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 377 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
7/14/05 Th Atlanta 12-19 Benson 4 161-129 6-3
Perhaps there are other places to meet people in person for the first time, but Shea is where I prefer to conduct my sitdowns. Ironically (a little), the first person whom I got to know well because of this blog was someone I finally met face-to-face at Shea standing up. Jason Mann and I had seats in different sections of the ballpark, so in order to get together at last, we had to invent a fifth-inning stretch and hang out in the Mezzanine concourse, one eye on a monitor, one ear to the crowd. We wanted to talk, but we didn’t want to miss what was turning into a raucous Mets win. Jason — known in these parts as JM and sometimes OJ (for Other Jason) — deserved more of my attention, so this Friday, I am giving it to him. Here is how my friend of three years and a few innings here and there, Jason Mann, will remember Shea Stadium.
To stand inside Shea Stadium is to really know it. I don’t mean inside, where the ball games happen. I mean, inside. Surrounded by every imaginable shape of concrete possible. Tubes, bricks, pipes, squares, pillars, odd flat things hanging perilously in midair as if they were somehow meant to be there. Painted, repainted, and repainted again to look shiny and new, like one of those really hip up to date locales. The Parks and the Yards and the Fields. Places they wouldn’t dare call a “stadium” for fear of insulting the patrons. All those weird shapes of concrete, all those crevices and nooks and crannies so mysterious and out of reach. Those huge gaps of nothingness that do little except occasionally accommodate giant posters of people on their knees with a glove flung in the air. I guess that’s how they build a building. And soon enough I guess I’m gonna find out how they take one down.
I hear Shea is going to be taken down in pieces, by a wrecking ball. Long, slow and torturous, like the innumerable moments we’ve shared inside it. Did I say inside? No, I don’t mean in with the concrete. I mean the real inside. Where the seats are. The grass. The dirt. The outfield wall. The foul lines that were the subject of all those jokes in the ’80s. Wait. Is that inside? Or outside? Hard to say. Inside is what I described above. Those pillars. That gray stuff they painted so many times to look new. The line of concession stands and “gift shops”. Outside is before you get in. I guess the field sits somewhere in between.
Walk anywhere above the field level and you have all those numbered ramps that lead to the baseball. Odd numbers on the first base side, even on the third. And everyone, big or small, can identify with what it is like, tickets in hand, to walk up those little cramped hallways, and experience that few bit of feet before you can see the sky and the field and the seats and the wall and everything. Glorious. It’s like a movie in my mind. I know exactly what it’s like to walk up those ramps and get the chance to soak in Shea Stadium bit by bit before being able to take it in totally. Yet I never tire of it.
Depending on when you are reading this, I am either talking about a relic or a memory. Is it 2009? Memory. Is it 2020? Memory. Is it 2008? Relic. And what is a relic, if not an existing collection of very important memories. To the Met fans reading this article. You don’t know each other personally. But you have a shared existence. You may meet a complete stranger, who is also reading this article, tomorrow. Get to talking and you may find out he or she’s a Met fan like you. Boom. Shared existence. You have more memories with him or her than with most of your relatives.
You: “Remember when…?”
Them: “Of course I remember when…”
You: “And what about…?”
Them: “…? I was there for…!”
You: “You were there for…? Oh my god.”
And where is “there”? Invariably, “there” is Shea Stadium. It’s where we all were at one time or another if we were so lucky to be. That big royal blue concrete round thing in the Flats of Flushing. For many of us, when we were kids, just getting there was enough. I remember how big it was. I looked up and it rose into the sky forever. It just went round and round and round. And round. And the wind. That underrated and not very often heralded swirling wind. How many of you have had your Met cap blow clean off your head and 20 feet hence, for the crime of merely walking around this monstrosity to get to your gate. I don’t know you, but I share that memory with you. That is Shea. And many of us know it like we know our own home.
If you’re anything like me, you’re gonna be reading a lot about Shea Stadium in the coming months. You’re gonna be reliving the memories. Those memories we all share. Naming them is fun, but I don’t have to. They all happened, and almost to a man, they all happened at Shea. Almost every great thing that has ever happened to the Mets happened at Shea Stadium. Start thinking about it. Go on. Oh, there’s the odd crazy thing that happened on the road, don’t get me wrong. But all the great things, the truly great things, they happened surrounded by those yellow and orange and blue and red and green wooden and plastic seats. By all that crazy concrete, those funny ramps, the old (old) carnival food, the surprisingly tenuous escalators. By you and me. By us.
There are many, in the coming months, who will rejoice. Who will look at the new, mere feet and months away. Who have perused and adored the time lapse photography. Who have cheered and lauded the cranes. Progress, they call it. It’s the new they have longed for. The intimacy. The facade. Those already famous “sightlines”. A rotunda, even. Some will see a lack of an upper deck, and shed a tear of thankful joy.
Truth be told, the upper deck at Shea is a little bit frightening. The view from anywhere behind the upper boxes can best be described as dizzying. And those stairs, they do get awfully steep. The entire level even bounces up and down when great things happen. Fear inducing. But as baseball fans know all too well, fear is only a short bus ride away from exhilaration. And that’s where Shea excels. The E-word. That’s what ties all those memories together. The exhilaration. Not a momentous pregame to a momentous game has ever gone by where you don’t hear about the “electricity” in the air at Shea as it begins to fill with us. It’s there. It’s palpable. It starts in your neck and breaks two ways. Up the back of your cranium like the static you feel when you get way too close to the TV. And down your spine, straightening it and making you want to shout like crazy for your team. It’s a feeling you can’t believe, and never want to end.
The biggest mistake this organization made in the last ten years happened at Shea. They handed out towels to us. They handed out towels. To us. This isn’t the Midwest. We’re not third-rate. We’re not there to distract the other team with some namby-pamby fabric spinning. We’re there to express ourselves. To make noise. To generate a spark with our passion. To create lightning. To pass it on to our team. I resented those towels then, as I do now. We cut our noise, our energy in half, easy. We made the Midwesterners feel at home. The Mets don’t lose must-win, back-against-the-wall, postseason games at Shea. Not when it’s filled to the brim with Mets fans, they don’t. It’s a timeless rule of thumb. It’s the roundness. It’s that never quite completed enclosure that lets just enough energy leak out, while drawing everything else in, enhancing and echoing the burgeoning tension and excitement.
The Passion of the Met Fan? Perhaps. Maybe that’s the sole source of the electricity. I wouldn’t doubt it. We’re fantastic fans. We are fans of baseball’s original feel good story. And we remember. Every day we see blue and orange, we remember. We’re the fans who weren’t satisfied with only one miracle. Heck, I don’t think we’re satisfied with two. But it all happened right here. And if we’re real lucky, around 12,000 fewer of us will be able to generate 1/10th of the electricity at Citi that the hordes of us were able to muster at Shea. Never mind another miracle.
When I ask you what you think of when you think of Shea Stadium, your answer may be unexpected. It may be the unbearably kitschy but somehow devastatingly cool neon art that has lined the outside for 20 years. It may be the subway or the subway platform. It may be an experience you had with an usher. The old white coat of paint and the blue and orange squares. A broken seat. A lengthy rain delay. A conversation you had with a relative that, for one reason or other, is no longer with you. The results of a game. The place where a particular ball ended up. A cold hot pretzel. Then again, it may be Casey or Gil or Davey or Bobby. Or Tommie or Tom or Cleon or Jerry or Bud or Tug or Eddie or Doc or Darryl or Keith or Mookie or Sid or David or Todd or Edgardo or John or Mike or David or even Jose. It may be the incredibly green complexion they always get the grass to imbue, come Opening Day. How do they do it? Don’t they know they’re in Flushing? I ask myself every year, as if surprised all over again.
Or it may be Opening Day. It may be a 338, 371, or the 410. The 14, the 37, the 41 or the 42. The “20″ that commemorates the only fair ball ever to land in that dizzying and elusive upper deck. Maybe you think of a night when there were 55,000 screaming, or a day when there were 8,000 faithful to keep you company. The gigantic towering scoreboard with the breakable lights. The once state-of-the-art DiamondVision. The Bud sign or the Marlboro sign or the Pan Am sign or the Sharp sign or the Keyspan sign. The attendance trivia. The postseason bunting. No Pepper Games. It may be a circus play from one of our unknowns that you once longed to see again on This Week in Baseball so the nation could finally know them as we did. Or something that Bob and Gary described to you in glorious hues of incomparable Shea-soaked detail where they sat, while you toiled somewhere in traffic.
Or perhaps you think of a moment when you think of Shea. A milestone. An achievement. A triumphant return. A moment that culminated the end of an inning, a game, a season, a post-season, a career. Or a millennium. Shea’s seen two of those, right along with you and me. Or it may be a particularly poignant moment on a night when we all stood together for our fallen neighbors, friends, family, finest and bravest, awash in numbness, heartbreak and tears, unabashedly surrounded by red, white and a ton of blue. It may be that. It wouldn’t be wrong to be that. That too, was Shea. Shea stood with us on that day, just as it stands today in 2008. Proud. To be taken down by us, only when we are damn good and ready. By choice. Because something else is standing that will take Shea’s place. And in that sense, as much as I plan on missing the old girl, I will be okay with it.
So, as the S.S. Shea gets ready to make the voyage to that great ballpark place in the sky, I remind myself that beyond this season, I will only be able to visit that tiny exhilarating trek up one of those claustrophobic concrete walkways to the saturated green field in my dreams. I will have to come to terms with the fact that I will never flag down a ball in centerfield in the ballpark of my childhood, or throw a pitch where Tom and Doc once did.
If you look carefully at the aerial photos, you will note that Citi’s field exists entirely in fair territory at Shea. Never again will a meaningful baseball land where Shea Stadium once was (well, not for 50 or so years, anyway. At that point, if there is any justice, it’ll be an ultra-modern retro-fitted Shea replica with all the amenities, commissioned by the team owner. A Met fan through and through. Someone who knew that Shea transcended every one of its countless foibles, far exceeding the sum of them, to become what it meant to Mets fans for the 45 seasons we called it home. That it was a place that could barely contain us at times, a place which held our shouts, our desperation, our hopes, our cheers, our fears, our high fives, our hugs, our tears, our jeers, our most dire pessimism and our relentlessly blind optimism. Our manic will in the face of absolute defeat).
Where was I? Oh yes. A new place where Shea Stadium once was. Well, until then, every pitch, hit, catch, out, error, steal, run, assist and putout at Citi Field will happen between those infinite white lines that started at that familiar old home plate, where we all used to stare for so long, with such gripped anticipation. In play at old Shea. In a warped way, I find that satisfying. I don’t know why. But I don’t question it. Just as I don’t question why there is a perfectly round royal blue place in my heart for the thing. There just is.