WHEN THE Phillies open Citizens Bank Park next month, the green, natural grass won’t be their only bow to tradition.
In a move that will warm the hearts of longtime fans who remember the good old days at Connie Mack Stadium, the Phillies are bringing back Ballantine Beer.
That’s right, the beer whose familiar three rings – Purity, Body, Flavor – stood atop the giant outfield scoreboard at Connie Mack will once again flow in Philly.
I wasn’t even aware they still made the stuff. The old Ballantine brewery in Newark, N.J., is long closed, and the label has been sold and resold several times.
Officials from Aramark, the stadium vendor, tracked it down to a Miller plant in Ohio, which agreed to send bottles to South Philadelphia.
But finding a nearly defunct beer is just half of this story. Indeed, the state of beer at the ballpark is a telling indication of whether the home team regards its fans as patrons who deserve respect or just sheep to be fleeced.
It was six years ago, you’ll remember, that the Phillies’ then-vendor, Ogden, got caught skimming suds from every cup of beer. A Daily News investigation, which estimated the scam cost fans a half-million dollars a year, led to City Council hearings and a price reduction.
The beer situation turned sour again last year with the opening of the new Lincoln Financial Field.
First, the Eagles prompted fan outrage by attempting to ban BYO food from their new stadium. Then, after giving in on hoagies, the team pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in special licensing deals with Miller and Anheuser-Busch that effectively blocked any of Philadelphia’s smaller breweries from competing.
The result: Not a single local beer – not even Pottsville’s hugely popular Yuengling – is tapped at the Linc.
That was a far cry from the Vet, where the city mandated under its concession contract that Schmidt’s of Philadelphia be served.
Make no mistake: The Phillies will pour the big guys at their new ballpark. You’ll see more Bud, Miller, Michelob and Coors taps than anything else.
But in focus group sessions with fans over the past three years, the team heard one thing loud and clear: Give us a local feel.
We’re not just talking cheesesteaks here, though the team is expected to announce soon that at least two of the city’s famous steak shops will be cookin’ ’em up.
Team officials told me they’re also bringing in barbecue from Delilah’s of the Reading Terminal Market.
And they also plan to serve the classic barroom snack: Chestnut Hill’s famous McNally’s Schmitter (named, by the way, for the city’s sadly departed Schmidt’s).
As for beer, the new ballpark will do the locals justice.
Nearly every brewery within 25 miles of the city will be served on draft, including Yards of Kensington, Flying Fish of Cherry Hill and Victory of Downingtown. Even some brewpubs with limited distribution, including Manayunk and Iron Hill, will be on hand.
Philadelphia’s Dock Street, which has been defunct for a couple years, will be contract-brewed in New York. Ortlieb’s, another old name from the past, will pour, too, with lagers brewed at its pub in Pottstown.
But from this bleacher seat, the return of Ballantine is the most exciting news – and not because I have any fondness for its taste.
Instead, for Phillies fans who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, Ballantine is the defining image of Connie Mack Stadium. Other than the waves of green, green grass, it is the sight of that huge scoreboard in right-center field that is forever seared in the mind’s eye.
The Ballantine scoreboard wasn’t always at Connie Mack. It was brought to 21st and Lehigh in 1956 from Yankee Stadium.
With 10-foot letters that proclaimed, “You get a smile every time,” it loomed over the field, almost daring sluggers to knock one over the top.
(Balls hitting the scoreboard were still in play, often resulting in long singles.)
Legend says only Dick Allen managed to do it, on July 8, 1965, when he pounded a 420-foot drive to the right of the Longines clock atop the scoreboard. Others remember Wes Covington doing it, too.
No matter, over the years, any home run at Connie Mack became known as a Ballantine Blast – an event that led announcer Chuck Thompson to remark, “Ain’t the beer cold.”
It’s true, these are all just memories.
But as the Phillies prepare to enter their new ballpark, they’re touching the right chords.
Maybe my tune will change if the team starts losing.
But Phillies baseball and Ballantine beer feels – and tastes – like a winner.