It’s a Sunday afternoon in September 1996. I’m at Shea Stadium with my best friend Chuck, diehard Met sympathizer, but better described as a bandwagon rider in terms of his actual Met fandom. Yet in September 1996, there is no bandwagon. There’s just me guilting him into joining me for a game against the Braves. Paul Wilson pitches well. T#m Gl@v!ne pitches better. Mets lose, 3-2.
Still, a nice afternoon at the place where I always want to go, a place to which I have no idea how much I’ll be going over the next dozen seasons. In 1996, a trip to Shea is still just a little bit of a novelty for me — only eight times all year, the last time I’ll go less than ten. It’s too special to leave so soon so late in this mostly lost season. I’m here; my best friend is here; “our” team is slipping away. Mark Wohlers comes on to strike out Andy Tomberlin and ends the game. But our day lingers just a little longer. Chuck and I both understand a season requires savoring, even if it’s the 1996 Mets’ season.
So we sit for a couple of minutes after the final pitch in our Mezzanine seats, resigned to baseball winding down and summer winding down and us getting a little older. We’re mostly taking one last long look around.
We’re interrupted. It’s an usher. “C’mon,” he says. “You guys gotta go.”
Huh? It’s no more than two minutes since Tomberlin whiffed. There is no night half of a doubleheader coming up, no concert, no soccer match, no Bar Mitzvah. Nobody’s tearing the place down for another dozen years. Yet there’s no time to dawdle. Shea Stadium must be vacated at once.
It’s a Saturday night in August 2010. I’m at Citi Field with my wife and our dear friends the Haineses. Jim’s been disgusted with the Mets for all nine years I’ve known him, which is to say he’s as big a fan as I am. We’ve just watched The Last Play at Shea, a movie I’ve now seen three times, the first two at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. After the second viewing there, I suggested to Dana Brand (who, like me, appears in the film) that they really ought to show this at Citi Field. From my lips to somebody’s ear…or it was just too obvious an idea not to be hatched in multiple minds.
The movie’s over. It’s been roundly enjoyed by all among us taking it in for the third (me), second (Stephanie) or first (Jim and Daria) time. As with every movie I’ve ever gone to see, there’s a bathroom scene as soon as it’s over. Jim and I go to the men’s room on the third base side of the Excelsior level, Daria and Stephanie to the ladies’. Stephanie’s a little slower to come out than the rest of us, so the other three among us do what three people do after a movie, no matter where it’s projected — we wait nearby for our fourth.
It’s no more than a couple of minutes that we’re standing and chatting, the personification of minding our own business, when a Citi Field guard comes over to us and tells us we have to move along. He addresses us as if we are teens loitering outside the 7-Eleven, as if standing around a stadium that is otherwise filing out is our nefarious goal, as if we are planning on hiding inside the Caesar’s Club until the Mets return home from their seven-game road trip.
I tell him we’re waiting for my wife to come out of the ladies room.
Oh, he said, that’s OK, and walks away.
Jesus. The wrong things never change, do they?
Shea Stadium was emptied for good two years ago today, but part of me has never left it. Part of me never will. Part of me only recently stopped dwelling daily on the last time I moved along, on September 28, 2008. I’ve wanted it to exist again almost every day since then. I’ve wanted it to be tangible. And I’ve wanted it in Flushing.
I understand that’s impossible, but I’ll take what I can get. The Last Play at Shea, playing at Citi Field, was about all I could hope for.
Citi Field and Shea Stadium never felt closer than on the night of August 21. The showing of the movie ensured that, but even more comforting were the trivia questions that were asked to keep us entertained before the lights went down. They were all about Shea Stadium. Alex Anthony was compelled to keep repeating the phrase: “Shea Stadium.” It felt so good to hear those words again in something approaching an official capacity in this space.
On August 21, Shea was an honored guest at Citi, no longer shamed with nonperson status at Orwellian Park. For a couple of hours, I wasn’t sitting in the anti-Shea of 2009, a structure erected with every intention of blotting out every memory of the previous 45 years. I was sitting in the place that came after Shea — its successor, not its replacement.
There’s a great deal of difference.
The movie starts with an overhead shot of Shea Stadium. And a roar goes up, at least as voluble as anything greeting, say, Jason Bay in the course of this baseball season. The Mets are in Pittsburgh tonight. For the first time I can recall, NYM is on the out-of-town scoreboard. When a couple of highlights are shown before the movie starts, there is approval that the Mets are winning. The crowd is a Met crowd as much as it’s a Billy Joel crowd (couldn’t definitively say the same, sadly, on the first night Billy played Shea in July ’08). But what this really is is a Shea crowd. Tom Seaver and Keith Hernandez and Mike Piazza and Bill Buckner all receive hearty applause. So does Billy Joel, of course, though Pete Flynn might be the bigger rock star here. But nothing makes people as happy here as seeing Shea Stadium go above the marquee inside Citi Field. There was some kind of hunger for this moment, for this validation. I’m convinced of that.
The 2010 version of Citi Field learned a few things after 2009. I’m convinced of that, too. The greatest lesson is on display in the New York Mets Hall of Fame & Museum that now anchors the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. The spirit of Shea informs just about everything in there. It has to. All but three of previous Met years happened there. The Shea Bridge, too, is a grand embellishment of Citi Field’s sophomore season. Its stated purpose (besides connecting the Verizon Studio to the Catch of the Day) is honoring Bill Shea, but the plaques on either side of it have chiseled into them an image of his stadium, not his face. The bridge debuted without a name when the stadium opened. It took a year to do the right thing, same as it did unveiling the museum.
The Mets take their sweet time on a lot of matters that would make them look and feel better if they got to them sooner. Reviving actual Hall of Fame inductions took eight years. When the first Citi Field class of Cashen, Johnson, Gooden and Strawberry made their acceptance speeches, the phrase “Shea Stadium” was uttered over and over. That’s where those guys’ triumphs took place, just as they did for Seaver and Hernandez and Piazza and Joel and John, Paul, George and Ringo, and, to whatever limited extent they achieved them, the Fab Three of Beltran, Reyes and Wright.
When I filmed my interview for The Last Play at Shea during Shea’s last week, I was asked what the stadium meant to me. I said Shea Stadium had forever been my “destination”. That was the word that came to me in late September 2008. It was always about going to Shea or wanting to go to Shea or planning to go to Shea or yearning to go to Shea. I started going to Shea so often at some point in its final decade that it stopped amazing me that it literally was my destination on a regular basis. It was all coming back to me by the last week of its existence. There’d be no more going to Shea Stadium. I would no longer have my destination.
That didn’t get used in the movie, but I thought of it again after seeing the film a third time. Citi Field seamlessly (albeit with a little psychic kicking and screaming) has taken over as my destination, even if it could never quite fill the role as brilliantly as Shea. Citi Field was destined to be Roger Moore to Shea’s Sean Connery. Yet it’s where I go as much as I can. I don’t dream about it the same way, I don’t reflexively answer that it’s where I want to be. If there’s a threat of rain before a game to which I hold a ticket, I still say something to the effect of “I’m going to check the weather at Shea,” not to be contrary, but just because that’s where I’ve always looked.
It can rain all it wants on Citi Field. I instinctively crave blue skies and a few harmless puffy cumulus clouds over Shea.
It took a second season for Citi Field to acknowledge Shea Stadium. It’s been two years since there was a Shea Stadium. I still grope around for it, any sign of it, same as I do the Polo Grounds. The Polo Grounds last hosted baseball in 1963. I never saw a game there, but they’re both in the same boat now. The boat’s a ghost ship. You can’t see it, so you have to feel it.
Sunday night on Mad Men, Don told his 12-year-old daughter he was taking her to Shea Stadium to see the Beatles. Sally Draper screamed. So did I. We had different reasons. An affable production called The Rocker plugged amiably along on HBO a few weeks ago. It doesn’t matter what the plot was, except Rainn Wilson — playing an over-the-hill heavy metal drummer — admonished his much younger and more reticent bandmates that the Beatles didn’t ask permission from their parents to play “a little pub called Shea Stadium”. It was the best part of The Rocker. I sat through one solid hour of a piece of dreck called Old Dogs recently because I’d been promised it included a scene filmed at Shea Stadium. Indeed, for maybe one minute, while John Travolta, Robin Williams and two intolerable child actors frolicked in a Flushing stadium that no longer exists, it was four-star movie.
Then there was a serendipitous DVD viewing Stephanie and I had of Small Time Crooks, Woody Allen’s 2000 screwball comedy caper, which was a little moldy in its sensibilities, but captured Shea Stadium at dusk brilliantly. Woody and Elaine May show up at a Mets game. The greens of Mezzanine; the blues of Loge; the misty-water-colored memories…it doesn’t matter that at the moment Woody’s crowd is cheering, Sammy Sosa has just hit a home run of Masato Yoshii. It’s Merengue Night 1999, and the Mets come back and win.
At Shea. I was there.
So yeah, they bring a documentary about Shea Stadium to Citi Field, and they show me scenes from a Shea Stadium concert at Citi Field, and they set the final heartbreaking moments of September 28, 2008 to “This Is The Time” — Damion Easley walks; Ryan Church swings; Cameron Maybin closes his mitt…the ghost ship rides again. It’s the only way Shea sets sail these days. If it takes reliving its unhappiest of endings, so be it.
I’m a fan of last long looks around. After the first Billy Joel show in 2008 (the one that turned out to be the penultimate play at Shea), I waited in the right field corner of Field Level for Stephanie to emerge from the rest room. I also waited for someone to tell me to get moving, but no one did. I marveled at how Shea was set up for this unusual event, how there were all these chairs in the outfield, how there was this enormous stage, how on earth they’d cart everything away and make it look presentable for games the next week. I marveled at how the formidable Shea scoreboard was obscured by the concert apparatus, never fathoming that cameras would capture that signature Shea landmark falling to the ground three months later and that it would represent the gut punch of the movie Billy Joel’s people were making even more than Church’s flyout would.
And I marveled again that no one told me to move it, buddy.
The longest last look around came 74 days after the concert, after the Mets lost to the Marlins, after Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza walked through the center field gate, after the final recorded music every played at Shea Stadium — “New York State of Mind” — wound down. I stayed in one place after a game as long as I ever did at Shea.
Part of me is still there. Part of me has moved on, but honestly, not that much. My inner GPS’s default setting is still set where it was set ages ago. It’s recalibrated itself to make Citi Field my de facto destination, and that’s fine. I have a nice time in spite of (or sometimes because of) the Mets when I’m there and then I go home.
The new destination isn’t home. But it will have to do.
They give tours of Citi Field. It’s a good idea executed with mixed results. I took one on Labor Day weekend. Some of it is impossible to screw up, like the part where you’re taken to the warning track behind home plate, then into the dugout and down the first base line; you linger in front of the 330 sign in the right field corner and then by the Mets bullpen before you’re led through the home clubhouse. That part works very nicely.
Too much of it, however, is devoted to showing you the suites and the clubs to which you, the average Mets fan, won’t otherwise be gaining admission. Our tour guide was an absolute disaster during the parts of the tour that didn’t involve the playing surface. A few examples of the letdown factor:
• She dismissed the pictures of great New York sports journalists in the press box as “some old guys you’ve never heard of”.
• She sneered at the notion that anybody would actually want to have a wedding at Citi Field, while informing you that you could.
• She pointed to the oversized baseball cards on the Empire level with a brusque “there are some baseball cards” as opposed to taking two minutes and walking us through a brief history of the Mets from 1962 through 2009 (the just-traded Jeff Francouer had been removed and no 2010 card had yet taken his place).
No effort was made to explain the origins of the club, why it plays in Queens, what happened in the parking lot to our left in 1969 and 1986 — she didn’t even bother pointing out the window at the five markers that signify home, first, second, third and the mound.
I have a friend who gave tours of Shea Stadium during the five minutes when tours were given of Shea Stadium, in 1994. He carried a baseball in his pocket. A baseball marked with shoe polish. He then explained its significance, how a ball hit Cleon Jones on the foot and how Gil Hodges proved it with a ball just like this one, and the Mets went on to win their first World Series. Both Gil and my friend used their wits to create and tell Mets history, respectively.
There was little wit served up and no history to be learned on this tour, other than a pool table in the players’ lounge once belonged to the Rolling Stones. The presentation was shoddy, it was shabby and it was largely inaccurate. She carried a script but had clearly memorized only a few random bullet points. Nothing was mentioned of why Citi Field is designed as it is, what ballpark’s architecture inspired it, no “wow!” factoids about how many bricks it took to build the place. Our guide kept telling us there was ample opportunity to sneak into the well-guarded precincts of the Delta 360 Whatever It’s Called Club and other high-end eateries when, in fact, they’d sooner shoot you than not redirect you to where you belong if you’re a peon of the Promenade.
And why do they always think all we want to do is sneak into places?
If you’ve dealt with Citi Field personnel on any kind of going basis, it shouldn’t surprise you to know our tour guide seemed distracted and impatient with having to guide a tour. While she wasn’t rude (and offered to take on-field pictures for anyone who wanted to pose), it was clear this young lady had better things to do on this Sunday than her job. That’s how it is most Sundays at Citi Field when there’s a game. Most other days, too.
Cripes, somebody’s small child needed to use a bathroom. The guide discovered the bathroom where we were standing was locked. Next place we went, same thing. The Mets had not thought to make a single bathroom available even though they had tours going through all day and chances are somebody was going to need to use one. Our group was accompanied by a security guard (because people who pay ten bucks to take a tour of a ballpark must be guarded at all times). Neither the guide nor the guard thought to check in with HQ and ask can we get a key up here for a kid who needs to use a bathroom? That would be going not so much the extra mile but just a lousy ninety feet.
You’ve seen the Mets in action. You know they don’t go an extra ninety feet if they can help it.
We had started in the Rotunda — Jackie Robinson; great American; let’s go upstairs — and we ended in the Rotunda — there’s the museum, knock yourselves out — and that was that. The only employee in the museum was another guard, skulking in silence. You’d think maybe a team that gives tours and brings you to its neato museum at the end would have somebody on duty to answer questions, some kind of resident historian, somebody to enhance the experience.
Yeah, you’d think.
You’d also think this wasn’t possible: During one leg of the tour when we were broken into two mini-groups and had to ride in two separate elevators, the guide’s group (mine) arrived at the next point ahead of the guard’s group. The guide had to ad-lib for a minute or two and seemed flummoxed. She went to a staple of these sorts of events and asked if anybody had any questions. When nobody did at that moment, she continued, “Anybody have any favorite Met memories?”
One man spoke up. Last game at Shea, he said. What an experience, what an unforgettable day, they had to drag me out of that place. The guide warmed to his recollection and agreed yes, sometimes the old ballparks mean the most to us because that’s where we have our memories and…uh…
She didn’t know what else to say, so she asked the same man another question.
“Did the Mets win or lose that game?”
I was the last tour member to leave the museum. I wanted to soak it up, take a few pictures, watch the video (whose script I wrote) in relative peace. I had to be my own historian. I’m a tough crowd on the subject of Mets history, but I honestly wouldn’t have minded somebody else telling me something I didn’t know. As it was, I took it upon myself to answer various and sundry questions the guide and guards couldn’t — including is there an open bathroom around here? Yes, I said, upstairs in the subway station.
When I left, I was genuinely bummed out. What a lousy tour. What a lousy sense of the Met self. They put up this great museum — I’m still shocked at how absolutely on target it is — and they lined the plaza and park and parking lots with those great banners of Met legends. To me, they’re all legends. They don’t have to be superstars. They just had to be Mets.
LIke Marv Throneberry.
Marv’s banner ranks as one of my favorite discoveries of 2010. It was as if somebody with the Mets was paying attention or hadn’t forgotten. Marvelous Marv did not personify Excellence Again and Again or Six Sigma or anything that would mistaken for the Mets’ wanna-be corporate soul of the 21st century. Marv was a Manhattan Met, the ironic idol of the Polo Grounds, he who got cheered despite his epic ineptitude. He got booed, too, but nobody’s perfect, not even a 1962 Mets fan.
The Mets saw fit to put up a banner of Marv Throneberry, the slugger who hit 16 home runs and the first baseman who committed 17 errors. The Met who more famously than any of his expansion teammates could not Play This Game. He was the baserunner who would have had a triple had he chosen to touch bags other than third. He was the fielder for whom rundowns were drills that used live grenades. He was the feller who wasn’t given a piece of birthday cake because Ol’ Case wuz afraid he’d drop it.
Marv Throneberry flies from a lamp post outside Citi Field, and long may he wave.
On this eerily quiet afternoon that followed the dreadfully disappointing tour, I wanted to commune with the first Met folk hero. I wanted to get up close to the Marv Throneberry banner and take its picture. That, I decided, would cheer me up.
Except it turns out Marv’s banner isn’t in just any parking lot. It’s in the players’ parking lot and somebody’s stationed at its entrance to keep you out, even if you explain all you want to do is take a picture of the Throneberry flag. I suppose that sounds weird, but I’m outside the Mets ballpark; it should sound like a perfectly reasonable request.
It wasn’t taken that way.
The guard was cordial, but despite being old enough to have quite possibly guarded Marv Throneberry’s automobile (or even Richie Ashburn’s), he didn’t let me in. “We can’t have David Wright’s car getting scratched up,” he told me.
I couldn’t argue with that logic, even though the last thing I’d want to do is cause harm to an innocent Lincoln. I accepted that this man was just doing his job and walked a few steps away before exploding in that way I have of losing my cool after bottling up my dismay for a few minutes too many.
“THIS PLACE IS RUN LIKE SOME KIND OF FUCKING PRISON!” I said, realizing that was a little over-the-top, considering my problem wasn’t getting out, but getting in. I instantly apologized with my standard “I don’t mean to get mad at you…” but he didn’t seem upset with my outburst. In fact, he kind of nodded in agreement at my assessment of Citi Field’s penitentiary leitmotif. Nevertheless, I would have to take my picture of Marv Throneberry’s banner from a distance, over a chain link fence.
Oh Marv, I thought as I snapped my photo, what’s become of our Mets? In your day they were lovable losers. Now they’re only half of that. Why must they be like this? And I’m pretty sure I could hear him answering back from somewhere beyond that lamp post:
“I still don’t know why they didn’t let you stay in your seat a couple of minutes longer in 1996.”