“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
Follow me back, if you will, to a week in June three years ago…
On Saturday night the eleventh, pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson leads off the ninth inning of an Interleague game against the Angels at Shea Stadium, the Mets trailing 2-1. Anderson lashes a Francisco Rodriguez pitch into the right-center gap. It eludes both Steve Finley and Vladimir Guerrero. To compound the Angels’ problem, Guerrero Finley kicks the ball. Anderson, hustling all the way, just keeps running. He approaches third and Manny Acta waves him in. There’s a play at the plate but Marlon beats Jose Molina’s tag. Marlon Anderson has just delivered the first Met pinch-hit inside-the-park home run in the history of Shea Stadium. He’s tied the game at two in the ninth against one of the best closers in the sport. He’s reserved for us, at the very least, extra innings. The Mets, despite eventually falling behind again, would cash in their last best opportunity in the eleventh when Cliff Floyd clouted a three-run job off Brendan Donnelly.
On Sunday the twelfth, I wrote about it; so did Jason. It was such a great game. We’ve recapped, to date, 585 regular-season Mets games at Faith and Fear and that one is still among the best we’ve ever covered. I knew I’d never forget it and so far I’m good to my word.
On Monday the thirteenth, it was reported that after seven years of designs, discussions and false starts, the Mets would be really and truly getting a new ballpark. It would be ready for the 2009 season and it had something to do with New York getting the Olympics in 2012. The city’s bid was already falling apart after the West Side stadium fell through and Queens was an audible on the part of the Bloomberg administration. If 2012 really were to bring the Olympics, the Mets would have to step aside for a year and let the park be expanded for the world’s use (the Mets would play at whatever was going to replace Yankee Stadium). Olympics or not, the new Ebbets Field-style ballpark was finally coming.
On Tuesday the fourteenth, I celebrated a Met milestone. It was 25 years to the day since another Saturday night like Marlon Anderson’s. In 1980, it was Steve Henderson imprinting his feat on my baseball-shaped brain with a ninth-inning three-run homer that capped a five-run rally and a seven-run comeback that epitomized a Mets season where hope hopped up and hugged us tight. Henderson won it. Anderson tied it. Either way, the Magic was back in that Met Shea way you can wait a quarter-century for to roll around again, but it does roll around. At least it did on June 11, 2005.
So much going on. Anderson now. Henderson then. A new ballpark, it was said, soon. An entire three days had passed between Marlon’s inside-the-parker and the anniversary of Hendu’s walkoff. It already felt like it was slipping away. The Mets lost the Sunday after the Saturday. They traveled to Oakland and Seattle for reasons unfathomable and out west, in American League outposts too familiar and unfamiliar, they’d go 1-5. Three years ago, not much different from now, really, good feelings didn’t last for long where the Mets were concerned.
But Marlon Anderson’s pinch-hit inside-the-parker would have to. I promised myself it would. For 25 years, Steve Henderson’s home run was the stuff of spoken word, of oral legend. 1980 had been plowed under by history, by more statistically pleasing seasons. One of the benefits of discovering blogging was discovering an avenue for reviving the lost seasons and moments of Mets baseball. I no longer had to sit and stew that nobody ever wrote about Steve Henderson and the Magic is Back summer of ’80. I could do it myself. I could do it justice, just as I could do Marlon Anderson justice as I saw fit.
I couldn’t have known Anderson would be gone from the Mets by 2006 nor that he would be brought back in 2007 or that in 2008 instead of being appreciated for his epic pinch-homer, he’d be dismissed for his contemporary fill-in work. I could have guessed that the world would change several times over for the Mets and that the Saturday night of June 11, 2005 would get lost in a larger shuffle. I did, I suppose, guess it.
The same weekend the Angels were visiting the Mets, the Yankees were visiting St. Louis. It was the last season of Busch Stadium II — the round one — and the Cardinals were paying tribute to their four decades there with a daily ceremony. In the fifth inning, they’d bring out a special guest, someone associated with their history, to peel off a number to signify how many games remained at Busch. On June 11, hours before Marlon did what he did, the Cards gave the honor to Joe Torre, recognizing his role as a Redbird player and manager.
The gesture stuck in my head. The Cardinals were really going out of their way to say goodbye to Busch with thought and with class (even with a Yankee if decorum demanded it). Wouldn’t it be great, if the Mets could do that in 2008 when they’d be saying goodbye to Shea?
I imagined it would be. In linking Steve Henderson to Marlon Anderson on June 14, 2005, I imagined it was one night in 2008. I had no idea which night, but I imagined it would be the night Marlon Anderson was brought back to take down a number from the Shea Stadium final season countdown. I imagined the countdown would be a big deal, that it would pause the action on the field for a couple of minutes in each game, that the nonpareil announcing team of Gary Cohen and Howie Rose would stay with the ceremony to describe it to their listeners. I imagined Gary and Howie would explain, through their deep and abiding love for and knowledge of the Mets, why each person involved in the countdown was chosen. I imagined they’d reconstruct that wonderful Saturday night in 2005 when Marlon Anderson lashed that K-Rod pitch between Finley and Guerrero. I imagined that all the Marlon Anderson moments that had graced Shea Stadium would get their due from the Mets.
What an imagination I have.
As the mechanics of replacing Shea picked up — no Olympics, definitely a ballpark, definitely Ebbets-like, definitely sponsored, definitely Citi, definitely 2009 — I didn’t forget what the Cardinals had done. I watched them on Extra Innings. Their telecasts stayed with each number removal all the way to the end of the season. It was a happening every time they played at home: old Cardinals, old football Cardinals, distinguished St. Louisians, opponents from years gone by, families of legends who had passed on. It was a breath-holding moment when Mark McGwire emerged from exile to pull down the third-to-last number. He received polite applause. Ozzie Smith did the final one, his uniform number: 1.
Why couldn’t the Mets do this? Busch and Shea were of the same vintage. The Mets had plenty of history. New York had loads of it. All it would take was a little effort and a little imagination.
Better yet, a lot of imagination.
We know what happened. Barring a change in policy for the remaining 35 home games, we know we can expect very little sense of occasion from the Mets in the realm of its Shea countdown. To say they don’t care about it is the understatement of the year. Tomorrow, MetsBlog mentioned the other day, the Mets will announce a partnership with Nikon and SNY to “launch a program celebrating and honoring the greatest moments in the history of Shea Stadium”. One can only hope it takes Shea’s 45 years more seriously than the car company countdown has.
That Met track record of embracing as little Met history as possible is what spurred me to see the Shea Stadium Final Season Countdown Like It Oughta Be through from “wouldn’t it be nice if…?” to as much reality as a blog can create. It started with Marlon Anderson and the notion that a random ballplayer on a random night in a random season in a particular ballpark turned into something spectacular, and that spectacular events wrought by random individuals deserve to be remembered as long as we take our particular ballpark to heart. It grew into an idea that all the random nights in all the random seasons in our particular ballpark absolutely Oughta Be commemorated with TLC. It came from a conviction that no matter how much blue and orange we spill from our veins, we know damn well the Mets don’t sweat one extra bead of perspiration to make that sort of thing happen.
So I did. I and an army of dozens. I wanted to use this occasion to acknowledge the contributions of readers and correspondents and, of course, my co-blogger in nurturing the Countdown Like It Oughta Be. Many names, many games, many episodes that defined Shea Stadium came to my attention and made it into the finished product because a lot of people do care about what we have seen since 1964. I was occasionally amazed that there was vehement disagreement with a particular choice, amazed and gratified that a hypothetical choice mattered that much to somebody.
Sometimes I feel a bit like Andy Kaufman reading from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, testing his audience’s patience. They’d think it was funny when he’d say he’d do it, they’d think it was hilarious when he began to do it, they got sick and tired of it as he just kept reading aloud.
I’ve articulated my share of “wouldn’t it be nice if…?” ideas here since 2005: One Hundred Greatest Mets of the First Forty Years, March Metness, all the Flashback Fridays and the Shea Stadium Final Season Countdown Like It Oughta Be. There’s inevitably more buzz when I present the idea than there is when I bring the idea to what I consider its logical conclusion. Count me in the follow-through camp. I can’t let an idea that intrigues me go at nice, not here anyway. I have to take it and run with it, hopefully not running it into the ground in the process. I don’t mean to read The Great Gatsby aloud, honest I don’t.
The Countdown took on a life of its own for me since I began shaping it in earnest. It skewed my view of “real world” developments. One Met manager who was supposed to play a role at number 41 was fired before his date with Countdown destiny; I didn’t mind Willie Randolph getting the axe, but it actually bothered me (a little) that he didn’t last until he could accompany Yogi Berra to the right field wall as planned. When Gary Carter was opening his mouth in May about replacing Randolph, I cringed partly because I didn’t want him casting a shadow on his participation in final-week festivities. The Countdown took on a more serious casualty this month when longtime newspaperman Red Foley passed away. I’d slotted Foley in to join Robin Ventura in taking down number 15 — it was Red, in his role as official scorer, who technically turned Robin’s NLCS grand slam into a single.
For you, this might have been hypothetical. For me, it was serious business. I moved people in, out and around for months. I assigned players to one group at the expense of other groups where I fretted they would be missed. I strived not to be overly obvious but not too terribly subtle either. I wondered what non-Mets should be invited, what non-baseball people should be considered, why nobody left a single comment under my post for number 12 (was my Jets tribute too obligatory or was it just a rainy Monday night?), whether Bobby Valentine was strong enough to carry out the honors for number 11 — for September 11 — by himself (I decided he was), if I could bring myself to bring out a bushel of Braves at number 8 and have them pelted with rotten fruit even though several of those Braves were part of the great post-9/11 healing at Shea (I could; they’re the Braves).
A few things I did know as the single digits emerged and the final week of the home schedule faced me. I knew a black cat would have to appear. I knew Bill Buckner would have to return. I knew Murph, Lindsey and Ralph must rate something special. I knew Casey Stengel must be heard from, no matter that he is dead at the present time. I knew the end could not boil down to Tom Seaver because nothing could be more predictable than a Mets countdown boiling down to Tom Seaver, even if under most every circumstance a Mets countdown is rightly bound to boil down to Tom Seaver.
Ultimately I decided no number 1 could be removed. Something of Shea should survive and, perhaps out of attachment for the whole exercise, I couldn’t bring myself to definitively end the countdown. It, like Shea, will live on with me. I hope its contents — the condensed history of Shea Stadium — came alive for you for a few minutes here and there across the four months we ran it. That was the idea anyway.
And in case you missed it, Marlon and Steve were brought together again at number 54.
Next Monday, one reader imagines an alternate ending — not to the Shea countdown but as regards the aftermath of the 2008 season.