Vet. That's why I love it," Eagles defensive tackle Darwin Walker said. "It's dirty, it's nasty. I think of it like a ghetto. Nobody wants to walk into the ghetto. But this is our ghetto."
It's here at the corner of Broad Street and mayhem -- which is where the Bucs must venture if they hold out hope of reaching the Super Bowl.
Remember that ridiculous 1970s film The Warriors? Where a street gang has to get across New York with a bunch of other gangs in painted faces trying to attack them with assorted weapons? Same thing. Except with snow.
"You have a ton of younger people who get together in the upper section and, eight times a year, get to become a different person," said Angelo Cataldi, a longtime Philadelphia radio personality.
"We've done a show in a tent outside the stadium for the past 13 years and it's amazing to track the level of inebriation. You start with everybody kind of mellow and, by the time we sign off a few minutes before the kickoff, they're all nuts. They're drunk beyond belief. You could do a sociological study on the effects of alcohol in that stadium."
Herein lies the mystique of the Vet. It's not the abundance of cats brought in to weed out the rats -- though that's a nice touch. It's not the peeling paint or faulty elevators. It's not even the silly, commodelike shape.
The true wonder of the Vet is its inhabitants. The face-painting, liquor-chugging, obscenity-chanting miscreants of the 700 section in the stadium's upper reaches. The ones who stand the entire length of a game. And use wheelchairs to smuggle in beer. The ones who urinate in sinks.
You know what they call someone who encourages outlandish behavior at the Vet? A savvy politician.
Some years back, attorney Ed Rendell bet a fan in the 700 section that he could not heave a snowball onto the field. The fan did it and Rendell paid off. A few years later, Rendell was elected mayor of Philadelphia. Next week, he is to be sworn in as governor of Pennsylvania.
At least Rendell never had to face Judge Seamus McCaffery in the Eagles Court. McCaffery and a handful of other judges volunteer their time on Sunday evenings to handle the overflow of misdemeanor cases that inevitably arise from an Eagles game. Most of the charges are minor. Most of the defendants admit their guilt and are fined $200 or so.
After last weekend's playoff game, a college student was brought before McCaffery on a trespassing charge after he tried to sneak into the stadium.
Asked to enter a plea, he responded: "Stupidity."
"Aggravated stupidity or simple stupidity?" McCaffery said.
Take away that type of color and the Vet is a grimy, out-of-date architectural nightmare. Take that away and the Vet is . . . the Orange Bowl.
Perhaps Eagles fans are simply a reflection of the town. A place with the hard-bitten attitude of New York without a lot of the sophistication.
A place where locals have given their devotion and gotten very little in return. Compared with fans in New York, Philadelphia's faithful is ravenous. No Super Bowl championships. One World Series title in 100 years.
Which brings us to Sunday's NFC championship. And the Vet's final football game. The Eagles are scheduled to move into a new stadium next season and the Vet will be torn down after the Phillies finish their season in October.
No more 700 section. No more cold showers for visiting teams. Prices will be raised and critters will be evicted.
"You know, for the first 31 years I thought it was the worst rat hole I'd ever seen," Cataldi said. "But the past year, I don't know, I guess my sentimentality is kicking in. I'm really sorry to see it go. I know for a fact that years down the road, we'll look back at the years at the Vet and miss it. The new stadium is going to be much more homogenized. The people in the 700 section aren't going to be there. They're not going to be able to afford it.
"The Vet is a terrible, terrible building. And it's been ill-kept for so many years. But, when it goes, it's truly the end of an era in Philadelphia."