Shea it ain't so

Jonathan Baum

NEW YORK – Even before the game, the Shea faithful didn’t miss the opportunity to lament.

As a heavy rain fell here at the big ballpark in Queens on Sunday morning before what would be the final regular season game in its 45-year history, various onlookers – Mets fans, to be sure – recalled the scene from a week ago when the Yankees gave its more-famous and celebrated stadium a triumphant sendoff on a picture-perfect final day of summer.

“Typical,” one fan said of the shower that delayed Sunday’s start. “The Yankees get perfect weather and we get this.”

Even as these two franchises prepare to move into stunning new ballparks, the comparisons – and the inferiority complex – live on.

New York. Yankees vs. Mets.

To say Mets fans despise the Yankees is an understatement.

Both franchises spend tons of money, but only one has kept going to the playoffs lately – winning several World Series along the way, including a deceptively close five-game series victory for the Yankees over the Mets in 2000.

They both are getting new digs, but the Yankees' new palace in the Bronx, of course, cost more than Citi Field, built adjacent to Shea.

And then there's the weather. Those damn Yankees get all the breaks.

Even the Yankees' failure to make the postseason, for the first time since 1993, was overshadowed by the stadium-closing festivities. The Mets' now annual collapse, meanwhile, cast a pall over the proceedings at Shea on this dreary Sunday.

Last weekend, it was all about Yankee Stadium and the team’s history, as the Bronx Bombers had virtually nothing else to play for. And this weekend, being an irrelevant thorn in the Boston Red Sox’s side while trying to get Mike Mussina his 20th victory topped the list of objectives.

It was a different story here Sunday. For a little while, anyway.

Johan Santana’s stunning performance Saturday, coupled with the Milwaukee Brewers’ loss to the Chicago Cubs, put the inconsistent Mets back in control of their playoff destiny. A win Sunday against Florida combined with a Brewers loss, or a Mets win followed by a one-game playoff win against Milwaukee, would put the Mets back in the postseason and help erase memories of the team’s dramatic collapse last September.

The Shea fans knew it.

From the first pitch of the game, from Oliver Perez’s strikeout of leadoff hitter Cameron Maybin, these fans were jazzed – as further evidence by their giant roar when the scoreboard revealed the Cubs were up 1-0 on the Brewers.

Even after Perez, with Joe Smith’s help, surrendered two runs in the sixth and the Mets fell behind 2-0, the fans erupted as Smith finally pitched out of the jam.

Because despite the team's surreal collapse in '07 and its quasi-repeat effort this September, despite the inferiority complex, despite living in the shadow cast by the big ballpark in the Bronx, these fans had to believe.

Believe. That's the word so often tied to these Mets teams. After all, they are The Amazins, the Miracle Mets, "You gotta believe," so on and so forth.

And with that, fans know what a leadoff walk in a two-run game could mean.

Their enthusiasm was justified when Carlos Beltran blasted a two-run home run shortly thereafter, knotting the game at 2-2 and sending these die-hards into an absolute frenzy.

Even the most die-hard Mets fan I know, upon his final visit to Shea this summer, admitted “it’s a dump.”

But that same fan acknowledged the nostalgia he feels for this place.

You see, it’s their dump.

Last weekend, during the Yankee Stadium celebration, Bernie Williams asserted that concrete doesn't talk. It's not about the stadium itself, but rather the people, the history, the fans.

Sure, Yankee Stadium arguably has had more of all those things, but it's not as if this big bowl in Flushing, N.Y., hasn't seen its share of history, of dramatics.

And, on a couple of occasions, of championships.

Unfortunately for those fans, those memorable moments now include Wes Helms' Shea Stadium-silencing solo shot off Scott Schoeneweis in the top of the eighth on Sunday. They feature the image of Dan Uggla following with a blast to left, continuing the Met bullpen's ineptness and depressing these already tortured fans.

Moments later, the Brewers' Ryan Braun hit a two-run shot that would prove to be the difference in Milwaukee's win over Chicago.

Just like that, it all fell apart. Just like that, any chance of witnessing the Amazin' here at Shea was gone.

A couple of would-be dramatic rallies failed with deep fly balls that weren't quite deep enough, and these fans, dedicated to supporting New York's other team in the city's supposedly inferior stadium, were left stunned as the Mets closed this park with a disappointing, season-ending loss.

This was the chance, you see, for the Mets to hog the New York postseason spotlight alone for the first time since 1988. This was the opportunity to draw just a little more magic out of this old park.

This was an opportunity for some current Met to join Ron Swoboda, Cleon Jones, Mookie Wilson, Jessie Orosco and Robin Ventura on the franchise's all-time highlight reel.

And it was an opportunity for these fans to see their team grasp for greatness and not fall short.

None of that happened. All those hopes, replaced by familiar frustration and heartbreak.

So now, the Mets leave Shea behind once again wondering what might have been, imagining perhaps what should have been.

And the 56,000-plus who filled this stadium one last time walked away lamenting, again, that the boys from Queens weren't quite good enough.