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.
3/31/98 Tu Philadelphia 9-6 Jones 10 59-61 W 1-0 (14)
March? Whose deranged idea was it to start the baseball season in March?
That was my first thought when I saw the 1998 season would open in the month before it had always opened. Who starts a baseball season in March?
My second thought was where do I sign up? If baseball was going to be thoughtful enough to run back and meet me a month — OK, a day — early, how could I hold myself back?
So maybe the schedulemakers knew what they were doing. And for once, I had to hand it to the Mets marketing department. I handed them my MasterCard number, actually, and bought a six-pack ticket plan for the 1998 season. I loved the gimmick: It was called the Debut Pack. In it were pairs of tickets for six games, the first games against opponents who had never played the Mets at Shea during the regular season: the expansion Diamondbacks and Devil Rays, the newly National Leagued Brewers and the Interleagueing Orioles and, sigh, Yankees (who, between you and me, were probably the impetus for this new bundling scheme). That’s five. The sixth was Opening Day, the überdebut of 1998 itself, versus Philly.
I was psyched, even though the Mets would be opening in March for the first time ever. All winter long, I predicted wind chills and icy rains which was what we got for the opener in 1996 on April 1 of that year. If April 1 was frigid, March 31 would be frozen.
Except it wasn’t. It had been one of those Greenhouse Effect winters. We got little snow and the last week of March bust out like June. New York was having an honest-to-god heat wave, just in time for Opening Day. The Mets, who surprised the world with their legitimate 88-74 run at the Wild Card in 1997, were apparently going to be blessed with great weather to go along with their great chances.
What better way to prepare for our good fortune than with the ancient nectar of Metsopotamia? I speak of course of the one, the only, the Extra Dry treat, Rheingold. As if record-breaking temperatures and the onset of baseball weren’t enough, I was sent an invite to a press luncheon launching the return of Rheingold, doubtless the most beloved consumer product associated with the Mets. The event, the day before the opener, was set for Gallagher’s, an old-time steakhouse on West 52nd Street. How great was this place? I had been there once before for an Anheuser-Busch thing and discovered a seat from the Polo Grounds right inside the front door. I discovered it and I sat in it and I didn’t even break it.
Warm weather…Opening Day…Rheingold…Polo Grounds seat…what else could I possibly want?
How about some ballplayers? The first one I saw, heading up the stairs to the private dining room booked for the occasion, was Ralph Branca. Ralph Branca! Ralph Branca who gave up the homer to Bobby Thomson but made a nice living off it later in life. Ralph Branca whose daughter Mary married Bobby Valentine who led the Mets to dizzying third-place heights the year before. We were asked to sign in, name and affiliation. Ralph Branca wrote down that he was representing “Baseball”.
The rest of us should have given up and gone home after that. But I’m glad we didn’t, because the new owner of Rheingold, which had been the Mets’ beer from their inception until the mid-’70s when the brewery in Brooklyn went out of business, sought to add some stardust to his relaunch. He brought in Ed Kranepool and Tommie Agee to speak.
In case you’re keeping score: Warm weather…Opening Day…Rheingold…Polo Grounds seat…Ralph Branca of “Baseball”…Eddie Kranepool…Tommie Agee. And the season was still 24 hours away!
It wasn’t even April!
I got a nice column out of the event, but I’m still kicking myself that I wasn’t more self-indulgent and didn’t include the quotes from Eddie and Tommie. It would have been extremely self-indulgent, but look what I was covering. Eddie recalled coming up to the Mets as a 17-year-old under the watchful eye of Casey Stengel. Said he really loved drinking Rheingold in the clubhouse even though he was too young to legally do so. Tommie invoked another manager from Rheingold’s halcyon days, reminiscing about Gil Hodges and wishing the sainted skipper were still here to enjoy a couple of beers with us. All the speakers mentioned this was a fortuitous time to rebrew because the Mets were going to have such a good year. They could have served us baked shoe for lunch, and it would have been delicious.
Each guest got a Rheingold goody bag to go. It included a t-shirt, a cassette of the old jingle (“think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer”) and a can of the golden lager itself, red label on a field of soothing white. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but this can was special. I took it home and stashed in the fridge. I told Stephanie I wouldn’t open it until the end of the season, after the Mets clinched the playoff spot that surely awaited them.
The road to postseason glory began the next day, March 31, and it was still sizzling. The temperature ran to 88 degrees (same as our victory total in ’97…omen, omen, omen!) as gametime approached. Anticipation for the new season bubbled like Rheingold. Or Pepsi. Pepsi won the Shea contract from Coke early in spring training. As a trained BevHead, I couldn’t help but notice the signage all over the ballpark. The Pepsi Picnic Area, formerly the bleachers, looked like it had just been painted that morning. Mountain Dew was suddenly an official soft drink of the Mets, just like Lipton Brisk. Not that I would have ever pulled any strings for access to Shea Stadium (cough, cough), but Pepsi was based in Westchester and I kind of knew some people.
But that was work. That’s not what 88 degrees on the last day of March was for.
I met my buddy Jason outside the park. Jace invited me to the raw Opening Day two years earlier and now I was returning the favor. We found our seats — my seats for the balance of the six-pack — in the mezzanine, Section 17. Short right field. Not bad. Not bad at all. I brought our camera from home and snapped off a roll’s worth of pictures. Mostly of the Pepsi signs. As a BevHead, I was always looking for photo opportunities.
The buzz was unmistakable throughout the ballpark (and it wasn’t from the Rheingold — they wouldn’t get a pouring deal until later in ’98). The Mets were wearing their new black caps with the blue bill as were, to my surprise, a lot of fans. Hadn’t played one game in ’em and the faithful had already invested. I was in traditional blue, a feeling the hitters on both sides would come to know quickly.
Curt Schilling, starting for the Phillies, was awesome. Our lineup was depleted from the get-go as Todd Hundley, he of the 71 homers over the past two seasons, was recovering from elbow surgery. Catching in his stead was Tim Spehr, who lit up Port St. Lucie just enough to win the pro tem job over Alberto “Bambi” Castillo and Todd “Tank” Pratt. Tank didn’t even make the big club. Spehr, defending in an alienesque black-and-orange chest protector (Jace thought it looked more Oriole than Met) and carrying no discernible nickname, collected two hits, or one more than any of his teammates had.
Schilling was otherwise awesome, striking out nine in eight innings. The heroes of ’97 — Fonzie, Oly, Gilkey, Huskey, Baerga, Ordoñez — were a combined 2-for-28. Bobby Jones, making his third Opening Day start, was less impressive than his opposite number — 1 K in 6 IP — but reasonably effective. The important thing is no Phillie scored. The visitors threatened every now and then, especially against Franco in the 10th, but nothing happened. The Mets paraded five relievers to the mound and all of them, even Mel Rojas, emerged unscathed. The Philadelphia relievers were no less unyielding. It was 0-0 through the top of the 14th. Far worse for wear was a guy in our section who didn’t wait for Rheingold. He went for Bud or whatever it was they were selling in the stands. By the end of regulation, he was passed out, several plastic cups stacked on his chest by his companions. Midseason form, indeed.
By the 14th, it was a tad chilly, just a touch. Nothing Marchlike, but cool enough to make me glad I brought an overshirt. The 49,000 in attendance had shed maybe 20,000 by now — it was after 6 o’clock. Funny that you’d wait all winter for baseball and then decide you had somewhere else more important to be. Ralph Branca wouldn’t do that to “Baseball”. Jason and I certainly weren’t going anywhere. True, I did get up and take a walk, but that was only to the row behind us, which had been vacated. I paced back and forth until the Mets, with two outs against them, managed to load the bases in the bottom of the 14th against Ricky Bottalico.
Up stepped the Mets’ last available position player, Alberto Castillo. Bambi. I’m pretty sure it was a derogatory tag, because if Alberto Castillo reminded you of any hitter living or dead, it may have been Albie Pearson or Freddie Patek or Sergio Ferrer, but it wasn’t the Bambino. In any event, he was all we had left.
He was enough. Alberto Castillo poked a grounder between first and second. It got to right field. Brian McRae jogged home. The Mets won, 1-0, in 14 innings. Jason and I delivered our first high-fives of the year.
The black and blue Mets, like the weather and the circumstances of the last two days, were perfect. March 1998 record: 1-0. March all-time record: 1-0. We were tied for first with the Braves and the defending champion Marlins, the two teams who finished ahead of us last year. But that was last year — the Marlins were decimated by Wayne Huizenga and this Braves thing was going to end sooner or later. Sooner was my hunch. Based on early returns, things were looking and feeling very, very good.
In the fridge, my Rheingold awaited a September debut.
Required reading for Shealovers: Gary Myers, Daily News football writer, turns his thoughts back to “my all-time favorite stadium that will forever hold a place in my heart”. It’s a beautiful and heartfelt tribute. Thanks to Loge 13 for the link…and for reminding us to watch The Amazin’ Shea Saturday night, 7:30, on Channel 4.