When it was announced that Billy Joel would have the honor of presenting the final non-merengue concert in the history of Shea Stadium, some Mets fans scoffed that he was not worthy, he was not worthy, that he had nothing to do with the Mets nor the history of Shea.
He does now.
I will never look at Shea again, not in the 73 days it is guaranteed life, not in the knock-wood month of October, not in the mind's eye without seeing, hearing and feeling Billy Joel playing his heart out in center field. He earned his piece of real estate there every bit as much as Agee and Mazz, Mookie and Lenny, Cameron and Beltran. He's on my all-time Shea team forever more. If you saw him last night, you'd add him, too.
Billy gave us a dazzling night in Flushing, a night to call our own, a night that belonged to Shea. You know how artists like to ask, “how ya doin' [fill in name of city]?” Billy did that, but he did it to Shea. “How ya doin', Shea Stadium?” He knew. He understood. He called it with the spot-on observation that was so obvious I never heard anybody quite nail it before: Shea Stadium “is where New York meets Long Island.”
If you're more New York than Long Island, you don't care. If you're the other way, you got what he meant. I'm the other way. I saw a comedian the other evening who said people tend to round up their hometown to the nearest big city, but as one who strives for accuracy, I usually don't. I'm from Long Island, I tell people. It's not out of pride, it's just because I am. Nobody knows what it means if you're not from here. I'm not sure what it means. I do know they built a stadium where they did because a lot of us were growing up where we were. They stuck it amid highways and railroad tracks so we could get there. And they gave us a baseball team that many of us attached ourselves to because they played there, because we could bug somebody to take us there, because we could get a little older and find our way there ourselves.
Then we got a lot older and we came to hear Billy Joel. We were not disappointed.
He emptied his songbook. He delved into every single album of original material he ever released. He played numbers I'd assumed he'd forgotten. He resuscitated curios and period pieces. He revved up old favorites and big hits and he made you forget it's been decades since they first breathed. He gasped for air now and then but he never tired.
What a showman. He did it for Shea. He did it to leave his mark where the Beatles left theirs. Billy Joel and his sonic pleasure of a band played three Fab Four songs, mostly as an excuse, I believe, to thank Shea's first musical act “for letting us use their room.” And in case it wasn't enough, he brought friends. To duet on “New York State of Mind,” he dialed up this guy from Astoria you might have heard of: Tony Bennett. To add a few licks to “This Is The Time,” he availed himself of the services of John Mayer. Because he was playing in a ballpark, Don Henley's “Boys of Summer” seemed like a good idea — so Don Henley walked onto the stage and sang it. And because he could, he conjured John Mellencamp for “Pink Houses”.
Tony Bennett…John Mayer…Don Henley…John Mellencamp…all playing with Billy Joel. Imagine the Mets up 8-0 in the third and then just for kicks giving an at-bat to Stan Musial in his prime.
Billy Joel opened with the national anthem and tossed in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” later, but, no, he didn't pledge allegiance to the Mets. He converted a lyric in “Miami 2017″ to acknowledge his surroundings (“they said the Mets could stay/and play one more game at Shea”), gussied up his skyline-shaped video screen with iconic Mets imagery for “Zanzibar” (every “I've got the old man's car” gave us Casey conducting Guy Lombardo's orchestra) and members of his band donned the same jerseys BJ wore at the press conference last winter, but Billy framed his baseball associations in the terms that are probably most relevant to him:
He asked how many of us were Mets fans.
There were cheers.
He asked how many of us were Yankees fans.
Cheers. Boos, too.
“How many out there don't give a shit?”
My section, way down in field boxes good enough to reach out and touch Carlos Delgado if he stumbled into the photographers' box, did have a near-brush with internecine warfare. Some douchebag in a Yankees batting practice jersey was loudmouthing all night in that way people at concerts and ballgames have of not shutting up. I usually chalk it up to rock 'n' roll and alcohol and figure it's part of the cost of doing business. But after “Piano Man,” when you figure it's all over — even the jumping that turned Field Level into a trampoline — Billy has one more surprise: “Souvenir” from waaaaaay back, from Streetlife Serenade. It's a lovely coda for a ballpark then 74 days from its scheduled end:
Ev'ry year's a souvenir
That slowly fades away
As he's just getting into it, some fans who'd had floor seats begin to trickle out to gain a step on traffic. Bad form, but no never mind to me — except loudmouth douchebag Yankees fan interrupts the 37th and final song of the night by yelling at them more than once that YOU'RE NOT REAL FANS!
No, of course not. Real fans shout rudely over the ballad that the man who's given you three amazin' hours you plan to never forget is trying to close the show with.
Maybe it was the Long Island in me. Maybe it was the Shea Stadium in me. Maybe I knew this could not go unanswered. I turned around and barked at him, as quickly as I could so as not to be a douchebag about it myself:
“SHUT THE FUCK UP ALREADY! WE'RE TRYING TO HEAR THE SONG! ENOUGH!”
The next and only sound you heard was Billy Joel. He finished “Souvenir” and gave those of us who know that place as home some excellent advice I'd presciently taken him up on moments earlier.
“Good night, Shea Stadium. Don't take any shit from anybody.”