The following is excerpted from The 2024 Field Guide to Major League Ballparks with full permission of Alternate Reality Publishing, all rights reserved.
This shapes up as a banner year in Queens as Shea Stadium prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, a milestone sure to be marked with the kind of Flushing flourishes to which baseball fans from coast to coast have become accustomed.
The designation of William A. Shea Municipal Stadium as a national landmark, with ceremonies slated for April 17, 2024, is a fitting signpost in its own right considering where Shea has been these past 15 seasons. Its evolution from nearly condemned facility to Big Apple treasure has been one of the most fascinating stories in ballpark history and is worth revisiting in some depth here.
Today we are used to Shea being discussed in the same conversation with Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium as the true classics of the genre. As every baseball fan knows, this quartet stands alone as the hardy survivors of the pre-1989 era of stadium construction, back when ballparks were created for the sole purpose of presenting baseball fans with a baseball game. The concept of baseball game as some kind of consumer “experience,” of course, began with the erection of Toronto's SkyDome and took off in earnest with the debut of Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards. While historians agree some of the 1989-2009 parks were more successful than others, there is also consensus that the trend informing that particular building boom ran its course by the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century.
Shea Stadium, like its Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles compatriots in character, found itself in the right place at the right time. The same largely unforeseen and indisputably unfortunate economic downturn that contributed to sparking its almost certain demise emerged as its eventual saving grace. It's quite a story of image, perception and — when you get right down to it — alternate reality.
New York Mets ownership angled relentlessly through the late 1990s and early 2000s for a replacement to Shea Stadium. Unlike now, in those days it was thought of as borderline ramshackle, somewhat dilapidated and hopelessly out of fashion. “It's a dump, but it's our dump” became the recurring meme of last resort for Mets fans. Shea was not a selling point when the Mets were in their occasional fallow periods (the last one, if you don't follow them closely, occurred between 2002 and 2004). A revival of the team's on-field fortunes coincided with an agreement with the City of New York to construct a successor stadium, slated in 2005 for opening in 2009.
Early steps were taken toward making this vision a reality in 2006, with ownership going so far as to offer a scale model that April and place a few stakes in the ground of Shea's parking lot that summer. All activity indicated the new park would make its '09 deadline and that Shea would be, commensurately, doomed to extinction.
So what happened?
This is where the story of Shea Stadium and the universal esteem it is held in today takes its twist. Wisdom in ownership is what took over on two counts. First off, the Wilpon family reviewed its investment portfolio and took stock of the developing American economic picture. Looking ahead with unprecedented insight, certain key assets were shifted — mere balance sheet movement undetectable to the untrained eye, but rare financial genius in that the Wilpons saw both the recession of the late '00s on the horizon and the Bernard Madoff empire disintegrating under the weight of its own shady practices. This was more than monetary acumen at play, however. What Met ownership really had going for it was a feel for the New York market, that the last thing its potential customers were going to want when they sought baseball was high-end pretension. Forecasting shaky times ahead, an inkling was in the air that previously made plans should be scaled back…or even scrapped. “Too expensive, too garish, too out of touch for where the city and the country were headed,” is how one longtime Metwatcher sums the situation as it stood almost two decades ago. “When you got right down to it, with all the problems in the world, who needed a fancy new ballpark?”
Shaky times could be said to be the second motivator, too, though in this case it was a more literal interpretation of shaky. The touchstone moment for the Mets' ballpark plans was the same as the touchstone moment for the Mets' ballclub. The moment is plainly pinpointable: October 19, 2006, the bottom of the sixth inning of the seventh game of the National League Championship Series. Endy Chavez had just made his catch for the ages; the Mets came up in the bottom of the inning and loaded the bases; with one out, Jose Valentin stepped to the plate; and Mets fans, in their most hopeful incarnation, shook Shea Stadium practically to its foundation.
The thought process of ownership came into sharp relief: things are going so well here; our fans' enthusiasm cannot be contained; it's all happening on this spot, on this site, right here; how are we ever to do duplicate this kind of magic?
Just then, according to those in the owner's suite, Valentin swung and pulled a Jeff Suppan pitch into the right field corner, scoring Carlos Delgado and David Wright. The Mets took a 3-1 lead. Chavez then drove in Shawn Green with an insurance run. There would be a brief moment of anxiety later when Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina connected off Aaron Heilman for what turned out to be a cosmetic two-run homer in the ninth, but Heilman shut the door from there to preserve a 4-3 win and secure the Mets' first pennant in six years. With ownership judging the rambunctious Shea atmosphere absolutely crucial to producing such an important result in the history of the franchise — without that win, the Mets would not have begun their dynasty when they did — it made no sense from a competitive standpoint to do away with Shea Stadium.
Yet Fred Wilpon maintained a soft spot for Ebbets Field, which was, it might be recalled, an inspiration for the replacement stadium that was going to be built following that 2006 campaign. While the stakes were removed from the parking lot in the days following the world championship parade, he clung to that notion, but in a manner more substantive than could be expressed by tiresome red-brick architecture. Recalling fondly the populist vibe of the Ebbets of his youth, Wilpon made a conscious decision that was at first derided in the New York press as the “Jerry Maguire plan,” so named for the 1996 film in which the title character (a sports agent) invited cynicism for declaring his company should court fewer clients and seek less money.
The Wilpon plan wasn't quite so explicit or humble, but it stoked the already heated passions for Mets baseball among New Yorkers in a way that could not have been easily predicted. Wilpon slashed ticket and concession prices. This, he said, would be the true legacy of Ebbets Field. If they weren't back to “Boys of Summer” levels, they became human-scale, the kind of prices families and working people could afford without worrying about their tightening budgets. It didn't seem like more than a stunt when times still seemed good, but when that recession became evident, Mets' management was hailed as a team of seers.
The parameters of the baseball business as a whole would be redrawn in Flushing. Luxury suites were eliminated, as were season tickets and other such plans; even the owner sat in the stands with everybody else. There would be no more pricing geared to the alleged attractiveness of opponents (one of the more comical curios left over from the mid-'00s is a color-coded pocket schedule that attempts to rationalize higher admission prices for games versus certain opponents on certain days of the week). Mets baseball at Shea Stadium became synonymous with what baseball had attempted so often to market itself as but had never succeeded because baseball had never really meant it. It was the people's game again.
Shea's size, meanwhile, became a virtue as opposed to the liability it had been written off as in the run-up to the proposed ballpark. Instead of creating an air of exclusivity in a smaller facility, the Mets made much of having 60,000 seats (the new total after the renovation of the Diamond View level into Lower Mezzanine seating). “More seats for more fans for less money,” became the guiding principle of Shea Stadium and Mets baseball. As folks looked for uplifting diversions in the recession, this philosophy became codified as an industry operating principle.
A major change to the Mets' baseball planning took place simultaneously, via a reduction in major league payroll and a de-emphasis on free agent bidding. Doom was forecast by some media cynics, but this, too, turned out to be brilliant strategy. Fans warmed to a homegrown product. The Mets were forced to make player development a priority and began turning out a core of young players who would define the franchise's winning ways for a generation to come. Free agents did not necessarily shy away from Shea Stadium either. So impressed by the genuine affection shown between Mets fans and players (where once booing and grumbling were common) and the heady atmosphere of clearly rational exuberance, these so-called mercenaries opted to take lower contracts than were offered by higher-spending, far more desperate organizations. The Mets led the way in altering the economic landscape of the sport. Baseball players still made a very nice living as did the owners. No salary cap needed to be installed — it was just common sense overtaking all parties.
The authenticity of Shea Stadium became yet another asset in the Mets' portfolio. It wasn't the manufactured “retro” cuteness or quaintness that dulled the fan's senses in so many cities by 2010. Instead, it was big and it was rollicking and it was real. It was, in a word, perfect for the New York baseball fan. Teams in markets like Philadelphia suffered with their relatively tiny facilities as their fans became disgruntled when it was realized there didn't have to be such an artificial demand created for something as simple as seats to a baseball game. Even the admitted shortcomings of Shea came to be viewed as legitimately charming and even healthful. While maintenance of the 1964 building became a top priority in the new partnership between the Mets and the New York City, the occasional escalator outage no longer seemed a massive inconvenience. Given the Obama administration's emphasis on physical fitness, a stalled escalator was viewed cheerfully as simply another opportunity for a good vertical walk.
Likewise, with mass transit programs receiving unprecedented federal funding — and the speedy bullet trains from all over the Tri-State area gliding into the renovated Wilson Point/Reyes Transportation Plaza adjacent to Shea — it was no hardship for Mets fans when part of the parking lot originally slated for the unbuilt ballpark was given over to the construction of the now-iconic New York Mets Museum and Hall of Fame, where the club's rich history is lovingly spotlighted year-round. Its exterior was designed in the style of the original World's Fair-era Shea Stadium, replete in blue and orange speckles. This low-slung edifice has become a fan favorite and complements the vista a Sheagoer takes in from the Upper Deck, sitting as it does in the foreground of the downtown Flushing skyline and the revitalized Payson Village that gave New Yorkers access to affordable housing within walking distance of the rail lines and ballpark. A few reasonably priced restaurants and taverns round out the thriving Shea neighborhood that opened in 2014 in conjunction with the stadium's 50th-anniversary All-Star Game festivities.
Playing a mostly unbilled role in what some call Shea's second life has been Citigroup, a local banking enterprise that needed a much-publicized government bailout to endure the recession. Once its ship was righted, the bank paid off its loans and redirected its energies within the communities where its roots were, helping working families find secure homes and supporting youth baseball throughout New York. Notably, Citigroup helped build the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum, but in leading a trend away from the ostentatious “ballpark naming rights” movement of the 1990s and 2000s, the company opted for no more than a small plaque in the lobby of the Hall to identify its role. As one director put it, “Why would we need our name all over something that should be about sports?” It's that way of thinking that led to the removal of extraneous advertising from Shea Stadium's classic green outfield walls.
TIPS FOR TRAVELERS
• If you are planning to make the popular pilgrimage to Shea Stadium in the summer of '24, there are a limited number of tickets available for advance purchase through telephone and online outlets (the Mets were the first to do away with extraneous service charges for such transactions). Otherwise, the vast majority of tickets are sold day of game outside Shea so everybody gets a chance to see a game; lines, however, are surprisingly short given the intense customer training every Met employee participates in. Shea features the most working ticket windows among the 29 Major League ballparks in existence, just as it has the fastest and friendliest concessions inside.
• Arrive early for a leisurely stroll through the museum. In honor of Shea's 60th anniversary, the Mets will be featuring exhibits on the roots of New York baseball, including comprehensive looks at the city ballparks that are no longer around, including Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and all three iterations of Yankee Stadium — even the discredited and short-lived third version that opened in 2009 to much fanfare but immediately became viewed as overpriced and inauthentic, driving away patronage in record numbers and leading to the default and eventual dissolution of New York's American League franchise. Shea museum curators say the massive failure of its former neighbor is worth examining as a blueprint of how not to read the market, how not to spend money and, generally, what not to do.
• Shea is instantly recognizable on your flight path into LaGuardia Airport, but if you have a keen eye for detail, you'll notice that this year's promotional banner ringing the top of the park (not to be confused with the annual Banner Day competition) was created not by an advertising agency but through a fan contest. The winner encapsulates what Mets fans have been saying about Shea for a generation: “IT'S A CASTLE…AND IT'S OUR CASTLE!”