Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.
And there used to be rock candy
And a great big Fourth of July
With the fireworks exploding
All across the summer sky
—Joe Raposo, “There Used To Be A Ballpark”
Scouring the baseball-reference page devoted to the schedule of the godforsaken 1979 New York Mets is like going to Andy Dufresne’s big hayfield up near Buxton. It’s got a long rock wall with a big oak tree at the north end. It’s like something out of a Robert Frost poem. Find that spot. At the base of that wall…I mean in the middle of that schedule, you’ll find a game whose paid attendance has no earthly business on a listing of 1979 home games.
It’s June 16, a Saturday night against Atlanta. The paid attendance is 28,313. The night before, the Mets drew 9,805. The next afternoon, they attracted 12,133. For the six games encompassing the two series preceding it, against the Astros and the Reds, paid attendance was, Friday to Wednesday, 12,196; 10,499; 15,879; 4,917; 9,805; and — following a game in which the Mets scored ten runs in a single inning which you might think would meaningfully goose walkup sales — 12,468.
Those six games added up to 65,764, or 10,961 per date. In June. Against two contenders. One of whom had Tom Seaver on its roster.
Typical. Typical 1979. The Mets averaged 11,433 in paid attendance each time they opened Gates E through A that year, 69 times in all. That includes one tie — The Fog Game of May 25 that was called in the eleventh — and thirteen doubleheaders, only four of which were scheduled ahead of time. A lot of fog and rain descended on Shea Stadium in 1979, and it kept the fans away in proverbial droves. In fact, the more the Mets played, the less the fans came. Weather forced the Mets into four doubleheaders in a five-day span in September. The paid attendance for each buy one/get two special was 4,233; 4,973; 4,229; and, on a Saturday, 8,492.
If you used 1979 and its indelible total attendance of 788,905 as your gauge, you’d wonder why the Mets would build their next stadium with as many as 42,000 seats. It’s not like you’d ever use more than two-thirds of them.
That 28,313 on June 16 was the top attendance of 1979. It beat, by 59 souls, the crowd that bought (and used) tickets for Old Timers Day, which was a relatively huge deal in ’79 because it was the tenth anniversary of ’69, which looked enormous in the rearview mirror considering how small 1979 was.
But 1979 blew up on June 16. Literally. It was Fireworks Night at Shea Stadium, the first one.
How could the Mets resist? They had seen firsthand how successful Fireworks Night was in Philadelphia where they provided the opposition on the Fourth of July in 1977. Fireworks Night was enormous at the Vet, never more so than in ’77 when the Phils sizzled and the Mets fizzled while 63,283 bore witness. 63,283? That was practically a week’s worth of business at Shea in the late ’70s.
So the de Roulet Mets got an unlikely promotional clue and scheduled their own. They even borrowed from the Phillies’ playbook and scheduled a team that wasn’t much of a challenge or a draw: the Braves. In 1979, the Braves were the Western Division’s equivalent of the Mets. Then again, it wasn’t like anybody was showing up at Shea to see any opponent in particular. The Mets were a very effective repellent against frontrunning.
But fireworks created a crowd. 28,313 thought Fireworks Night was worth the hassle entailed by putting up with the 1979 Mets and the 1979 Braves. Kevin Kobel made the fuss as minimal as possible by taking only 1:57 to outduel Mickey Mahler. And then…
It wasn’t a premature attempt to implode Shea. It was the Grucci Brothers (proclaimed for weeks in advance by Murph, Ralph and Steve Albert as the best there were) in action. Fireworks lit up the sky over Flushing. The fans oohed and aahed. Then everybody left and not very many of them would come back to take direct part in the segment of the 63-99 campaign that remained.
But Fireworks Night would return. It was a hit in New York like it was a hit in Philadelphia. Over the years, Fireworks Night maintained its place as the volcanic glass in the Shea hayfield. The Mets in any given season might not be very good and they might not appeal to too many people, but folks would show up for those colored lights, for those resounding bangs, for whatever it is that makes people stare up at the artificially bright night in fascination.
July 6, 1980: Fireworks Night vs. Montreal draws 51,097.
Night before? 12,585.
Day after? 21,880.
July 5, 1982: Fireworks Night vs. L.A. draws 38,270.
Day before? 20,897.
Night after? 20,816.
July 3, 1993: Fireworks Night vs. San Fran draws 44,160.
Night before? 20,811.
Day after? 22,641.
By ’93, incidentally, attendance figures became a bit of a sham as it began to reflect tickets sold (formerly the American League standard), not paying customers who bothered to appear. But there were always more fans — Mets fans, fireworks fans, spectacle fans — who materialized for Fireworks Night at Shea than there were for the generally lousy baseball in those years. More showed up than for the first Fireworks Night in ’79 because you couldn’t have less.
Except in the wake of 1993, which was truly 1979′s bastard nephew.
In 1994, the club scheduled not one, not two but three Fireworks Nights. The scheduling was done after the 59-103 disaster of ’93, so anything that could serve as a distraction loomed as a decent idea — in triplicate, no less. But it was just more, not merrier. The first Fireworks Night of 1994, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend versus the Reds, drew a mere 23,303. Even the Gruccis couldn’t blast away the residue of 1993. And the July 4, 1995 exhibition of sparklers and such couldn’t light up the dark post-strike sky, as only 21,611 dropped by. Better than the 15,993 the night before and the 14,377 the night after, but not classically Gruccilicious by any means.
Certainly not like 1986 when if you had a great team and a great promotion, you rated an extraordinary crowd. The Mets and Astros lured 48,839 — a legitimate 48,839 — to Shea for all kinds of fireworks on July 3, particularly in the tenth inning. Down 5-3, Darryl Strawberry homered with one on before Ray Knight unleashed a cannon shot to win it. When the postgame fireworks came, they weren’t anticlimactic. They were an embellishment. That right there was the golden age of Fireworks Night, back when Channel 9 would stick around afterwards and have George Plimpton, New York City’s unofficial Fireworks Commissioner, give color commentary. Anything beyond “that one there just went boom!” was beyond my interest level, but I loved the feeling that everything the Mets touched was worth commenting upon.
In later years, when Mets Extra with Howie Rose became required listening, I became disappointed by Fireworks Night. Because it was so darn loud, Howie rushed through his postgame wrapup and beat it out of Dodge. Same aural fate would befall Eddie Coleman later on, but I didn’t consider that such a deprivation.
However, one night Eddie stayed on and valiantly recapped over the oohs and aahs, all of which were clearly anticlimactic. That was June 30, 2000, the Friday night when the Mets began the proceedings in the eighth inning down 8-1 to the Braves and finished it up 11-8 over those very same Braves (of course it was still against the Braves, but it always bears repeating). 52,831 of us were unofficial deputy commissioners that night, exultant that Mike Piazza got to wield the big gavel.
Even in 2000, during a season and an era when the Mets weren’t at all hard up for seatfillers, Fireworks Night was a draw that outdrew the games before it (46,998) and after it (44,593). It had survived its mid-’90s malaise to establish itself as the event that brought in those who didn’t go to Shea very often otherwise. Every year, I swear, somebody would tell me about the woes he encountered in taking his family to the game on this night and only this night; how he and his wife and his kid(s) got caught in an impossible traffic jam; how — because much of the main lot was blocked off as the spectacular’s staging ground — they were redirected somewhere south of the tennis center; how they had to pay some astronomical fee to park; how they didn’t get to their seats until the fourth inning; how the game invariably sucked. On those occasions, I never heard all that much about the fireworks.
I was always tempted to say, “they don’t make those ‘take mass transit’ pronouncements for nothing, y’know,” but I resisted.
After the Piazza Brothers lit up Flushing in 2000, what else was there to see that evening? With the Braves subdued, I bolted. I stayed for the literal fireworks the first two times I went to a Fireworks Night, in ’93 and ’95, because I was in situations like those my frustrated friends described, with family on hand solely for what would come after the baseball. In my case, it was my explosives-loving sister and her indulgent husband joining Stephanie and me. My wife and I would arrive by LIRR in time for the game while Suzan and Mark showed up in the fifth or thereabouts, packing sandwiches and utter disinterest. The fireworks were their thing and they’d be giving us a ride home, so what the hell?
In ’96, on one of those lightly attended May Friday Fireworks affairs (24,751), the Mets lost by so many runs (12) it was not at all attractive to stick around, so I didn’t. That became custom for me. As with the Merengue concerts that coincided with Mets games, I discovered I liked the rare treat of beating it out of Dodge ahead of the pack as extraneous noise began to build. I saw the Mets. What else was there to see? Somehow, I enjoyed the happenstance fireworks glances I took in from a distance on the train home more than I would have from my paid-for seat, I’m convinced.
My last Fireworks Night was the last official Shea Fireworks Night of them all in 2006, July 3 — 54,111 for one of those horrible 11-1 losses when everybody complained about the lack of parking. The main lot would be filled to capacity in 2007 and 2008 by a new ballpark, thus putting the kibosh on any more genuine Shea pyrotechnics. The last unofficial Fireworks Night was September 13, 2008, when by sitting in the Upper Deck for the second game of a makeup doubleheader (and seething over your failure to secure a between-games pretzel) you could sneak a peek at a pretty substantial fireworks display going on to the east.
I like fireworks that I’m not expecting. Stephanie and I agree that an unannounced exhibition set off in Washington as part of pre-Inauguration festivities on a cold January evening in 1993 was one of the greatest sights we ever saw. With no advance billing, something illuminated the sky. There was music. Then there were fireworks. Maybe fifteen minutes, maybe half an hour. Everybody on the Mall just stopped and watched and was awed. Kind of like it must have been for those who would line the 7 extension over the right field fence on Shea’s Fireworks Nights; or the impromptu displays that grab our attention when we scan the skies from our upstairs bathroom window every Fourth of July — but grander. It was the kind of thing that takes your breath away and you never forget.
Not as luminescent or earth-shaking as Piazza against Mulholland, mind you, but memorable nonetheless.
The Mets seasons that went boom and the Mets seasons that went bust light up the pages of the upcoming book Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available for pre-ordering now via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.
MLB Network Alert: Opening Day 1985, highlighted by Gary Carter’s “Welcome to New York” blast, is scheduled to air Saturday at 11:00 AM. Thanks to Joe D. for the tip.