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The Vet's closing was a celebration to remember

Even now, 10 years later, Ruben Amaro Jr. gets a little choked up talking about the final game played at Veterans Stadium. His father coached there when the Phillies won the first World Series championship in franchise history there in 1980. He was the batboy. Amaro Jr. also later went on to wear the red pinstripes there as a player.

"I remember being really emotional about it," Amaro Jr. said. "I remember crying. It was a pretty amazing thing. We all grew up there. Being a part of the Vet, that was all I knew as a kid. So that was a pretty extraordinary day and something I'll never forget -- what it meant to me and what it meant to be there with my father."

Even now, a decade later, there's a catch in the voice of Larry Bowa when he's asked about the Vet. He was the manager of the Phillies at the time. Bowa was also a Phils coach and player at the big concrete doughnut at the corner of Broad and Pattison.

"There were a lot of good memories there," Bowa said. "Obviously, winning the World Series there was the ultimate. So you're talking about tearing something down that meant a lot to a lot of people. A lot of guys spent their careers there. It wasn't fun to play on that [artificial] turf all year, but the fact is we had some good times. And, obviously, in the early '70s, we weren't real good. But to see that evolve and come out and win a World Series in that period of time, there were some good memories."

Veterans Stadium opened to great fanfare in 1971. By the time the last game was played there on Sept. 28, 2003, the perception of the multipurpose stadium had changed dramatically. It was widely derided as outdated and, compared to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the other retro parks that sprouted in its wake, it probably was.

Still, like all stadiums, it was never about the concrete and steel. It was about the people and events. The Phillies lost that last game, 5-2, to the Braves. Rookie second baseman Chase Utley made the final out. Pat Burrell had the last Phils hit, Marlon Byrd scored the final run and Dan Plesac threw the last pitch and notched the last strikeout.

None of those facts are the takeaway from that perfect crystal-blue sunny afternoon, though. What endures is the amazingly moving hour-long postgame ceremony that followed.

It began with the strain of "Unforgettable" floating through the soft autumn air. Harry Kalas took center stage, as he had so many times before, his familiar baritone booming to the first of dozens of standing ovations. Images flickered across the giant Phanavision screen: Richie Ashburn. Bowa. Mike Schmidt. Steve Carlton. Darren Daulton. Paul (the Pope) Owens. Jim Thome. The 1980 championship team.

Owens, the architect of the first sustained run of excellence in franchise history, was brought in on a golf cart. Battling illness, it was uncertain until the last moment whether he'd be able to attend. His presence added to the aura.

Then the parade began. A flag representing each year of the stadium's existence was marched to the plate followed by one of more players representing that season. Bob Dernier (1983) slid headfirst into home plate, reprising the dramatic finish of his game-winning, extra-inning, inside-the-park home run six years later. Steve Bedrosian (1989) lay on his back and made "snow angels" on the mound. Von Hayes (1989) picked up a handful of dirt as a keepsake.

Next: Those players and coaches, 99 in all, formed an arc and a "starting lineup" of three players for each position was introduced. Allen, first base, jumped on home plate. Bowa, shortstop, jumped even higher and pumped his fist as the crowd roared. Larry Christenson, right-handed pitcher, wore the old all-maroon uniform. Danny Jackson, left-handed pitcher, did his pump-us-up routine.

Thousands of cameras recorded every minute.

Kalas led the crowd in singing "Auld Lang Syne." Then the finale, which reached for a high note ... and nailed it.

Carlton, the best lefty to wear a Phillies uniform, went to the mound, mimed his familiar delivery and threw a phantom pitch. Schmidt, the best player the franchise has ever called its own, stepped to the plate, took his stance, hit an imaginary home run and trotted around the bases. When he reached the plate he was greeted by Thome, whose 47 homers that year tied for the Major League lead but fell just one short of what was then Schmidt's franchise record. The men high-fived.

It was left, fittingly, for Tug McGraw to be the closer. Fighting brain cancer, he recreated the scene when he threw the fastball past Kansas City's Willie Wilson that finally won a World Series for an organization that has been around since 1883. One more time he danced to the front of the mound and raised his arms in triumph.

The players and coaches circled the field, waving to the crowd. General manager Ed Wade and Dallas Green, the manager of the 1980 team, helped Owens back to the field so he, too, could step on the plate one last time. Fireworks exploded. Kalas declared the Vet officially "Outta here!"

A total of 2,617 regular-season games, 25 postseason games and more than 500 players later, it was over.

The participants headed upstairs for a private party. An hour later, hundreds of fans still lingered, unwilling to let go. Maybe they were thinking about Kiteman or the Great Wallenda or Pete Rose making an emergency catch of a pop foul that squirted out catcher Bob Boone's glove in Game 6 of the 1980 World Series. Or any of a thousand other great moments.

Rose, a final ingredient that helped the 1980 team win it all, was notably absent. He was, and still is, barred by Major League Baseball from any role in the game as part of his plea bargain for betting on baseball while manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

A group of policeman who had protected the field had their pictures taken on the mound. The grounds crew removed the plate and pitcher's rubber.

It was a special afternoon, bathed in warmth and nostalgia.

"What I particularly remember is that my dad and I were on the field together," Amaro Jr. recalled. "He and I being on the field at the same time, that was pretty extraordinary. I don't think we were ever together in uniform. So that was a really cool memory for me."

It was a special afternoon. And it became even more special in hindsight. Both Owens and McGraw passed away before Veterans Stadium was demolished and Citizens Bank Park officially opened on April 12, 2004.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for

Philadelphia Phillies