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.
4/29/81 W Pittsburgh 0-2 Roberts 1 4-11 L 10-0
Will there be nights like this one at Citi Field? You don’t see it in any of the promotional pieces. But to be fair, they probably weren’t planning on having nights like this one at Shea Stadium.
Yet it happened, and on my watch, thanks to the rain that poured on the undomed grass at Shea on the cold and wet morning of April 14, 1981. That was my first Home Opener. Well, it would have been except for everything about the day being gloomy and unfriendly to baseball. Joel and I, seniors in high school and reasonably confident of graduation, opted to assign ourselves personal days (Spanish test be damned) and go to Shea.
For what? For naught. Us and maybe five other people stood in the rain to get the official word that the game would be postponed. This left us with two activities before getting a train back to Long Beach.
1) Walk the Shea Stadium parking lot in search of the KINGMAN FALLOUT ZONES just marked in conjunction with that Mets Magic hat ‘n’ apple over the fence. Management, the signs said, was not responsible for damage caused to windshields by flying baseballs.
2) Exchange our suddenly relevant rainchecks for another game.
It wouldn’t be as much fun as cutting school for the beginning of the baseball season, but we had another date we could use, two weeks hence. In twelfth grade, we were taking a class called Survey of Drama. It was no less boring than any other class LBHS offered, except for one Wednesday afternoon a month when our teacher, the indefatigable Mr. Kaye, led us to a honest-to-goodness Broadway matinee. Some of those were pretty boring, too (I conked out amid a revival of Brigadoon), but we got to be high school students in the city when everybody else was simply in high school. That was exciting.
Our next play would be April 29, the latest from the Neil Simon assembly line, Fools. Joel and I figured as long as we were going to be in Manhattan all day that Wednesday, we would be fools ourselves to not extend our day into a night in Queens. So we exchanged our rainchecks for that night.
The play was a comedy that wasn’t funny, which would explain why Fools, (which lasted 40 performances and “bears a mark of failure all its own,” the Times said upon a 1996 regional restaging), is never mentioned among Simon’s classics. The highlight of the show was that we got to stick around afterwards and ask questions of the cast. Mr. Kaye knew lots of theater people. Florence Stanley, who played Abe Vigoda’s wife on Fish, was particularly gracious. I tamped down the temptation to ask why this show was so gruesomely awful.
Of course I could have asked Joe Torre the same thing several hours later.
Mr. Kaye’s face lit up when I casually mentioned that Joel and I had tickets for something else that night, as if he had cultivated true theater believers among at least a couple of his charges (Mr. Kaye could be very indefatigable in that way). When we said it was for the Mets game, he gave us a disappointed “Oh.”
As would the Mets.
We found our way to the Flushing-bound 7 once we were done with Mrs. Fish. It wasn’t raining as it had on what was supposed to be Opening Day, but the 1981 Mets would never be mistaken for Sunshine Boys in any climate. Maybe we were the fools for thinking they’d be caught anything but barefoot in the park by Pittsburgh that night, yet I was optimistic. The year before, the Magic was Back. This year, the Magic was as well-hidden as could be. Drenched often in April, they had only played twelve times by the end of the month and entered that Wednesday 4-8. I assumed this poor start would be overcome. I assumed wrong.
There is something alluring in hindsight about a terrible team you stuck with. You claim it as yours so no one can assail your fanly bona fides. Hell yeah I’m a Mets fan! I was there back when nobody else was watching a bunch of crappy players lose over and over again! It sounds more noble as a merit badge than it is sensible in practice. Nevertheless, that was exactly what was going on on the night of April 29, 1981. Joel and I were there with only 7,173 others to keep us company (not counting the horse-haired usher who gave us a ferociously dirty look for not tipping him; we considered it part of the service). The players — a few exceptions notwithstanding — were crappy as you might imagine a 4-8 club would harbor. And they did lose over and over again.
But hell yeah, we were Mets fans on a school night at Shea Stadium. Hell no, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been anywhere else.
Except maybe in the vicinity of a Cuban fellow in the nearby stands. We’ll say he’s Cuban because Joel identified him as such. Like us, he was in the field boxes behind third base. Unlike us, he was shepherding a couple of children. And unlike us, he had tanked up big time. One other dissimilarity: he had it in for John Stearns.
Joel and I liked John Stearns. John Stearns gave us what little pride we had in the circa-1981 Mets. John Stearns couldn’t refuse to lose — a Met did not have that option in those dark days — but he didn’t accept defeat with good humor. John Stearns was such a team guy that he agreed to play third base when Joe Torre’s unfathomable plan to ignore Hubie Brooks and stick Joel Youngblood there was undermined by injury. Stearns was eased out of his rightful place behind the plate by Alex Treviño, so he wasn’t proud to play wherever he was needed. John Stearns put up with plenty as a Met. Thus, I’m guessing it didn’t bother him all that much when the Cuban gentleman, loud enough to be heard in so cavernous a space occupied by so few souls, directed every bit of his Budweiser-fueled ire at the man they called the Dude.
YO STEEEEAAAARNS! YOU’RE NO GOOD!
YO STEEEEAAAARNS! YOU SUCK!
Those children must have been so proud.
Mind you, John Stearns, three-time All-Star catcher, wasn’t doing anything particularly worthy of ridicule before the game got underway, but our pal picked on him relentlessly. YO STEEEEAAAARNS! had a target on his back.
Pitching for the Mets, meanwhile, was Dave Q. Roberts. That’s what we called him anyway. There was another Dave Roberts in the big leagues then, not a pitcher. They were distinguished by their middle initials. We never bothered to learn them. To us, ours was Dave Q. Roberts. His presence in our rotation was as big a mystery. Dave Q. Roberts had had a pretty good season with San Diego in the early ’70s, another one with Houston a couple of years later. This was 1981. He was a starting pitcher for New York’s representative in the National League. He was Wayne Q. Twitchell all over again as far as I was concerned.
It didn’t take DQ to long to live down to our expectations. A scoreless first was followed by a top of the second almost without end. Before it was over, we saw every Pirate bat, seven of them reach safely, five of them score and Dave Q. Roberts give way to the equally inspirational Dyar Miller. Our starter exited with an ERA of 19.29. By the middle of May, he’d be done as a Met — one week after Fools closed.
Down 5-0 in the bottom of the second, the Mets did the only thing they could do. They created a diversion and stalled. The scoreboard lights went dark. Again, no rain, no lightning, just a partial power outage worthy of the 1981 Mets (ladies and gentlemen, your windshields were safe). What was already a grim night turned bizarre. The scoreboard may not have worked, but the PA did, so to entertain us in this final pre-DiamondVision season, Shea’s sound technician cranked up…
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy”?
I remembered watching playoff games from Baltimore where instead of an organ the Orioles played contemporary recordings. More than any song, they played “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” by John Denver. It had become an anthem at Memorial Stadium along the lines of Kate Smith performing “God Bless America” at the Spectrum. It was amusing from a distance. Frank Cashen, who brought with him a good bit of his Baltimore background when he began to reshape the Mets in his own image, decided to not replace Jane Jarvis when she beat it out of Dodge in ’79. He went with records. And on April 29, 1981, with the Mets 4-8 and down 5-0 and the scoreboard not working and the empty orange seats glowing in semi-darkness and the YO STEEEEAAAARNS! guy not getting tired, somebody was instructed to break out “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” in what was, officially, New York City.
Joel and I just stared at each other.
It took close to half-an-hour to get all the lights back on line. Sadly, the Pirates weren’t tricked and hung around. So did we. So did Stearns who led off the bottom of the second with a flyout to left, which gave his personal theater critic more fodder for more negative reviews. In the third, Miller surrendered back-to-back triples to Lee Lacy and Gary Alexander. Since both Bucs landed on third, next to third baseman John Stearns, we got to hear more about his deficiencies as a baseball player and human being in general. While Jim Bibby cruised along without incident (no hits over three), Dyar Straits suffered from a combination of bad luck and no luck at all.
After balking Omar Moreno to second (who balks a runner over trailing 6-0?), he managed two outs and was on the verge of getting out of the fourth when Bill Madlock grounded to third.
To John Stearns.
Who did not manage to pick it up.
And Stearns heard about it.
YO STEEEEAAAARNS! YOU SUCK!
The man held high the souvenir baseball he had bought his son.
YO STEEEEAAAARNS! YOU WANT A BALL?
The man must have caught the miscast third baseman’s eye.
YO STEEEEAAAARNS! YOU WANT A FRIEND?
Lacy tripled again (the Pirates would triple four times in all) and Alexander, who had homered in the busy second, grounded to Frank Taveras who, for lack of a better phrase, pulled a Yo Stearns and missed it. By the end of four, behind the pitching of Dave Q. Roberts and Dyar Miller, the Mets trailed 9-0. Same score as a forfeit.
The Mets would eventually gather five hits, though rarely as many as two in the same inning. Gary Alexander would drive in his fourth run on a sac fly off Jeff Reardon; he would collect two more RBI the rest of the year and then, like Roberts and Miller, retire. Jim Bibby would pitch a complete game shutout. The Mets would lose 10-0. Joel and I would attempt to watch the ninth from behind home plate but were chased away despite the total crowd now numbering in the dozens. Ushers union’s revenge, I guess.
John Stearns, 0-for-3 with that error before being mercifully removed in favor of Mike Cubbage, would not start another game at third in 1981. Injuries would screw with this fiercest of competitors and prevent him from full-scale participation in the next era of Met success. Three of his teammates in that 10-0 YO STEEEEAAAARNS! loss — Mookie Wilson, Lee Mazzilli and Wally Backman — would celebrate a world championship on the very same field a scant 2,007 nights later. As I thumbed through my brand new yearbook on the train ride home that April 29 — the cover had Basement Bertha telling Chef Joe Torre that his 1981 creation, cooked from ingredients like a pinch of Flynn and a cup of Allen, sure smelled good — I doubt you could have convinced either Joel or myself that such a celebration would ever occur.
On nights like this one at Shea Stadium, you’d have been fools to believe otherwise.
And Yo Joel! Happy birthday come Monday to the dear friend who made surveying dull drama and bad baseball more fun than it ever had a right to be.