Last week when I was very sick, my friend Joe Dubin, a charter member of the New Breed, cheered me up as he is wont to do by sending me a copy of an old Mets radio broadcast of a game I recently wrote about but missed the first time around. I returned the favor by transmitting my cold to him via e-mail. To make it up to him, I'd like to share with you something he shared with me last year, a lovely stream of recollections regarding the new ballpark in Queens…the first time such an edifice was constructed.
Feel better, Joe D. — and thanks for your memories.
Drove by Shea yesterday and was able to get a quick glimpse of Citi Field's construction site while heading to and from the Grand Central Parkway. There it was, the old making way for the new. It made me think of the first time I saw Shea 43 years ago.
Remember your reaction the first time you saw it? I'm not thinking as much when entering the park but rather that experience when first approaching it close up, either from the expressway or pulling into the Willets Point station.
My experience might be a little bit different than yours since I first saw Shea when it was the newest ballpark in America and light years away from the old Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium and anything east of Dodger Stadium (except maybe D.C. Stadium).
Games started at 8:05 P.M. so it must have been around 7:15 P.M. when I got my first glimpse sitting in the car as Dad drove onto the Whitestone Expressway. It was overcast and the sky was dark, allowing the stadium lighting to be seen in its full brilliance. The upper deck lights were much brighter when looking straight at them than they are today. Most of the exterior was open (unlike now, when it's partially covered by blue painted masonry with bulbs arranged to look like ballplayers), so the entire perimeter was a silhouette of neon lights coming from both the outside and the ramps and pedestrian walkways peaking through from within.
I'm glad my first trek to Shea was at night because the effect would not have been as dramatic or beautiful without that gorgeous lighting. My first two words were “holy s–t”. I couldn't believe the ultra-modern stadium I was seeing! It was like being in Disney's Tomorrowland.
We parked, purchased our general admission tickets, took the escalators to the upper deck and sat behind third. All I had ever seen on TV was a Shea drenched in shades of black and white. This park had tiers of yellow, orange, blue and green seats with a rainbow of lights protruding onto the white shell covering the scoreboard. We saw color slides of each player from the square screen on the top.
About the game? Well, it was a Wednesday evening in late July against the L.A. Dodgers, the middle of a three-day on-field celebration of Casey Stengel's 74th birthday. The Mets scored three in the bottom of the first off Joe Moeller but the flood gates opened in the top of the second and my first experience was a washout!
Dad was unprepared for inclement weather and purchased from the concession stands a clear, gray-tinted plastic poncho (with no Met logo or hood) stored in a small travel case to protect him from the rain. Harry M. Stevens came well prepared back then; at that time there was no such thing as a Met Shop behind home plate selling all types of apparel.
Probably because the event was so impressionable I remember so many of the details, including the game being stopped by rain in the top of the second. Or, maybe it's because the Mets scored three runs in the bottom of the first and actually were ahead of the Dodgers 3-0 when the rains came (how often did the Mets lead L.A. by that margin back then?).
Well, the game was a washout but not the memory of my first visit to Shea. That's how I'll always remember Shea — no DiamondVision, no Budweiser advertisement filling two-thirds of the old scoreboard, Jane Jarvis, the green outfield wall.
When it opens, Citi Field will be gorgeous to see but somehow I doubt I will experience anything like the awe I had when I first saw Shea, for I'm obviously much older. I will see the construction as it progresses and despite all the new conveniences, the park itself won't be as unique compared to its contemporaries as Shea was in 1964.
I'm sorry you were too young to have experienced Shea when it first opened and the exciting, unbelievable first glance as seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old at a time when most ballparks were ancient and the world was not surrounded by the Internet, cable, computer video and other forms of communication that today take away the thrills experienced by the 13-year-old in each of us.