Veteran stadium watcher


Philadelphia Phillies players have come and gone during the last 32 years. Managers have been fired and hired. The team’s owners have even changed during that span.

But two elements have remained constant: The Vet and Albert LaGrotta. The stadium will change for sure after this season. LaGrotta says his own future is up in the air.

You probably have no idea who LaGrotta is unless you work for the Phillies or have tried your luck sneaking into a game through the employee entrance.

Since the first Phillies game at Veterans Stadium in 1971, he has been a security guard manning the stadium’s employee entrance.

"So I must be doing a pretty good job, eh?" ponders the 84-year-old.

Officially, his job is to check people’s credentials as they enter the stadium, but LaGrotta also functions as a living part of Phillies history.

He was born and raised at 23rd and Tasker streets with dreams of playing professional baseball. He learned the game in the summers on the grassless ballfields dotting South Philly prior to 1950, and has the scars from sliding on the cinder fields to prove it.

Scouts would come to these fields to check out young talent. In 1938, LaGrotta was an 18-year-old slick-fielding third baseman. He was offered a chance to leave South Philly and join a semi-pro team in Maryland’s Eastern Shore League. Two years later, the old Philadelphia Athletics invited him to Shibe Park for a tryout, but World War II interrupted his major-league dreams.

LaGrotta was drafted into the Army in 1940, and following basic training, was stationed in India with the 20th General Hospital unit from the University of Pennsylvania for three years.

"When I got out in ’45, my playing days were over," he says. "I missed too much time. Four or five years is a lot to lose."

LaGrotta returned to South Philly and found a job at Schmidt’s Brewery in Northern Liberties, working on the plant’s bottling machine. He stayed at the plant for 37 years.

LaGrotta saved his money and, in 1954, bought the home he still lives in today on the 2500 block of South Rosewood Street — a block he proudly proclaims is one of the best in the city.

Three years later, he married Carolyn Cifuni at St. Theresa’s Church, formerly at Broad and Catharine streets. The couple had one daughter, Betty, and three granddaughters. Carolyn died five years ago.

LaGrotta took the job at the Vet to earn some extra money and to be around baseball again.

"I always liked baseball," he says. "I couldn’t play, so I wanted to get close to it."

Employees got to watch games for free and often received tickets to give to family and friends. LaGrotta watched all the 1980, 1983 and 1993 home World Series games.

His post is between the players’ parking lot and their entrance. Each game, the Phillies parade past him when they arrive and leave, and many use the employee entrance to duck in and out of the stadium quicker.

So LaGrotta’s encounters with players are frequent. The list of Phillies he has befriended reads like a "who’s who" in team history. They include Manny Trillo, who brought him cigars from his native Venezuela that were nearly a foot long, and current Phillies outfielder Bobby Abreu, also from Venezuela, who taps "Pop Al" for batting tips.

"I made him the hitter he is today," LaGrotta says with a grin.

First baseman Pete Rose once asked LaGrotta to drive one of his European sports cars to a gas station and fill it up during a game. LaGrotta obliged and Rose tipped him $20. The all-time hits leader autographed the bill at LaGrotta’s request, and the guard still has the memento today.

LaGrotta credits Rose with the Phillies’ World Series victory in 1980.

"He made Mike Schmidt what he was. He gave him the confidence to win," he says. "It’s a shame he got involved with that gambling." Despite recent speculation that baseball may rescind Rose’s lifetime ban, LaGrotta does not believe it will happen.

His all-time favorite Phillie was outfielder Jim Eisenreich, who played with the team for four seasons, including the 1993 National League Championship squad.

"He was a wonderful man," LaGrotta says.

Eisenreich had Tourette’s syndrome — a genetic d isease that affects the body’s neurological system, causing involuntary movements and vocal sounds. The player frequently held baseball clinics at the stadium for children with Tourette’s and reserved a block of tickets at home games for people with the disorder.

LaGrotta says Eisenreich unfailingly stayed and signed autographs for fans after every game.

"All he said to me was, ‘Don’t let the people rush me,’" LaGrotta recalls. The player was concerned his Tourette’s would act up if the crowd mobbed him, so LaGrotta lined up the fans single-file.

As for the players with the inflated egos — the ones who not only never bothered to learn the names of the security guards, they never even said hello — LaGrotta says the list could be just as long, but he’s not talking.

"There were a lot of them, but I’m not going to tell you who I don’t like," he says. "I don’t want you putting that in the paper."

Like the Vet, LaGrotta might call it a career after this season.

He says he is considering retirement — partly because he’s not sure if the Phillies will have a job for him at their new ballpark and partly because the new field will be several blocks further from the Broad and Pattison subway stop.

LaGrotta depends on the Broad Street Line to get to and from work. He says he’s concerned about walking the extra distance in 90-degree-plus temperatures.

He is sentimental about retiring, but not about the end of Veterans Stadium. He recounts the familiar tales of the stadium’s disrepair and legends of it being infested with rats the size of cats.

LaGrotta says he now prefers to watch the games on television rather than at the Vet, but says he’ll be hanging around if the team makes a run at the World Series this season. It would be a fitting end for both the stadium and the guard’s career.

"They need some pitching, though," he says. "They don’t have enough pitching."