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 368 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
6/25/78 Su Pittsburgh 0-1 Espinosa 1 3-4 L 4-0
Biggest regret I have from my hundreds, maybe thousands of hours I’ve spent at Shea Stadium? Aside from not witnessing more wins? Oh, that’s easy.
My biggest regret is I didn’t grab more stuff.
I grab stuff today, but that’s scavenging. Ever since Anheuser-Busch began producing aluminum beer bottles with Met logos, I swoop in and grab a couple of those every year. If I don’t feel like spending five bucks for ice and Diet Pepsi, I help myself to the leftover souvenir cup somebody else left behind. I could open a restaurant with all the Kahn’s and Carvel napkins I mindlessly stuff in my bag in the course of a season (if a restaurant could entice customers solely with the chance to repeatedly wipe their hands). And if a pocket schedule is worth taking once, it’s worth taking a million times.
Small-time. Small freaking time. This is the kind of crap that everybody can get their hands on, that many, for some strange reason (mental soundness, perhaps) don’t want. I regret that I didn’t get my hands on the real goods.
It was right freaking there for the taking and I passed it up.
There was this closet at Shea Stadium, see? It was there thirty years ago and I assume it still exists in some form. It has to. It’s where they kept everything.
Every shirt, every cap, every jacket, every tchotchke with a Mets logo, everything bearing the insignia of visiting teams, everything that might be sold, everything that might be handed out or might have been handed out was stored in there. And, for precious minutes, I had access to it as if I’d won Supermarket Sweep.
You know what I did with that access? Nothing. Technically, next to nothing. I froze. I choked. I looked at called strike three with the bases loaded. I didn’t even last a third of an inning in there. Told I could have my pick of anything and everything on those shelves that went for miles and miles, I took…one thing.
A t-shirt. It said CINCINNATI 41. It didn’t fit all that well either.
For that missed opportunity, as for much where Metsiana has been concerned these past 30 years, I can thank my brother-in-law. He was not yet my brother-in-law on this occasion. He was my sister’s boyfriend of a few months, someone new enough on the scene that he was still trying to impress her with magnificent gestures — like taking her and her younger brother the Mets fan to a Mets game…and behind the scenes of the Mets game to where the real action is.
To the stuff.
Extraordinarily attentive readers of Flashback Friday may recall a meeting between a Shea Stadium vendor and myself from the summer of 1977. The reason the transaction — I paid for a batting helmet and began to walk away without my change until he reluctantly deigned to remind me — stuck was because five months later, that vendor was in my living room. That was my sister’s boyfriend. I recognized him. He recognized me. How bizarre. (Imagine Cow-Bell Man wandering through your kitchen.) His name was Mark and, having learned from Suzan what a big Mets fan I was, he instantly promised to take us to a his former place of employment.
As Mark does, he made good. The Sunday in June right after school ended was our big date. Suzan and I took a train to Woodside and Mark met us there to guide us the rest of the way. I wore a blank red t-shirt and, given my interest in the boiling-over American League East race of 1978, my new mesh Red Sox cap.
Regarding the shirt, I was told “you’re overdressed for Shea Stadium.”
Not only had Mark vended at Shea for five seasons (Mets and Jets), but his father was an usher when the place opened. Somebody knew somebody and he was able to secure field boxes on the third base side. It was the first time I had used somebody’s season tickets. The nameplate said NBC Sports. The rainchecks were not the usual kind with Mr. Met and an umbrella. These were yellow and paper-thin, torn from a coupon book. This is how season-ticketholders rolled.
But I doubt any of them rolled with a former vendor who was making his triumphant return to where he used to work, to swing by where the vendors readied their trays to say, in terms much nicer than he was thinking, “I’m out of here and you’re still stuck here.”
That’s Mark. He thinks a rough game, but he’s way more of a person than he lets on. He’s an unsentimental Linus Van Pelt: loves humanity, it’s many people he can’t stand.
Through whatever strings he still had active, Mark got us in the big closet. It was just the three of us, me and my sister and her boyfriend and all that stuff. I saw Astros stuff, not that I wanted it. I saw Padres stuff, not that I wanted it. Still, it was all there. This was in the days when you pretty much had to go to Shea if you wanted something from another team. I didn’t even know they’d manufactured CINCINNATI 41 t-shirts. That caught my eye, Tom Seaver of the Reds having pitched a no-hitter only a week earlier, Tom Seaver of the Reds never leaving the Mets as far as I was concerned.
“That’s IT?” Mark asked incredulously.
There was something else I wanted. It was two years out of date, but like everything else Shea had ever merchandised, it was there. The 1976 Bicentennial caps, worn to commemorate both the nation’s birthday and the National League’s hundredth anniversary. They were pillbox, 19th century-style lids, as if the Mets had been wearing them since 1876. They were pretty dopey, actually (the motif worked better for the Pirates), but every time I saw the Mets don them, which wasn’t often, I drooled after them. And there they were. I could take one if I wanted.
But I couldn’t bring myself to gorge on stuff. I was too overwhelmed by access, by circumstances, by generosity. Wasn’t it enough that Mark had brought us to the game and had brought us into the closet for a look-see?
“Yeah, the shirt is fine.”
I went back to our excellent seats. Mark and Suzan hung back in the closet, not particularly concerned with the action on the field. Suzan was no fan and Mark, well, he would have blown up Shea if he could have gotten away with it. When they did return, they came bearing a Mets totebag. Mark had filled up an old giveaway sack with as much Mets junk as a 15-year-old lifelong fan could value. There was a Mets t-shirt, a Mets beach towel, a Mets magnet, a Mets button, a Mets program…even a sharp Mets Superstripe cap. I was, with that Red Sox number, underdressed for Shea Stadium.
Mark grabbed anything he thought would capture my fancy. He didn’t read my mind on the Bicentennial cap, but as I would learn in the ensuing three decades of continual interaction with Mark, if you really want something, you need to speak up for it. Mark did that on my behalf in October 1999 when he ran headfirst into a familial buzzsaw and emerged with one ticket, for me, to the first National League Championship Series game, the first at Shea in eleven years, the first I’d ever go to. By then, Mark’s brother had become a season-ticketholder, which entitled him to purchase a bonus pair of tickets for each postseason game. Somebody among Suzan’s in-laws (not Mark’s brother) was looking forward to making a pretty penny on the extras. Mark wrestled it away, arguing long, hard and loud — as is the custom there — that “no one is more loyal to this stupid team than Greg, he deserves to go.”
It somehow worked. I thanked Mark profusely. He informed me he had sacrificed his next two birthday presents and I could pretty much forget about seeing anything for my birthday or Chanukah and I’m on my own if my stupid team should make the World Series.
That was his way of saying you’re welcome.
A bit of bark, occasionally. Very little bite. Really one of the most thoughtful people you’ll ever meet. No one, especially no one with no interest in baseball, has ever gone to the lengths Mark has gone to indulge or, as he puts it, “pander to” my interests. He does the same for everybody whatever their interests, even if he doesn’t hate those interests as he hates baseball.
Why does Mark hate baseball? Vending at Shea Stadium isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Schlepping the beer, schlepping the less lucrative soda and official team publications (Mark’s the only person I’ve ever heard express disgust for Bob Murphy because Murph, upon seeing him carrying a stack of yearbooks, greeted him with “carrying a stack of yearbooks, huh?”) is hard, unprofitable labor and not terribly appealing when it is done among less than uniformly civil patrons (Mark’s also the only person I know who has ever cursed out Willie Mays Night). He didn’t like baseball to begin with. Five years at Shea (baseball and football, mind you; doesn’t care for the pigskin either) made it legendarily unappealing.
It didn’t help that he had a neighbor in his Flushing apartment building who knew he worked at Shea and would ask every single night, “how’d they do?” At the end of a particularly exhausting evening, probably extra innings, the question pushed Mark to the edge. He took out his building’s glass door and maybe some lobby furniture in the process of responding.
“THAT’S how they did!”
Mark’s not like that, not really. Just keep him away from baseball, I’ve learned.
Yet he sticks his hands in it for me. His own closet of unwanted cards and programs and authentic Mr. and Lady Met statues became my treasures. He bought me my first Starter jacket, which I’ll probably be clutching when I run out of extra innings. He arranged the infamous 30-pack of 1993 tickets for my 30th birthday. He saw to it that I got a brick for Citi Field. He didn’t actually handle the brick. If he had, he might have thrown it through somebody’s car window if he’d had to go back to Shea to secure it.
Today Suzan and Mark are married 26 years. My gift to them will be not taking them to a Mets game any time soon.