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Great Moments on Thin Ice

Two things are wrong with the 75 Greatest Moments at Shea Presented by Nikon ballot [1].

1) The non-baseball stuff.

2) The baseball stuff.

Otherwise, it’s perfect.

Only kidding. There’s lots wrong with this vote — or “multimedia platform” as the press release [2] refers to it — to determine the greatest moment at Shea Stadium, starting with the definition of a “moment”. According to the Mets and Nikon, a moment could be one blink in time or it could span days, even months.

It is also burdened by hindsight. Much of what is listed is of the “ya don’t say!” variety. Shea had the Ice Capades? A title fight? Jethro Tull? Ya don’t say! Even the baseball choices are flecked with after-the-fact trivia, items that didn’t strike the contemporary observer as great but are wedged in now to show somebody did his homework.

The Mets announced this promotion on July 22. They waited more than a half-season to get it going and are giving fans all of 24 days (through August 15) to vote to determine the Top Ten; from there a second vote will determine the order of those ten. I don’t understand why they didn’t get on this earlier. I also don’t understand why they limited themselves to 75 moments [3] as opposed to 100 or why it’s not a baseball-only ballot. I get that Shea has hosted other very notable events but this is a ballot directed at Mets fans. Why not, on the off chance that this is supposed to be taken seriously, have a blue & orange-ribbon panel present the ten biggest non-Mets things and leave the baseball voting to the fans?

Why send out a fleet of car dealers to count down Shea’s final days? But we’ve been down that road.


Twenty-six of seventy-five spots on this ballot were given over to events that had nothing to do with the Mets. That’s more than a third. That’s excessive bordering on disgraceful. That leaves 49 slots for the Mets: 49 slots to cover 45 years.

Here’s how the non-baseball stuff breaks down.

Jets: 4

The four Jets “moments” chosen were the first Jets game at Shea; the AFL championship game that sent the Jets to Super Bowl III; the first Monday Night Football telecast from Shea; and the final Jets game in Queens.

Can’t argue with the win over the Raiders. Without it, there’s no guarantee in Miami. As you’ll see, many of the firsts on the ballot are overblown, but the first Jets game in the gleaming new stadium in New York (after four years of struggling in the Polo Grounds) was a milestone for both the franchise and the American Football League. I’ll give them that.

First MNF game? Trivial. Final game? Sad. Sad doesn’t keep it from being historic, but they could have done better. Much better. How about December 20, 1981 when the Jets earned their first NFL playoff berth by sacking the Packers and in the process dragging the Giants into the playoffs for their first playoff appearance in 18 years? Or November 22, 1981, the thriller for the ages when Richard Todd, wearing a flak jacket to protect his cracked ribs, led the Jets downfield in the final three minutes — hitting six different receivers — to eclipse the hated Dolphins 16-15? Or Broadway Joe’s New York debut on September 18, 1965? Or October 1, 1967 when Joe Willie Namath threw for 415 yards en route to a milestone 4,000-yard passing season? Or, though you wouldn’t really want him back as a guest, December 16, 1973, the day O.J. Simpson passed the 2,000-yard rushing mark?

I’m not that big a Jets fan and I could figure out there was more to their Shea stay than what the ballot lists.

Other Sports: 8

Two college football games, two soccer matches, two title fights, the Ice Capades and the first Giants home game in 1975.

Throw out the two college football games, the two soccer matches, the two title fights, the Ice Capades and the first Giants home game in 1975. It’s all worth noting in some context (we gave a college QB, a boxer, a goalkeeper and a Giant cameos in our Countdown Like It Oughta Be), but none of it comes close to constituting one of the 75 great moments at Shea. It’s amusing that the Ice Capades brought its show to an outdoor facility in June, but so what? This hodgepodge, even the Giants’ Flushing cameo, has been lost to the mists of time. A Greatest Moments ballot with a finite number of spaces is the not the venue for rescuing them. I appreciate the impulse to nod toward the mutipurposeness of our longtime home, but this smacks of someone having flipped through the neat Shea history inserts that have appeared in a couple of Mets yearbooks this decade and thinking it would be cute to include these episodes. It’s not.

But if you are going down this road, why no professional rasslin’? Andre The Giant took on boxing’s Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner, at Shea in 1976, the same night Muhammad Ali threw down against Antnio Inoki — boxer vs. wrestler — in Tokyo, which itself was shown closed-circuit at Shea. Now that was an event.

None of these, save for a Rickrolling [4], will be chosen as one of the final ten. But being considered, being on the ballot at all, should signify something beyond “look what we found in the attic!”

Spiritual: 2

Billy Graham brought his crusade to Shea in 1970. Pope John Paul II rallied the youth there in 1979. That’s some name-brand religion right there. I can see why they’re on the ballot. The Jehovah’s Witnesses (’78) and the Promise Keepers (’96) also brought in the masses, but they go unmentioned. Everybody seems to remember the Papal visit. The others, rightly or wrongly, are ya don’t say! But I can see John Paul and the Rev. Graham as legitimate entrants; they’re religious rock stars.

Speaking of which…

Concerts: 12

This is a tough category because if you saw Jethro Tull in 1976 or Elton John with Eric Clapton in 1992 or looked in vain for Jimi Hendrix at the Festival for Peace in 1970 (he wasn’t there, every eyewitness swears [5], but Janis Joplin sure was), then I’ll bet it was a great moment at Shea (well, maybe not Tull [6]). But does every big concert rate the same treatment? I’ve heard over the years how awesome the Who and Clash were, how captivating the Police were, how seismic the Stones were, how breathtaking Bruce Springsteen was and I experienced for myself the incredible spectacle Billy Joe [7]l produced. Grand Funk fortified Shea’s rock legacy and having Simon & Garfunkel homeward bound in Queens after all their years apart was pretty special.

But can we agree there’s the Beatles’ first show in 1965 and there’s everything else? And if we’re talking about Greatness, there’s the Beatles’ first show and nothing else — not even the Beatles’ followup in ’66 — could possibly match it? Seems to devalue the concept of Great Moments when everything is granted equivalency. Beatles ’65 in a class of its own. Everybody else, from Janis to Billy? Maybe not the Ice Capades, but not the Beatles ’65.


Now the fun starts. And if you remember that was the 1983 marketing slogan, you’ll be stunned to find out what’s been omitted by your New York Mets. We’ll get to that in, as they say at Nikon, a moment.

There are 49 baseball-related moments on the ballot. One is tangentially Mets and it is also the most unwieldy entry of them all: “1975 Sports Season,” alluding to the Mets, Yankees, Jets and Giants sharing Shea for a season while construction projects proceeded apace in the Bronx and East Rutherford. Beyond “1975 Sports Season” making for a clumsily defined moment, this is, again, trivia in context. The all-hands-on-deckery is a groovy footnote to a comprehensive history of Shea, but there was nothing great about either football team that year; something tells me if the Giants hadn’t won the Super Bowl in 2008, they wouldn’t show up twice on the ballot.

This entry also seems to be a backhanded way of acknowledging that the Yankees called Shea home for two seasons. It’s a little more than ya don’t say!, a little less than Great Moments material. I’d prefer to make the ballot Mets-exclusive, but if you’re doing it this way, then let’s be menschen about this and offer an actual Yankee moment at Shea (and no, not the time a cannon in a pregame military ceremony took out the centerfield fence). You could choose from Catfish Hunter’s Yankee debut on April 11, 1975 (a huge harbinger of things to come regarding free agentry and the power of the pinstriped checkbook); Billy Martin’s first managerial homecoming (Old Timers Day, August 2, 1975) or even April 6, 1974, their first home game in our park.

I know, it’s strange that I’m being magnanimous [8] toward them, but as long as we’re doing this aspect of Shea history, let’s do it right.

That leaves 48 Mets Moments on the ballot. One of them is the 1964 All-Star Game, technically not a Mets game, but with Ron Hunt starting and Shea receiving its first national audience (and Johnny Callison slugging a walkoff winner for the N.L.), it absolutely belongs. So really that leaves us 47.

Here’s how the rest of it breaks down.

Postseason: 18

Need more, not less. You can’t go wrong with playoff and World Series highlights. The only one that surprised me a little was the inclusion of Game Five of the ’73 World Series. It was a perfectly neat 2-0 victory over Oakland and it put the Mets up 3-2 (with a promise on the scoreboard that Miracle No. 2 was 3,000 miles away), but Games Three and Four were livelier and, in their way, more Shealike. But we lost Game Three in eleven innings — you might faint if reminded in this process that the Mets aren’t perfect — and Game Four, which featured a Rusty Staub homer and the Mike Andrews ovation, was overlooked.

All four 1969 games are in. The two wins over the Reds from 1973 are in. The two heartstoppers against Houston, Games Three and Five, are in. Buckner and the almost incidental Game Seven from ’86 are in, of course. The überclassics from the Valentine era (Pratt, Robin, Benny, Bobby Jones) are in. And the unforgettable fire of Lo Duca’s Double Tag and Endy’s Catch (from a loss!) make it as well.

Not in? Besides an additional A’s game? Nothing from the ’88 NLCS, which is semi-understandable. Game Three in the muck was an exciting win, but maybe it’s just too much of a reminder of what followed in Games Four and Five. Nothing from the 2000 World Series, which I find childish. Game Three? Benny delivering in the clutch? C’mon. I know the rest didn’t turn out well, but to ignore the Subway Series is revisionist nonsense. I also wonder where Game Four against the Braves from ’99 went; rallying off John Rocker to avoid the sweep and force the Grand Slam Single game was monumental.

Clinchings & Such: 5

The “such” refers to October 3, 1999, the Melvin Mora Game, whose presence on this list utterly delights and kind of shocks me. It clinched only (only) a tie for the Wild Card, but those of who attended knew it as deliverance. It’s clinching enough to be mentioned alongside the securing of division titles in ’69, ’86, ’88 and ’06. I can see leaving out the 2000 Wild Card clinching as it was a tad anticlimactic, but if you weren’t wasting our time with ice follies, there’d be room for it.

Retirement Ceremonies: 5

Tricky terrain. Jackie Robinson Night? Absolutely; the President of the United States was on hand, on the field. Tom Seaver Day? Absolutely. Still the only player to get the treatment and Tom made it all the more memorable by jogging to the mound and bowing in every direction toward the fans.

But Gil Hodges and Casey Stengel is equivalency in action. They retired No. 14 during Old Timers Day in ’73. It was a great gesture, but not one that seems to have been remembered down the corridors of time. Everybody knows 14 was retired — I’d be willing to bet few had any idea when exactly it was retired. And Casey? Casey’s number was retired on a Thursday afternoon in front of almost nobody. It was hours before gametime. The photo of him limping off the field with thousands of empty seats behind him may evoke melancholy but not so much a great moment at Shea. I wouldn’t begrudge Mr. Hodges or Mr. Stengel their numbers, but as “Great Moments,” each of these feels like a well-meaning reach.

(Wrote Robert Creamer in Stengel: His Life and Times, “His uniform shirt was put on display in a glass case in the stadium’s Diamond Club, although Casey said before leaving the ballpark, ‘I’d like to see them give that number 37 to some young player so it can go on and do some good for the Mets. I hope they don’t put a mummy in the glass case.'”)

You want to honor Gil as part of this? Try July 30, 1969, the day he ambled out to left field and pulled Cleon Jones for not hustling. It was stern, it was definitive, it was professional, it’s what everybody pointed to, even then, as a turning point for the young Mets. Casey? His 74th birthday party, when he received a rousing on-field chorus of “Happy Birthday To You” from the Dodgers seems more festive than the solemn episode that was selected.

Though the number 24 wasn’t taken out of circulation, Willie Mays’ Say Goodbye to America farewell was quite possibly the most moving ceremony in Shea Stadium history. If you watched it as it happened and then went out for a 35-year smoke, you’d be shocked to find out 24 wasn’t retired. Good call getting this on the list.

Records: 7

Interesting company here. Seaver’s ten consecutive strikeouts still boggle the mind. Of course that belongs. The 23-inning game (7:23) that was the second game of a doubleheader is still, I’m pretty sure, the longest National League game ever by time. No arguments with its inclusion (even if it was a Mets loss). Since it was a big deal in its day and it set a team record (albeit since tied), Todd Hundley’s 41st homer in 1996 can stay, even if Javy Lopez later broke the catchers’ single-season mark and Hundley was implicated in the Mitchell Report. The Mets have since scored more than ten runs in one inning, but little in Shea’s 45 years was as electric as the ten-run inning the Mets hung up in the eighth against the Braves on June 30, 2000, especially the three-run shot Mike Piazza blasted to put the Mets ahead. (It was the Mets’ second ten-run frame; the first, in ’79, goes missing.)

Piazza setting the all-time catchers’ career mark in homers strikes me as only borderline Mets-historic. At least Hundley’s 41st established a Mets record. I recall being far more excited when Mike hit a walkoff shot the next night in the eleventh. I was also more excited when Mike was traded to the Mets and made his debut at Shea in 1998, which I bring up because that was one of the Ten Greatest Moments in team history as determined by fan balloting in 2000, yet it’s not listed here at all.

Yet Ice Capades is.

Tommie Agee’s longest-ever home run? This was a lost classic — urban myth almost — for a quarter-century until Howie Rose’s campaign to have it marked in the Upper Deck reached fruition on July 15, 1994 as part of that weekend’s 25th-anniversary celebration of 1969. It’s nice to have it in here, but if Howie hadn’t succeeded, no way, in light of the lack of film, does it resurface as a Greatest Moment.

Finally, there are Robin Ventura’s two grand slams in the doubleheader of May 20, 1999. I was at that doubleheader. It was a notch on my fan belt to say I saw the second grand slam (twinbill began at 4:40 on a Thursday). We all wondered if it was a first and we were impressed when it was announced that it was a singular feat. Swell. But three days later, John Olerud capped a five-run bottom of the ninth by singling home the winning runs off Curt Schilling. The Mets came back from 0-4 to win 5-0. That was a way bigger moment than either of Ventura’s May 20 grand slams. And it’s not listed. I’d substitute at once.

Iconography: 10

First game at Shea (albeit the first Mets loss at Shea); first win at Shea (though not as well known as the first loss because it was the third game); Seaver’s near-perfecto; the black cat; Willie’s Say Hey homer to beat the Giants in his first game since 1957 playing for New York; the Ball Off The Wall play that sank the Pirates; the blackout of ’77 interrupting Lenny Randle’s at-bat; Gary Carter’s Opening Day walkoff home run to beat Neil Allen; Piazza post-9/11.

Of course to all nine of the above. The tenth is a misfire:

1981 Season — The Home Run Apple Hat “arrives” before the 1981 campaign

Please. You’re joking.

This isn’t about disliking the Apple. I like the Apple. I would take it [9] rather than leave it. But “1981 season” as its moment? While I credit whoever did this for finally getting the season right (it’s often referred to as arriving in 1980), the Apple, like the Agee Upper Deck blast, picked up steam after the fact. The Apple’s a bit of a cause célèbre [10] these days, but when it and its hat were plopped down beyond right-center, it was a silly little gimmick. It remained so until kitsch became king in this decade. The Apple’s planting was no more a story in the spring of ’81 than the erecting of Kingman Fallout Zone signs in the parking lot (management not responsible for flying baseballs).

The Apple was an offshoot of The Magic Is Back ad campaign of 1980. That resonated because, as I’m fond of pointing out, the 1980 Mets played with a little otherworldly spirit for a few months that summer. The Magic was symbolized by Steve Henderson’s two-out three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth on June 14, 1980, the one that capped a five-run rally which brought the Mets all the way back from down 6-0 to win 7-6. It was, as I’m also fond of pointing out, a night like no other in that era. The curtain call may have been invented that evening. That’s your Magic moment. But it’s not on the ballot.

If you’re going to honor the Apple, add “Mets hire Joe Pignatano as bullpen coach” because Piggy planted tomatoes in the pen and those tomatoes were the signature produce of Shea long before (and even after) the Apple came along.

Inconsequential Trivia: 2

The April ’98 emergency doubleheader that placed the Yankees at Shea in the afternoon when the Mets were scheduled to play at night: marginal at best. If you’re going to play it up, mention at least that Darryl Strawberry hit a homer for the other “home” team and that the Apple operator, as if by habit, raised the Mets’ Apple in homage (halfway before realizing it was probably bad form).

The first Interleague game at Shea against the Red Sox in 1997 is the single worst Mets choice on the ballot. I was there. There was indeed an air of significance in the ballpark, I’ll give them that. But you use this as your representative Interleague moment and you ignore the Matt Franco Game? Never mind the Marlon Anderson Game or the 14-inning comeback against the Blue Jays. YOU IGNORE THE MATT FRANCO GAME but make eligible a game no one ever talks about, a game whose result, I would venture, isn’t automatically known to Mets fans. (We lost.) I don’t know how this slipped onto the list or how the glorious MATT FRANCO GAME, a staple of Mets Classics on SNY of all channels, failed to make the cut.

But as long as the Ice Capades made it.

Incidentally, as with Piazza’s Met debut, the Matt Franco Game was on the Ten Greatest Moments ballot in 2000 but isn’t here. A few other Shea moments seem to have been disappeared in the intervening eight years as well:

• Tug McGraw coining “You Gotta Believe,” pegged then as July 9, 1973 (I’ve seen various dates, but all agree it was at Shea)

• Doc’s one-hitter against the Cubs in ’84

• Doc striking out 16 Pirates one start later to set a rookie record (that K Korner was far more iconic than the Apple in the ’80s)

• HoJo reaching the 30-30 milestone in 1989 (it wasn’t the first time he’d done it and it was the day Willie Randolph Pendletoned Don Aase, so I wonder why it was on the ballot last time)

• John Franco’s 400th save (I didn’t care then, I don’t care now, but this organization used to hold John Franco Day every three years)

Though not specifically a Shea moment, the 2000 ballot also included “Terrific Debut,” for Tom Seaver’s rookie season. For our 2008 purposes, we could — though it would require a touch of hindsight — include April 13, 1967, Tom Seaver’s first-ever game, a Mets win. It indeed occurred at Shea Stadium. He’s only The Franchise.

Which brings me to Now The Fun Starts. Like I said, that was the ’83 slogan, hilarious in retrospect given the 6-15 stumble that sent that season into the pits immediately. But the very first game of 1983 you could not argue with as fun…as momentous…as historic…as emotional…as a milestone…as one of the Greatest Moments at Shea by any objective or sentient accounting.

Except by the Mets’ or Nikon’s.

April 5, 1983 — Nearly six years after the trade that sent him to Cincinnati, Tom Seaver returns to the mound for the New York Mets on Opening Day in a 2-0 win over the Phillies.

There are many, many, many great Mets moments at Shea that have gotten the shaft in this process. If I start listing those I haven’t mentioned already, I’ll be here all week. But Tom Seaver’s return was as Shea a moment as you could hope for. The king no longer in exile; his subjects overjoyed; the world righted.

Steve Wulf captured the energy of the afternoon for the cover story in April 18, 1983’s Sports Illustrated, starting with the banners that fans flew to salute George Thomas Seaver:




Then the first official acknowledgement of what was at hand:

The introduction of the starting lineup was made at 1:20. After the eighth batter, Catcher Ron Hodges, was introduced, Public Address Announcer Jack Franchetti said simply, “Batting ninth and pitching, now warming up in the bullpen, Number 41.” No name, just the number. The cheering began.

At 1:29 No. 41 finished his warmups. His catcher, rookie Ronn Reynolds, asked him if he kept his warmup ball or took it to the mound with him. When Seaver asked why, Reynolds explained that there was a handicapped boy near the railing in the right field corner who’d asked him for a ball earlier, and maybe Seaver could give the kid the ball.

“I thought it might make his day,” said Reynolds. “Heck, maybe it’ll make his life.” The fans were already on their feet and cheering when Seaver walked over to the stands to give the ball away. “That showed me so much,” said Reynolds. “I had a tear in my eye.”

Seaver then began his procession to the dugout. In the crowd were his wife, children, three sisters, mother and father. He tipped his hat, placed it back on his head, tipped it again, waved it twice, put it back on, tipped it once more, this time thrusting it skyward, and disappeared into the dugout.

“I knew it would be emotional,” Seaver said later, “but I didn’t think it would be that emotional. I had to block out a lot of it because I was pitching, but if I wasn’t, I would have cried. I know my mother lost it.”

Seaver then “went the length of the Mets dugout,” Wulf wrote, “shaking hands with everybody on the bench, wishing each of them luck, pumping them up.” One club employee said the gesture of the Hall of Famer to be reaching out to each of his teammates is “what really gave me chills.”

And that was all before a single pitch was fired. Tom threw six shutout innings. The Mets beat Steve Carlton 2-0. A stadium long moribund was unquestionably reignited.

That, according to the Mets-Nikon ballot, is NOT one of the 75 Greatest Moments at Shea.

But how about them Ice Capades?

Next Monday: A chance to get Essential.