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.
8/21/98 (1st) F St. Louis 6-5 Nomo 1 68-68 L 10-5
8/21/98 (2nd) F St. Louis 7-5 Reynoso 2 69-68 W 1-0
How rare is Leap Day? Today is but the ninth February 29 to occur since I saw my first game at Shea Stadium.
How rare are doubleheaders in The Log? Exactly as rare. I have been to but nine since I saw my first game at Shea Stadium.
There won’t be another Leap Day until Citi Field is being spruced up for its fourth season opener in 2012. I’m betting I’ve been to my last doubleheader at Shea Stadium.
Sure it could rain, but in modern times, that’s what the separate-admission day-night doubleheader was invented for. It would take a real quirk of scheduling to get a makeup doubleheader wherein you pay once and you watch twice. It would take rioting in the streets for the Mets — or any team — to plan in advance on giving up a gate and giving us a deal. This ain’t news. The last evidence of a scheduled, non-makeup, traditional doubleheader I can find is from August 14, 1988, an Emerson Banner Day sweep of the Expos, 4-3 and 4-2. That Sunday afternoon served two purposes (three, counting the banners, speaking of lost Shea traditions):
1) It stopped Montreal’s divisional ambitions dead in their tracks. Les ‘Spos had crept to within 4-1/2 of first and into a virtual tie for second with Pittsburgh; oh for those days when the Mets could play disinterested for three months and brush away young, hungry competition nonetheless.
2) It tranquilized the restless natives in the stands who had taken to expressing their impatience with the first-place but undeniably torpid 1988 Mets. Or as Howard Johnson impolitically put it in Newsday as he packed for a Western swing, “That ought to shut the animals up for a while.”
It’s been twenty years since the Mets meant to have a doubleheader. Every twinbill since ’88 has been begrudging improv, usually from precipitation, once from Olympic Stadium falling apart, never from a sense of civic duty.
Are doubleheaders great or what? That’s not a rhetorical question. There is a school of thought that they fall into the category of “what,” as in “what time will this be over?” I’ve yet to hear a player wax sentimental about two for the price of one or an additional three-some hours at the ol’ ballpark (though I suspect, if pressed, David Wright would be all for it). As my blog partner put it after attending what stands as the fourth-to-last single-admission doubleheader in Shea Stadium history, persevering for eighteen (or 32) innings of a doubleheader can give even the hardiest fan “the baseball equivalent of an ice cream headache“.
Oh, but isn’t ice cream delicious?
That’s a rhetorical question. Of course ice cream is delicious and of course you are going to go nuts when told you’ve got two scoops coming your way. Who wants to be a single-scooper party-pooper when you can go to a doubleheader? Who wants to go to a game when you can go to a pair? Who cares what time this will be over?
It helps, naturally, if you get a split, banana or otherwise, if you can’t get a sweep. Bob Murphy always said the opener was the one you wanted to make sure you won, thus relieving the pressure of a potential whitewash before you were in the hole. Hogwash, experience tells me. Over my first seven Shea doubleheaders, the Mets were 7-0 in the nightcap (nightcap: a great baseball word you hear less and less). Even if there was a loss in the first game — and there was four times — I could leave sated and gratified. The last thing I saw on the field was the Mets’ catcher shaking the Mets’ pitcher’s hand. It wasn’t until my eighth and ninth/final Shea doubleheaders that I left with a bad taste in my mouth, both from the wrong kinds of sweeps, both in 2002 (when bad taste was an epidemic).
I’ve seen a little history, Met and otherwise, in doubleheaders. Saw Rusty Staub tie the record for consecutive pinch-hits (eight) in ’83. Saw Randy Niemann’s only Met start in ’86…and Mike Draper’s only Major League start in ’93. Didn’t get there early enough to watch Robin Ventura club a grand slam in the opener of a twi-nighter in 1999, but arrived in time for a fantastic finish (Mets 11 Brewers 10 when Alex Ochoa ran Milwaukee out of a rally) and was then treated to Robin’s second granny in as many games. If you ever wanted to see one player hit one grand slam in one game and then hit another grand slam in the next game and have it happen on the same ticket, you had to do as I did and go to Shea Stadium on May 20, 1999.
Yet the doubleheader I pay tribute to on Leap Day is the most appropriate to the occasion. It’s the only one in which I watched one game in one part of the ballpark and another from another part. There was a vertical leap in seating and, happily, a jump for joy by the end of the night.
August 21, 1998, the third doubleheader the Mets are playing in four nights. May showers brought on this madness. From Tuesday to Saturday, the Mets would clock in 72 innings over roughly 96 hours against three different teams. This was Friday, and if it was Friday, it must have been the Cardinals. And if it was the Cardinals in August of 1998, it had to be Mark McGwire.
Remember him? He was big then. Literally. Figuratively. Every way you could describe. Mark McGwire was Saving Baseball. He was also filling up Shea.
Shea shouldn’t have needed him to pump…it up, considering the Wild Card fever that was enveloping those of us who didn’t need baseball saved by inflated numbers or sluggers. I was at the Tuesday night doubleheader, against the Rockies, and it drew barely 20,000. I was at the Sunday game that followed the eight-game marathon dance, against the Diamondbacks, and that got only 36,000. But for Mark McGwire, the turnstiles clicked. More than 45,000 for two Cardinal games Thursday night, more than 52,000 on Friday night.
It was a big enough deal that Yankees fans where I worked, who barely acknowledged the Mets’ existence, envied my ticket-holding. “Hey, I hear you’re goin’ to the deuce!” one of them said. To that moment, I had never heard a doubleheader referred to as a deuce. I’ve only heard it maybe twice since then. I don’t think it’s recognized baseball slang.
Nevertheless, my ticket for the deuce was courtesy of Jason, who bought a three-seat six-pack when that sort of scheme was novel. I’d be joining him and Emily deep in the left field mezzanine. You’ll probably get there ahead of either of us, he warned, but we’ll be there.
As it happened, Laurie was also deucebound. She had a friend who was pretty good at leaving her very, very good tickets, like player family section good. But nobody from that family was joining her, so what say I sit with her in the early going, before Jace and Emily show? Sounded all right to me. Now I had two tickets to two games for which I only needed one…an embarrassment of riches.
I headed out from my office, targeting a bottom-of-the-first, top-of-the-second arrival; Laurie of Queens was going home to change into normal Met clothing so I’d be meeting her at the great seats. The first homegirl I recognized, however, wasn’t Laurie. No, as I descended steps from the 7 to the rotunda, it was another woman of note from the borough and I hadn’t seen her in a long time.
It was Geraldine Ferraro. She was, in a sense, the Mark McGwire of fourteen summers earlier, on magazine covers, all over television, the talk of the nation. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was breaking a barrier more daunting than 61 home runs. She was the first female candidate on a national ticket, running as vice president with Walter Mondale.
That didn’t work out so well for her, at least not electorally. But in 1998, she was back…kind of. A U.S. Senate primary loomed a couple of weeks away and she was on the ballot. Ferraro knew enough to go where the voters might be and, in Queens on a Friday night with Mark McGwire packing ‘em in, her people knew enough to position her at Shea to greet her potential public.
But nobody was stepping right up to greet Geraldine Ferraro. It had been fourteen years. Her advance staff’s work was not impressive. With the first game already started, she stood alone in a beige dress between the rotunda and the ticket windows, solitary amid scattered twi-night foot traffic. One guy tried to drum up interest. “COME MEET GERALDINE FERRARO FOR U.S. SENATE!”
So I did even if no one else would. I wasn’t planning to vote for her, but gosh, this woman had made history, had made the cover of Time as “a historic choice” (as opposed to the grammatically incorrect “an historic choice” which letters to the editor demanded but didn’t get; cripes, the stuff I retain). Geraldine Ferraro, three times a Congresswoman from right here in Queens, once the second-leading vote-getter among vice presidential candidates in the whole United States (albeit a distant second), and nobody cared.
I walked over, shook her hand and wished her luck. She smiled and said thank you, less out of political instinct, more like “finally…somebody!”
Ferraro finished well behind Chuck Schumer in the primary. Schumer showed up before a Mets game on a Saturday in early September, planted himself right in front of the Gate E entrance (his people had megaphones and weren’t shy about using them) and shook everybody’s hand the way McGwire swung for the fences in ’98: forcefully, effortlessly and in a way that made folks glad they were a part of it. Schumer still has his job. I’ve no idea what McGwire and Ferraro are up to these days.
Once inside, things were McCrazy! You heard me, McCrazy. When you sit in the player family section (new to me, old hat to Laurie), you sit among things and people you don’t see elsewhere. You see the brother of a closer, the wife of a lefty specialist, the nephew of the organization’s pitching guru, the son of a centerfielder wearing a t-shirt with a caricature of his dad (in a Royals uniform) and it says, “We’re McCrazy!”
You don’t forget a sight like that, mostly because you’re as likely to see it at Shea Stadium again as you are to see a scheduled doubleheader.
Laurie’s connections left us marvelous seats and it provided us with a great view of a terrible game. Matt Morris (one of those dozens of non-Mets my Mets-loving friend doesn’t mind succeeding against the Mets based on sincere attractions that elude me) threw seven solid innings while Hideo Nomo was spongy and unsatisfying in his approach to Cardinal hitters (5 IP, 6 BB amid 8 SO). McGwire didn’t start, but doubled home a run as a pinch-hitter (big deal, it was against Mel Rojas) to the thrill of front-runners in every section where somebody wasn’t related to a Met.
Ah, McGwire, the one for whom most of Shea was going McCrazy. We were so innocent then even if it really began to come apart for him there if you’re here to talk about the past as it relates to the present. The night before, also a doubleheader, he hit his 50th home run in one game (off Willie Blair, possibly the most pointless Met ever), his 51st in the next. That was the night Big Mac decided he would talk about taking on 61 for real. He was all smiles. But that was also the night when a reporter reached into his locker, picked up a bottle of androstenedione and asked, “Hey, what’s that?” McGwire’s brief Paul Bunyan smile dimmed at the first whiff of inquiry, but nobody asked too many questions.
Lousy game, but great view. McCrazily good view. Practically behind the plate. Didn’t want to leave those seats too soon. As the innings of the opener rolled by, I kept telling Laurie, “I should get going, Jason and Emily must be here by now, upstairs, way upstairs.” But as spouses and siblings of the stars kept sashaying by, I was having a hard time tearing myself away. These were the beautiful people. I’d never sat among them before. I didn’t know when I’d sit among them again.
Not that my friends in the mezzanine weren’t lovely in their own way. So I rode out the 10-5 loss, bid Laurie a reluctant adieu and found a working escalator or two. It was off to the hoi polloi.
I show up at my assigned seat and receive a quizzical look from Jason and Emily, as in “uh…where were you all of game one?” I also got a “so nice of you to join us!” from a nosy total stranger who found it odd that someone would suddenly appear at like 8:30 for an evening that began at 5:10. I apologized profusely, but, Jace, Emily…ya gotta understand…there was a guy who looked like a slightly misshapen John Franco; and Mrs. Dennis Cook; and a teen who was thrilled that I knew who his uncle Dave Wallace was; and there was a kid in a McCrazy shirt! A McCrazy shirt!
The McCrazy shirt got me off the hook for my bad manners.
So-so seats, no glamour per se, but a much, much, much better game. Fonzie homers in the second off Manny Aybar, who is otherwise competent (or the Mets hitters are not). Armando Reynoso, who could be bulletproof for weeks at a time, gave up virtually nothing, not even to McGwire.
It was a lot darker by now than it was when I arrived at the park. It felt very late. While Geraldine Ferraro was, perhaps, home reading discouraging poll results, a survey of the left field mezzanine would have predicted few votes for the Mets.
Why? McGwire again. Big ovations every time up…except from us. If you had asked me in the late ’90s why I liked Jason so much, I would have listed no lower than third that it was because amid McGwiremania and the Summer Baseball Was Saved By Him, Jason stood and BOOOOOOOO!ed America’s hero. Not because he loved Roger Maris, not because he suspected something was up with those biceps, but because Mark McGwire was a St. Louis Cardinal getting his ass kissed inside Shea Stadium.
What a great idea! I’m gonna boo, too!
So we booed: long and loud and lustily and totally outnumbered. The instant Cardinal fans cheered. The event people, taken in by the lure of the deuce, cheered. The idiots in Yankees caps cheered. Probably a few too many Mets fans cheered.
Not us. BOOOOOOOOO!
It was not a popular decision, particularly with one red-shirted McGWIRE 25 one row in front of us and six sheets to the wind. He turned around and addressed us directly:
“OH, WHO THE METS GOT? THE METS DON’T GOT NOBODY! THEY GOT RUSTY STAUB! RUSTY STAUB’S A FAG! A FAG! YOU BETTER SHUT UP! RUSTY STAUB’S A FAG! THE METS SUCK! YOU BETTER WATCH IT!”
We didn’t, but I was a little put off. Fortunately, Reynoso did not give McGWIRE 25 home run 52. He walked him in the first and struck him out to end the third and fifth. The more McGwire failed, the fewer fans he seemed to have. And Rusty Staub tied the consecutive pinch-hit record, so screw you, scary and drunk man.
The guy in the red shirt got up and never came back. He went to the men’s room. I know that because when it was all over, he was slumped over a urinal and not moving. Pity. That Cardinal jersey looked brand new.
Reynoso went seven. His last pitch was called strike three to Big Mac. His circus would go on. Turk Wendell came on in the eighth. His circus was just beginning. August was the month Wendell converted early boos to cheers the oldest and most effective way in the book: by pitching very well. Turk’s rosin bag slam had come into vogue. He warmed up and…SLAM! The non-interlopers in the crowd roared.
My god, we fans are so easily amused.
Wendell gave up nothing in the eighth. The brother of the guy who looked like John Franco gave up nothing in the ninth. A 1-0 win on top of a 10-5 loss, a deuce whose components couldn’t have been more different, a pair of seats that couldn’t have been more different, six hours and sixteen minutes of baseball rendered, a tie in the Wild Card race, a Rey Ordoñez pinch-hitting appearance, a Todd Hundley sighting in left field (though not as a defensive replacement), the McCraziest shirt I ever saw, a chance meeting with a historic choice and a slightly grudging glimpse at a historic chase.
On the ramp down, free of the tensions wrought by our battle with the Cubs and far from the Rusty Staub-hating urinal-slumper, Jason, Emily and I agreed McGwire, out of our hair for the remainder of ’98, could go ahead and break all the records he wanted. Hey, we just won after we had just lost. We could be generous. What was androstenedione anyway?
Twi-night, long night, good night. I left sated and gratified.