September 25, 2008
'Duk note: The following tribute to Shea Stadium, which will see its final regular season games played this weekend, was written by my friend, Pat. He spent his formative years in New Jersey as a devoted follower of Darryl Strawberry and now insists on going by the pen name 'Tim Snips.' I refuse to believe that those two facts are not related. To submit your own memories of Shea Stadium — despite a few requests, I have not received a single one — email me here.
The first time I went to Shea was the summer of 1987. It was a year after the Mets fielded their best team of all-time. I was seven years old and living in New Jersey. I remember they played the Reds, but almost nothing of the actual game. I went with a friend and his parents, we sat on the left field line and Ron Darling came over to sign an autograph book that my parents had gotten me earlier that year at Disney World. I may still be the only person in the world with Ron Darling's signature next to Goofy's.
My next two trips to Shea were in 1989 and 1990. Both were early-season games, the Mets played the Expos and Cubs and both games were wins. My father's friend, a stockbroker, gave us his investment firm's tickets, which were box seats along the first base line. In the first inning of the '89 game, a forgettable young Met named Keith Miller hit a hard line drive that struck an old man in the chest two rows in front of me. The guy was able to hold onto the ball, but the paramedics took him away for a couple innings to give him medical assistance. When the old man returned a couple innings later, Keith Miller again came to bat. Again he hit a foul ball in our general area, this time a high pop-up. My uncle got his hand on it, but it dropped to the ground and bounced down into the waiting hands of that same old man.
It was the single fairest thing I have ever seen.
The fourth and final time I went to Shea was this July. After taking in the magic of MLB's All-Star FanFest with 'Duk in Manhattan, I continued my day by catching the 7 Train to Queens to attend the Mets' final game before the All-Star break. The contrast in the way MLB treated the two outgoing New York stadiums could not have been starker. Selig and Co. rewarded Yankee Stadium's final season with the All-Star Game and never missed a chance to play up all of the Yankees' self-congratulatory brouhaha. On the other side of town sat another fine park in its last season, with memories and echoes all its own.
For me, anyway, it was Shea I wanted to see before I left town.
I liked this final trip to Shea the best. I'm 29 now, so the magic of simply going to a baseball game isn't the same as it was 20 years ago. At this point, I'd rather have a beer with Ron Darling than get his autograph. But after stepping off the train landing and into the open air in front of the stadium, I am not ashamed to tell you it felt like I was 9 years old again. And the reason, oddly, was the smell. When you get close to Shea, you're assaulted with the not unpleasant aroma of burnt paper and peanuts. I have no idea where it comes from or why every baseball stadium doesn't smell this way, but I know I had not smelled it in 18 years, since the last time I was at the park. It took me a minute to get over it; whoever said that smell is the sense most tied to memory — I think it was Keith Hernandez — was absolutely right.
I scalped a ticket off the street and ended up sitting in the Daily News' box. I began to keep score. Behind me were two middle-aged guys. One had longer hair, the other had a Mohawk. As I was alone, I couldn't help but listen in on their conversation and appreciate how intelligent their views on the world were — baseball, music, politics, what a bland creature Derek Jeter is. At some point in the fourth or fifth inning, I interjected myself and ended up talking with them for the rest of the night. We stayed around long after the game was over, even chatting on the train ride back to Manhattan. It was one of those perfectly pleasant evenings where you hit it off with people you have no intention of ever talking to again.
At different times over the course of Mike Pelfrey's 7-0 shutout of the Rockies, our conversation would wander from Springsteen to Reaganomics to the Olympics, but more often than not we would get back to talking about Shea, and to the monstrosity growing behind right field, the new Citi Field. Both guys seemed less than enthused at the pseudo-Ebbets Field exterior, or what promised to be a glossy, shiny new baseball experience for Mets fans. Scott — the Mohawked one — summed up the feeling of (I suspect) a lot of people when he said "the charm about Shea is that it's a neighborhood bar."
Thing was, he is — and was — absolutely right. Shea is the rundown and funky little hole in the wall in the world of New York baseball. You want flash? Head on over to that other place. You want a place to watch the National League and enjoy a baseball game? Shea does the job just fine.
Or at least it did.
So in its final week of the regular season, here's to Shea. Here's to a pile of concrete and steel painted orange and deep blue, an absolutely unremarkable building in the world's most remarkable town. Here's to Shea, to its two World Series trophies and four pennants. Here's to acting as the canvas for the forever young beauty of Gooden and Strawberry and Seaver and Wright. Here's to its big ridiculous apple in right-centerfield that puts exclamation points on home runs. Here's to Bud Harrelson duking it out with Pete Rose in the '73 NLCS, and here's to Gil Hodges' shoe polish and here's to Ron Swoboda's insane catch in the '69 Series. Here's to Shea for acting as mind-numbing sound chamber for LaGuardia's flights. Here's to that Piazza home run in the first game at Shea after 9/11 and to Dykstra's home run off Dave Smith in the '86 NLCS and to Robin Ventura's Grand Slam Single. Here's to the early years of futility and Casey Stengel and the lean years of Mookie Wilson and Dave Kingman and Bobby Bonilla. Here's to the most famous Beatles concert of all time.
And for God's sake, here's to Game Six of the 1986 World Series
Here's to you, Shea Stadium, a good baseball park, and a lot of good times.