IT’S 30 MINUTES till game time, and the cotton-candy man at the Vet is serving up his goodies.
He dips his hand into the swirling machine, plucks a puffy blue cloud of candy and deposits it into his mouth.
Then he licks his fingers clean, grabs a paper cone, dips it into the machine and comes out with another wad of candy – this one’s for your kids.
It gets worse.
Above his machine, the light fixtures and ledges and pipes are coated with filth. Not just dirt and grease, but a crusty film of dried bird-droppings from roosting pigeons.
An uncovered trash can full of perhaps 100 pounds of sugar – an easy target for a passing bird – sits beneath it all.
It gets worse.
The cotton candy man picks his nose.
THE VET IS nearing the end of another long, uneventful baseball season – a season of small crowds and little excitement. And as the Eagles begin their 2000 season, the place looks tired. The concourses are dirty. The walls are stained with rust and grime. Litter collects in corners. The concession areas smell of rotting french fries and grease.
It is dark and grim.
As officials continue to fret over the construction of new facilities for the Eagles and Phils, the city-owned stadium that has hosted millions of cheering fans over the last three decades is dying a slow, ugly death.
Like the Phillies in the month of September, Veterans Stadium itself is playing out the string.
It is a lame duck. And if the stadium itself doesn’t know that, the people who work there do.
“There’s no leadership down here,” said one stadium vending subcontractor who, like several employees interviewed by the Daily News, requested anonymity to protect his job.
“The food concessions fight with security and security blames the cleaners,” he said. “No one takes any responsibility, and the place looks like crap. ”
The stadium’s 700 food-and-beverage workers don’t even know if they’ll have jobs next season. The Vet’s longtime concessionaire, Ogden Entertainment, was sold during the summer, and its contract expires at the end of the year. No one knows who will be serving food when the Phillies return in 2001.
“No one’s told me anything,” one subcontractor said. “There are no guarantees. I don’t know if I’ll be back. No one knows if they’ll be back. ”
The price of that uncertainty is neglect.
“The Vet is going to hell,” he said. “There are rats as big as cats running around, there’s trash and garbage all over the place. They can’t get the escalators to work because they’re jammed with trash.
“It’s disgusting. ”
Another stadium source said he no longer even bothers to complain about unsafe and unhealthy conditions because the city ignores the gripes.
“Is it perfect? No,” said stadium manager Greg Grillone, a city employee. “I think there’s always room for improvement.
“But we spend more for cleaning than ever before. . .We never get complaints from the Health Department. ”
In fact, the last city health inspection in late July turned up seven pages of violations. Among the worst: mice and roach infestation, improper food handling, hazardous chemical storage and greasy, dirty ventilation.
It wasn’t the first time inspectors had turned up health-code violations.
Hours before last year’s Army-Navy game, for example, inspectors found that food in the executive hospitality suite had been left uncovered, unprotected against contamination. In the stadium’s main kitchen, meatballs and chicken were held at dangerously low temperatures that could have sickened hundreds of fans.
City officials say the stadium was supposed to correct the violations.
However, a Daily News tour of the stadium in the last two weeks revealed both unsafe and unsanitary conditions:
* Leaking pipes and puddles of water near exposed wires.
* Broken concrete and slippery floors.
* Litter and garbage in food-serving areas.
* Obscene graffiti on walls and concession booths.
* Worn, dirty, smelly carpets.
Insiders with access to nonpublic areas describe hidden corners that haven’t been cleaned in years. Compressors and motors and plumbing fixtures in the kitchens are coated with grease that attracts vermin and roaches.
The stadium is also suffering structurally, these insiders say.
They report rusting metal supports beneath temporary seats, gaping holes in cement walkways and missing bolts in seats and railings.
At the Army-Navy game two years ago, nine cadets were injured when a bleacher railing they were leaning on broke away and they fell 15 feet.
City inspectors concluded the cadets were at fault.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections reports no recent violations at the stadium. (When the Daily News told L&I about the exposed wires, an inspector immediately checked the site and concluded the wires were communications cables that did not pose a threat. )
Even if the Vet is structurally safe, the conditions are unsightly and embarrassing.
Three years ago, then-coach Ray Rhodes said the Eagles failed to sign an unnamed free-agent player, partly because of the Vet’s condition. Rhodes told a newspaper reporter the player, upon entering the Vet, took one look and declared, “This is a dump. ”
Two years ago, the NFL Players Association reported the stadium is the worst in the league and called it “a shabby, inadequate place. ”
As recently as last week, you could still read the faintly painted letters “A-R-M-Y” on the right field turf, a vestige of the Army-Navy game played 8 months earlier.
And yesterday on national television, broadcasters for Fox-Sports pointedly criticized the turf during the Eagles-Giants game.
Focusing their TV cameras on the cutouts around the pitcher’s mound and the bases, they showed millions of viewers the large, uneven gaps in the artificial turf’s seams.
“It is the worst playing field in the NFL,” announcer Bill Maas proclaimed.
Both the Phillies and Eagles – who together pay about $5 million a year to lease the stadium – have complained to the city often about the mess.
But team officials declined to criticize the city for this report. The reason: they are in the midst of negotiations for a new stadium and don’t want to antagonize the city.
“It would be inappropriate for us to comment on stadium matters,” said Phillies president Dave Montgomery.
Asked what the team tells its fans about the mess, Montgomery replied, “We try to respond to any individual complaint. Our only way to do that is to turn it over to our landlord. ”
The landlord, though, is reluctant to spend much to fix its lame-duck stadium.
After an influx of capital improvements early in the Rendell administration, City Hall – anticipating new facilities – annually has cut stadium spending, according to city sources.
Major repairs to air-conditioning systems, plumbing and the bathrooms are beyond the capability of the stadium’s 50-man maintenance crew. So they go undone, city sources say.
“Of course the Eagles and Phillies are going to complain,” one city source familiar with Vet operations said. The stadium is “antiquated, and the city’s not spending on capital improvements. ”
Further, low-bid contracts for security and cleaning provide bottom-of-the-barrel service.
“Generally, you get what you pay for,” said the city source. “The problem is, there’s no incentive to beef up the contracts, given the future of the stadium. ”
NEAR THE cotton-candy man, a woman pouring sodas looks bored. The Phillies game has started, but business is slow.
She folds a napkin and wipes sweat from her neck and brow. Then she uses the same napkin to brush crumbs from the stainless-steel counter.
She’s a nose-picker, too.
“What are you going to do?” one subcontracting vendor asked. “You’ve got 4 percent unemployment. You’re not exactly getting the cream of the crop down here, as far as workers go.
“I think Ogden does a pretty good job, all things considered. ”
Ogden Entertainment, whose contract expires this winter, has run the food and beverage concession at the Vet for the past 15 years. It’s been a shaky tenure with notable lowlights, including:
* A well-publicized beer scam in which it cheated fans out of an estimated $500,000 by under-pouring suds in improperly marked cups.
* A sexual harassment lawsuit filed by one of its restaurant hostesses.
* An LCB citation for serving underage fans who subsequently brawled on national TV.
* The alleged rape of an 11-year-old fan by workers at one of its subcontractors.
* A string of slip-and-fall lawsuits stemming from its alleged failure to clean up messes. It also got sued for allegedly burning a cop with boiling chicken soup.
* A scathing rebuke from City Council over its lousy, overpriced food.
Insiders at Ogden and the stadium say the poor quality is largely due to low attendance at Phillies games. It’s costly to run a food operation designed to serve 65,000 fans when only 14,000 show up.
Since its high-water mark during the 1993 Phillies championship season, gross concession revenue has dropped by up to $10 million a year.
Some stadium sources blame Ogden. They say the company has been slow to improve its menu, and the prices are too high for the poor quality of food.
The company – and the stadium itself – also seems unprepared for the rare sellouts. Large crowds at Eagles games wait at concession windows for 30 minutes or more. Frequently, fights break out in the beer lines.
It gets so crowded during some Eagles games that officials must set up Port-a-Potties in the concourses. Despite Ogden’s bad rep, a contract extension appeared likely. In an industry where contracts usually are long-term, finding a new concessionaire for a stadium on life-support would be all but impossible.
Then, the city caught what appeared at first to be a lucky break: This summer, Ogden Entertainment was purchased by the giant Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp.
New management might mean better service, improved quality. Maybe cleaner kitchens.
With the concession contract set to expire after the Eagles season concludes this winter, the city quickly opened talks with Aramark. In recent days, however, the negotiations reportedly have bogged down.
Uncertain how new stadium construction will affect the Vet, the city wants only a one-year deal with the company, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Aramark, worried that it will be forced to spend thousands to clean up after Ogden, wants a multi-year deal to recoup its investment.
Now, it seems the lucky break wasn’t so lucky after all: Aramark can walk, the city can’t.
Fifteen years ago, a half-dozen companies vied for the food concession at the city’s huge, gleaming stadium. City Hall boasted that its contract with Ogden was the best in the industry. The city would keep up to 58 cents on every $1 spent on beer, hotdogs and Crackerjack. In the past 10 years alone, Vet Stadium food and beverage concessions have earned the city $40 million.
This time, the city is desperate.
The deal won’t be so lucrative.
THERE IS a bittersweet feeling in the near-empty stands at the end of every baseball season. Long-suffering Phillies fans curse still another last-place finish, yet cherish the simple pleasure of watching America’s pasttime.
For true fans, watching the season end is a sacred experience, like a funeral for a friend. But instead of “amen,” we get to say, “Wait till next year! ”
With its future uncertain, though, Veterans Stadium enjoys no such hope. Even the city’s vow to spend $80 million in improvements if there is no new stadium deal by November seems a laughable waste of money.
Yet, if the city and its sports franchises miraculously cut a deal today, it still would be three years till the new stadiums are built.
That’s three more years of football and baseball at the Vet – of grimy walls and trash-covered floors, of rats and roaches, of the cotton-candy man and the soda lady.