If you want to feel welcome at Shea Stadium (or its successor facility), here's a piece of advice. Don't be the man on the mound when the Mets clinch the pennant there. All will never be right for you in Flushing again.
Our sample size is two pitchers, so the rule is open to interpretation. But the precedent isn't pretty.
Nolan Ryan enters Game Three of the 1969 NLCS in the third inning and pitches seven innings to close out the Braves, undoubtedly the most phenomenal long-relief performance in Mets history. Thirty-nine years later, he is invited back to participate in final weekend ceremonies at Shea Stadium and the New York Post reports he politely declines.
The better news is that the Mets, according to the Post, have invited “hundreds” of former players for the occasion (I didn't know that many ex-Mets sell Lincolns and Mercurys). If management has been saving all of them up for one big Sheagasm, well, great. I dream of a final Sunday like the one that closed Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in 1991 (from Peter Richmond's marvelous Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream):
[T]hen Brooks Robinson steps onto the top step of the home dugout, pauses for a moment, hefts himself to the field, and jogs to third base.
And now everyone knows.
Then Frank Robinson jogs to right, turns, stops, takes the place he always took, and listens to the ovation. And Boog Powell lopes to first, and then Jim Palmer to the mound. Rick Dempsey to the plate. One by one they take their positions, each man waiting long enough for the man before him to reap his own ovation.
The sound in the stands is an unusual mixture of cheers and gasps and applause; there is no precedent, so no one knows how to react, although many people in the upper row of the upper deck are crying unashamedly.
Dave Johnson and Bobby Grich and Rich Dauer go to second. Lee May, Pat Kelly, Elrod Hendricks. Dave McNally, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar. Doug DeCinces. Russ Snyder. Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, Scott McGregor.
For ten minutes they keep coming, and when it becomes apparent that it wasn't just the star Orioles who had returned, but everyone who had worn an Orioles uniform, life really does start to imitate art: Each successive name — Glenn Gulliver, Dave Skaggs, dozens of them — adds an extra chill to the moment.
By now the ovation has settled to a steady roar, like a waterfall, just as insistent; it is thanks for nothing less than thirty-seven years of baseball.
Finally, Cal Ripken comes out alone. And then Earl.
And for that single moment, there isn't anyone in Memorial Stadium who wasn't finally grateful for the ballpark's youth; because of it, the men who played in it — almost all of them — could return to bid it good-bye, all of them alive. Other parks speak of their ghosts. Memorial needed none. It had never happened before that a stadium could be visited by virtually all of its former players.
With that kind of crowd of former Mets, big and small, would anyone in particular be missed if he didn't show? Probably, because we all have favorites and favorites are capable of letting us down, but it should be enough. It should be enough that the Mets asked, for Nolan Ryan — who as a Major League club president should know better — to appear on the last scheduled day of Shea. Ryan's never been particularly sentimental about his time in New York, and one doesn't doubt some bitterness will always reside in the soul of a player given up on young and succeeding for a generation thereafter.
But c'mon, Nolie. Come back.
Nolan's never resurfaced for a Shea Old Timers Day (when we used to have them), not even when the '69ers gathered. Seaver skipped the skippable 25th anniversary wake in 1994, but he eventually returned. Yogi didn't believe anybody made his presence necessary in '94 either, but Yogi's dropped by now and again since (Piazza's catcher home run record celebration, Ralph Kiner Night). Nolan Ryan, the only other Hall of Famer associated with the 1969 World Champion Mets, hasn't been to Shea, to the best of my recollection, since he stopped pitching for the Astros twenty years ago. Other than for being an Astro at Shea at an inopportune juncture in October 1986, I don't remember Mets fans holding Ryan's post-Mets blossoming against him. It won't ruin the final weekend not to have Nolan Ryan around, but it would be that much sweeter if he remembered what he did on the Shea mound on an autumn afternoon when he was young.
Mike Hampton pitches a masterful three-hit shutout against the Cardinals in Game Five of the 2000 NLCS. Combined with his previous outing in St. Louis, it earns him the MVP award of the series. He is hoisted triumphantly by his teammates for capturing them the flag.
Then we grabbed him and threw him under the bus, where he has resided ever since.
Mike Hampton returns to Shea tonight. It is not to commemorate the final season of Shea. It is, if he hasn't hurt himself since this morning, to try and stop the 2008 Mets Express from rolling all over his current team, the Braves. Remember when we worried Mike Hampton would sign with the Braves? Remember when we would have liked him to have resigned with us? Remember Mike Hampton throwing that shutout in Game Five? Or the seven scoreless innings in Game One? Or the 15 wins in the regular season?
Or do you just remember he took a lot of money from the Rockies and said something inane about the area's schools?
I've seen Hampton pitch at Shea twice since he left, in 2001 and 2002. Both times he was booed to with an inch of his Fu Manchu. Both times mocking him was great fun. Both times the Mets defeated him. Both times were good times.
Both times, however, I applauded him very softly when he was announced. He won us the fricking pennant, I thought, where's the appreciation?
From here, Mike Hampton never looked comfortable in New York. He was a salary dump by the Astros and a hired gun for the Mets. He was the ace we desperately needed who took a little time to live up to his previous notices (sound familiar?) but when we required a step up in class, he generally gave it to us. He did it in the heart of the regular season, he didn't do it against the Giants or Yankees in the postseason, but he sure as hell did it against the Cardinals. You could argue Alfonzo or Perez or Zeile could have been NLCS MVP, but you couldn't argue with Hampton.
Then he left as a free agent, signed an enormous contract somewhere else and insulted our intelligence some by implying he wasn't lured to Denver by $121 million over eight seasons, the eighth of them playing out as we speak. I recall the Mets making him an extravagant offer that was blown out of the water by Colorado's. I forget the exact numbers, but I don't think we were going beyond six years or much above $100 million.
Real bang for the buck that would have been.
Mike Hampton was never a terribly sympathetic figure in a Mets uniform. For some reason it irked me that one time he sat on the bench in a Cleveland Browns helmet, as if he wished he were in another place, in another sport. The football mentality, if he had one, should have been shown in some other way, like retaliating for Piazza and the bat shard in Game Two of the World Series. But that was all background noise to his Mets legacy in my mind. The main attraction was that NLCS performance, that clinching game, that pennant, still the last one earned by a Mets team at Shea Stadium. That alone should get you a hall pass to say all kinds of silly things about all kinds of silly schools.
If he's remembered by the Shea crowd tonight, eight years later, it won't be with fondness. But listen closely after he's introduced. You'll hear one fleeting round of very soft applause before he is treated like any other Brave.
And if he's languishing again on the DL come September 28, he's welcome back on my watch for the final weekend. He can take Ryan's place.
I have been reminded that the late Tug McGraw closed out an NLCS for the Mets at Shea in 1973. He remained pretty popular in Queens for the rest of his life, though like Jesse Orosco, who finished off the Astros in Houston in 1986, he was traded away one season later.