Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log, a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 358 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
9/26/07 W Washington 3-6 Humber 1 194-160 L 9-6
It started, in a sense, where it all started long before. It started in Long Beach, at the library. This whole Mets thing of mine took on perhaps its most vital dimension when, as a child, I commenced to taking out books that caught me up real fast on everything I’d missed, those years before I had the good sense to be baseball-sentient, those critical spring and summer months when the miracle I’d celebrate in my first baseball fall marinated. There weren’t many of those years and months between me and the Mets — we were born the same year, you know — but I was on surer footing when I understood where we came from, why, beyond the obvious serendipity of falling into a world championship when they were 7 and I was 6, the Mets were considered so very Amazin’. Men named Koppett and Durso and Vecsey and Zimmerman and Schaap schooled me, told me what the deal was, who the Mets were before I could step right up and meet them for myself. That’s where it began, this ability to process baseball anecdotes and statistics and build on them and, eventually, tell the stories myself. It started in Long Beach, at the library.
It started with books called The Year The Mets Lost Last Place and Joy In Mudville and The New York Mets: The Whole Story and, naturally enough, Amazin’. It started at the library in Long Beach when I was a kid and the only thing I wanted to do as much as watch the Mets was read the Mets. And the final Wednesday of the 2007 season…it started there, too.
Silly me. I didn’t put the two together until many weeks had gone by, not until the final Wednesday of the 2007 season was — along the lines of those tales of Throneberry and Chacon and Fisher and Bosch — a dark chunk of franchise folklore. I didn’t realize just what I was doing the afternoon before that 7:10 start. I do now. I was tagging up at home, going back to where it all started, just in time for the beginning of the end. Within five days, everything about 2007 would be ruined. Within five days, I would be to Shea Stadium five times, absorbing four losses and bearing witness to a three-game swing in the standings that will eternally mark the difference between two teams, scarring one for god knows how long.
But first I went to the library.
It was grandly refurbished from my youth, but it was still the library to me. It still stood on the exact spot off the corner of National and Park as it did in those years when I was I carrying Koppett and Durso and Vecsey and Zimmerman and Schaap to the checkout desk. It was still a mere eight blocks up and three blocks over from the house where I brought those guys home to learn who and what the Mets were before they made themselves apparent to me.
It’s worth mentioning here that I went to the library hours before first pitch that Wednesday to meet an author who had written — what the hell else? — a book about the Mets. Not just meet him, but to go to an actual Mets game with him. When I was a kid, I hardly ever got to go to a Mets game, so I went to the library to read about Mets games instead. Now, without realizing it, I was melding the two cathedrals of my youth: the accessible Long Beach Public Library and the once unattainable Shea Stadium. I wasn’t going to the library because I couldn’t go to the game. I was going to the library in order to go the game.
From where I live now, it was an indirect route to Shea. In the great scheme of Mets things, however, it was absolutely on the way.
The author of the Mets book on this Wednesday was Dana Brand. He published Mets Fan last summer and because he became a blogger to support it, we had dropped each other a few lines. Since he makes his living on Long Island, not too far from where I do, I suggested we hook up and go to a game, maybe in September. Sure, he said. His book tour was taking him to local libraries, usually at night, but it so happened he’s doing a reading in Long Beach the afternoon before the Mets play a night game against Washington. Long Beach — do I know where that is? Yes, I said. Yes, I do. Yes, I’ll meet you there.
I broke away from the computer midday and drove to my hometown. It’s about six miles from where I’ve settled, but it feels a little further every time I make the trek. It feels years away. Long Beach, The City By The Sea, is one of those places you don’t pass through on the way to anywhere. When I finally crossed the bridge and moved to another Nassau County locale, I appreciated the extra 10, 15, 20 minutes I wasn’t spending in my car getting somewhere else from Long Beach.
Parking on National Boulevard and walking to the library, the plan was to sit in on what was left of Dana’s session and then he’d drive us to the game — he lives in Connecticut, so it was more convenient that way. I’d take the train back to Long Beach (the station is a block from the library) and drive home from there. Usually when I meet a fellow blogger for the first time, it’s at Gate E, maybe Gate D if I’m feeling frisky. On the final Wednesday of 2007, it was at the library. It made perfect sense.
The afternoon was an unqualified success. From the moment his group broke up and we shook hands, Dana and I were lifelong comrades in arms. We were Mets fans. I suggested Gino’s across the street for pizza and baseball chat. He was up for it. He seemed to enjoy being an audience for somebody else’s Mets stories for a change. Me, I don’t need much prompting, either for Gino’s or to talk about myself and the Mets.
It went like that the rest of the afternoon, finishing our slices, getting in his car, finding the Southern State and the Cross Island and making it to Shea around 5:30. It was way earlier than I was used to, but it was fine. The company was good and we had a pregame agenda. We wanted to partake in the Citi Field Preview Center, the virtual tour of Shea’s successor the scoreboard had been relentlessly hyping. Arriving early to beat the lines worked. We got our peek into the future, at least at what the luxury boxes of tomorrow would look like. We were wary of Citi Field when we entered. We were close to appalled when we were done. The emphasis of the “tour” was on what high rollers could expect for their megabucks. That wasn’t going to apply to either of us or anybody we knew. We probably also weren’t too happy that our respective pasts, enmeshed as they were with the past of the Mets, were slated to be plowed under for parking in just over a year.
The last words Dana read to his group at the library were from the chapter of his book titled “For Shea”:
I will endure its passing, but I would have loved to have been an old man in these seats, under these lights.
Until I had read that in Mets Fan, it had not really occurred to me that if all goes to plan, kids who grow up taking books out of the library to become better Mets fans become old men. It never occurred to me Shea wouldn’t be where it had always been. Shoot, the Long Beach Public Library was right where I’d left it almost 17 years earlier. Come 2009, it would be where it had always been. Shea wouldn’t.
No, the future wasn’t our ally that Wednesday night — especially the immediate future.
We had mezzanine seats that Wednesday night. And in those seats, under those lights, Dana and I aged gradually, then rapidly. The Mets, losers of eight of their previous twelve, sprinted ahead of the Nationals. Beltran and Alou homered in succession in the first. Beltran homered again in the third. Somewhere in between, Castillo drove in two. The Mets led 5-0, giving aid and comfort to their neophyte starter Philip Humber. Humber, 24, represented the future and present simultaneously. Neither was looking good from the vantage point of his dusty right arm.
Humber shouldn’t have been starting, not under the circumstances that brought him to the mound for his very first career start on the final Wednesday of the 2007 season. The former No. 1 pick had joined the big club early in September and was promptly put and kept under wraps. You were as likely to see Philip Humber head to the mound as you were the old bullpen buggy. Now, with a division title in the balance, he was handed a ball and told to keep a staggering team afloat the way you might tell a 20-year veteran to do the same. It was repeatedly proving difficult for the staggering team’s 20-year veteran in residence to accomplish such a task. It would prove impossible for its first-time starter.
To be fair, in the wake of El Duque’s ailing right foot and Brian Lawrence being rightfully left out, Willie Randolph’s choice was narrowed to pitching Humber on a young lifetime’s rest or offering Austin Kearns a hitting tee and relying on his honor to not take undue advantage. By the fifth, you would have liked to have seen what kind of stuff the tee had.
Dana and I, 75 seasons of Mets fandom to our combined ledger, were seeing the beginning of an end the likes of which neither of us had ever seen…and between us we’ve seen or read everything that’s happened to the Mets. We’d earlier shared stories of rooting and pizza from Gino’s and apprehension over Citi Field. Now we were sharing something unfortunately unforgettable: a mezzanine view of the acceleration of what was about to be known as The Greatest Collapse in Baseball History. As the Phillies were beating the Braves, the Nats knocked out Humber, then toyed with the similarly callow Joe Smith. They spotted the Mets a 5-0 lead yet won quite methodically, 9-6. Worse than the numbers was the lack of honest surprise that it went down the way it did, even if the Mets were still in first, even if the Nats were still next to last. It was nine of thirteen now. The starter was brand new to his job. How surprised could you be? The Mets did everything but open a Collapse Preview Center and give virtual tours.
We departed the ramps dazed when it was over. Dana muttered correctly what a horrible, horrible game this had been. I didn’t disagree one iota, but mentioned, for the record, that I’d really enjoyed hanging out and going to this game before it became as horrible it did. Yes, he said, it had been fun…except for the cruel business of blowing the game and quite possibly the season. Can’t wait to do it again next year, I said…without the losing of course, heh-heh. It was an exchange the essence of which I would repeat with other people I also really liked on Thursday night and Friday night and Sunday afternoon, though I guess if I really liked them, I would never, ever again threaten to expose them to the New York Mets.
Returning to Long Beach became a bigger pain than I imagined. There are fewer LIRR trains headed there after a game than there are for where I live now — just missed one at Woodside that would have sped up the process; plus, as with driving, you’re looking at an additional 10, 15, 20 minutes to get where you’re going if you’re going to Long Beach. My train didn’t pull into the station until almost one in the morning. It briefly crossed my mind that this was the same depot from which I traveled to my first game on my own, when at 14 I could begin to routinely reach beyond the shelves of the library to show up at Shea at will. But it was too late to get caught up in that kind of thinking. I walked back down National Boulevard to my car, wiped the City By The Sea’s considerable condensation off my windshields, and drove into what felt like total darkness.