In the twenty seasons they called it home, I never visited Shea Stadium to see the Jets play. It never came up as a possibility or as a desire. I wasn’t a committed Jets fan (a redundancy) until I was 15 and the mechanics of seeing an NFL game in person, even though the Jets didn’t necessarily sell out every week until late in their Queens tenure, struck me as too daunting to even consider. Baseball was something you wanted to go to. Football was something you watched on TV if it wasn’t blacked out.
Watching the Jets from Shea on television was strange, especially once I started going to baseball games there enough to be familiar with its topography. Where did home plate go? What happened to the dugouts? Is that the 410 sign? If Lee Mazzilli can handle centerfield, why can’t Pat Leahy?
Most stadiums used to have baseball teams and football teams. Even historic old ballparks had both. The Lions played in Tiger Stadium forever. The Bears used to kick up dust amid the brown Wrigley ivy. Lyric little bandbox Fenway hosted Patriot games. When Yankee Stadium was still Yankee Stadium, it was also the Giants’ stadium. It wasn’t unusual. The Mets and Jets as co-tenants, albeit with the Mets as seniors treating the Jets like perpetual freshmen, was the way business was taken care of until fairly recently.
Somewhere between the Jets threatening to move to the Meadowlands in the spring of 1977 and the fall of 1983 when they abandoned New York in search of spiffier restrooms, I decided that it was OK they were here…even if they were tearing up our grass. As one who didn’t attend Jets games, there were no practical concerns for me, but New Jersey? For the Jets? That was Giants territory. It was Giants Stadium, for crissake. The Jets were headquartered at Hofstra. What were they going to do? Practice in Hempstead all week and then cross two rivers on a bus to play on Sunday?
Yeah, that’s exactly what they did and still do and will do for at least a little longer before they relocate all operations to the Garden State and begin playing on a new piece of swampland in conjunction with their Big Blue cousins. The setting has never set right by me (the green drapes help only a little), but again, it’s all a matter of television when I bother to be interested, and they do sell out every game over there, so what do I know?
With the floodgates wide open for Shea Met memories since last Monday, it occurred to me that we happen to be right upon the 25th anniversary of the greatest Jet game I ever watched from Flushing. That I saw it on a portable black & white set in Tampa doesn’t diminish the joy I recall at its resolution.
In the first semester of my freshman year at USF I didn’t really know anybody, so the first acquaintance I made was sports. Sports I knew. No baseball in Florida then, but there was football. The Bucs were in their sixth season in 1981, on the verge of an unlikely Central Division title in the NFC. I couldn’t stand the Bucs, though. They were just too damn absurd to take seriously. Since they were all that Tampa Bay had to get excited about — besides the NASL Rowdies, that is — I took an abiding dislike to them the whole time I was in school. (If you heard “hey, hey, hey we’re the Buccaneers!” a dozen times a day on Q-105, you would have, too.)
So I wouldn’t have to follow the Bucs with any kind of commitment stronger than osmosis, I listened to Dolphins games. Miami was nowhere near Tampa, but they’d been the state’s team before anybody knew what a Buccaneer was, hence their games aired in locally on WFLA. I had liked the Dolphins when I was 9 and they were finishing 14-0 while my family was spending Christmas in North Miami Beach (though if I knew they were going to be annually obnoxious about it, I wouldn’t have). I hadn’t given them any thought since they stopped appearing in Super Bowls except to hope the Jets beat them twice a year. One Sunday in mid-November, my first semester, I was listening to the Dolphins’ postgame show after they lost to the Raiders (boy did I have no social life) when it was noted the Jets had won in Foxboro and had moved to within one game of Miami for the division lead. Next week, it would be the Dolphins (7-3-1) and the Jets (6-4-1 after an 0-3 start) in a battle for first. At Shea.
Having grown up in New York in the ’70s loyal as a matter of principle to our home teams (how the bleep could you live here and root for the bleeping Cowboys?), I had had very few football games to which I could look forward, Jets or Giants. This one, on November 22, 1981, automatically became my biggest autumn Sunday to date. I anticipated it all week. I may have been something of a Johnny “Lam” Jones-come-lately to the Jets’ cause, but a battle for first at Shea was a battle for first at Shea. I’d been waiting for one since 1973.
So it wasn’t the Mets. You can’t have everything.
One of my suitemates at my off-campus dorm (four guys, two rooms, connected by a bathroom) was from Fort Myers, about two hours down the coast. He was a Dolphins fan. Although the Mets were my calling card, I had made it clear that I liked the Jets. Well, he said, looks like we’re going to have something to watch on Sunday. Lucky for me he had a TV and even luckier just about all Dolphins games were televised in Tampa.
Well, it was a great game. Richard Todd wasn’t even supposed to play because of cracked ribs, but they outfitted him in a flak jacket. Generally not having Richard Todd wasn’t that much of a hardship, but he was the starter and it was no time to leave our starters on the bench. Todd played magnificently. The Jet defense (in this, the year of the New York Sack Exchange) curbed Miami and gave Todd a chance to lead the Jets to victory. It would be tough. They were down 15-9 and on their own 23 with just over three minutes left.
But he did it. He hit six different receivers along the way. The last pass was to Jerome Barkum for a touchdown. It was 15-15. Then Leahy, never a sure thing kicking into Shea’s Edmund Fitzgerald winds, nailed the extra point. Just like that the Jets were in first place.
The Jets were in first place!
My suitemate whose TV it was had left for work by the time his Dolphins lost. So it was just me and his non-fan roommate watching at the end. At the final gun, I did one of those leaps from a sitting position that one does without thinking. You’re pretty excited there, the other suitemate said. You’ve got to understand, I told him. This is the first time I’ve seen the Jets in first place since 1969, a year I always liked to stick into sentences whenever I could.
He didn’t care. But I did.
Shea Stadium was going wild, too. Sitting and leaping out there that late afternoon/early evening were 50,000-plus of the green and white who considered Shea home every bit as much then as I would for the next quarter-century. No doubt a lot of them were Mets fans as well as Jets fans. No doubt a lot of them were season-ticket holders who packed up with the Jets in 1984 and kept going to see them in the Meadowlands, fall after fall, decade after decade (bus after bus).
But the Jets have never looked right over there, even on TV, even when they were beating the Dolphins 51-45 in 1986, even considering they’ve now spent more years in Jersey than they did in Queens. They looked good at Shea a quarter-of-a-century ago tomorrow. They looked great. So did Shea.
Nothing strange about that.