On Max Blue's desk sits a small gold baseball, about the diameter of a thumbnail. A raised red letter B is welded to one seam and above it is engraved 1926. Below the B on one side is engraved I.I.A.C., on the other side - CHAMPS. Elsewhere on the ball you can find: J. FRITZ- CAPT. In 1926 the Bradley College baseball team in Peoria, Illinois, won the Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference baseball championship. Twenty-four-year-old John Fritz played third base and captained the team. That was Jaybird and Paul Fritz's (Max Blue's) dad. The first major league baseball game Max remembers (he was 7) was at Sportsmans Park, St.Louis in 1936 when Carl Hubbell of the Giants squared off against Dizzy Dean of the Cardinals. Max Blue wouldn't be born for almost 50 years but he was already hooked on baseball. If you don't believe it, check out baseballguru.com. Or read Max's book God is Alive and Playing Third Base for the Appleton Papermakers.
There are people who question the importance of baseball. Not Max, and not A. Bartlett Giamatti who wrote a book called The Greenfields of the Mind. Giamatti wrote: Of course there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports, and there are others who are born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. They are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think that something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.
The answer is Chase Utley. The questions are three: 1) Who was the last rookie to hit a grand slam homerun at Veterans Stadium for his first major league hit? 2) Who got the last walk-off hit at Veterans Stadium? 3) Who made the last out at Veterans Stadium?
Who turned out the lights at Veterans Stadium? It was September 28, 2003, and along with almost 60,000 other Phillies fans, Liddy and me were there to help flip the switch. Atlanta 5, Philadelphia 2. What else? The Phillies lost. Not much consolation that the winning pitcher was Greg Maddux, the guy we beat in game 6 of the 1993 League Championship series right here at Veterans Stadium.
Oh yeah, there were some high moments here at Veterans Stadium. Here are some that I remember:
1971: Larry Shenk of the Phillies sends six complementary tickets to 14-year-old Katie Fritz in Hershey for her epic poem Willie At the Plate. Katie treats the whole family to a day at the Vet where we meet Willie Montanez in the batting cage underneath the grandstand. Katie presents a purple Fez to Rich Ashburn outside the stadium before the game.
1972: Steve Carlton pitches 30 complete games, 8 shutouts, wins 27 of team total 59. It is an election year and we decide that anybody who can pitch like that would make a good president. The Democrats have nominated George McGovern for president and Thomas Eagleton for vice-president. We have a better idea. We carry a bed-sheet banner around Veterans Stadium, it reads: TWO-TON TICKET: CARLTON/ EAGLETON.
1973: There we are, standing on the turf at Veterans Stadium, Liddy, me and the four kids, Katie, Keri, Konrad, and Kurt. It is camera day, and everybody is having a great time. Everybody except Jim Bunning. The ace pitcher is concerned that people are not observing the no autographs sign displayed on the message board way up there on top of the stadium, close to the Liberty Bell. When Dodger infielder Bobby Valentine signs a ball for us, Bunning puts on a stern face, shakes an index finger, and points to that sign. For his trouble, he is forever after known in our family as Gunky Bunning. Valentine, on the other hand, with his ain't-life-great? smile, becomes a family favorite. We like him so much that we break out another bed-sheet, paint it with Corky Valentine Fan Club, and follow him to Pittsburgh, Chicago, and later Baltimore. He signs that ball in all those places. He wonders why we call him Corky.
1974: We are there for opening day. It is a cold April day, but not cold enough to prevent a streaker from jumping out of the stands and taking off at a frantic gallop for a slide into second base, to the astonishment of shortstop Larry Bowa, and the delight of maybe 40,000 fans. Phils win on a walk-off homer by Mike Schmidt off Tug McGraw of the Mets. Life is good.
1976: Liddy and me are up from Hershey for a twi-night doubleheader against the Cardinals. It is a dark and stormy night. Two or three rain delays. Game two begins about 11 P.M. It is a 17-inning game. Sitting behind the third base dugout we had a great view of Bowa's bugged out eyes sliding into third when he got thrown out trying to steal.
1980: Game six of the World's Series. We are watching on television in Hershey. In the third inning, the telephone rings. It is Katie - she is at Veterans Stadium. She sees an event unique as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The only World's Championship the Phillies have ever won. (Up to that time, anyway.)
1996: Fan Appreciation Day. The final home game of the season. Phillies vs. New York Mets with their new manager, our old pal, Bobby Valentine. Liddy and me are now living in center city Philadelphia, close to the Art Museum, so it is easy to catch the Broad Street subway to Veterans Stadium. When it's all over, we sit around wondering what kind of fate, or which of the baseball gods got it in their head to see to it that Liddy's ticket stub was the one out of 28,000 picked to win the grand prize - an all-expense paid trip for two to London. That's in England, where they wouldn't know a baseball from a sticky wicket. We're not complaining . . .just wondering.
1997: It's the London influence. I wear my tuxedo to opening day at Veterans Stadium. It doesn't help: Schilling gets bombed by the Colorado Rockies. Liddy and me go to Susannah Fu's for dinner after the game, where I am mistaken for a waiter.
2003: When the Phillies signed Jim Thome over the winter they picked up a few thousand extra season ticket customers, including Liddy and me. What could we do? Thome is from Peoria where I grew up playing baseball against Jimbo's Grandpa Chuck and his Uncle Art. Also, it didn't hurt that this guy has hit way over 300 homeruns for Cleveland, and promises to do the same here in Philly. What could I do? We get the Sunday package-we like the day games. Section 318 row 3 seats 14 and 15. Behind the Phillies dugout. Good seats. We're not even through April when we see Kevin Millwood beat the National League champion Giants 1-0. We know it's something special when Millwood slings a 95 MPH fastball across the inside corner at the belt for strike three to end the 7thinning, and leave Barry Bonds standing there shaking his head. Its a no-hit, no-run game, and Liddy and me are there. At Veterans Stadium.
2003: September 21, Sunday. Only 7 games to play and we got this wild card thing right where we want it. If we beat Cincinnati today and Florida loses to Atlanta, we are half a game ahead looking at three games in Florida then back to Veterans Stadium to close it out with three against Atlanta. Cincinnati is a last-place team that has traded away all their best players so they can play a bunch of young guys who don't get paid so much. In the sixth inning Jim Thome slugs a three-run homer, sending 50-some thousand Philly fans into a screaming frenzy. We go into the seventh up 3-1 with Vicente Padilla, a 14-game winner, in control. All of a sudden Padilla is no longer in control, the Reds score three and we lose 4-3. Fifty-some thousand fans take it sitting down. They don't know who to boo.
2003: September 28, Sunday. The final game at Veterans Stadium. The Phillies collapsed in Florida and the Wild Card race is history. We lose. Again. But we still have to play this one last game. Against the team that has wrapped up its 12th consecutive division championship - the Atlanta Braves. And facing the guy who has had more than his share to do with all those winning seasons - Greg Maddux. Kevin Millwood,who won 17 games for the Braves last year, is trying for his 15th win as a Philly, but he is plum awful. The Braves treat him like batting practice and he leaves in the 4th inning before he gets killed. The guy we cheered in April for his no-hitter gets booed in September. Millwood, in a fit of anger, fires his glove and cap into the seats behind the dugout as he leaves the field. Somehow it seems a fitting end to our memories of Veterans Stadium.
But wait 'til next year.