Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Shea Stadium
HOME TEAM: New York Mets
VISITS: 402 regular-season games, 13 postseason games, 5 rainouts, 2 exhibition games, 1 intrasquad game, 1 card show, 1 concert
FIRST VISITED: July 11, 1973
CHRONOLOGY: 1st of 34
RANKING: 6th of 34
How many Favorite Ballpark lists have you come across that rank Shea Stadium ahead of Fenway Park?
I’m not going for shock value. I’m being true to my heart here. I wrote about Fenway last week and was reminded that despite admiring the hell out of it, it just couldn’t beat Shea. My first Fenway trip came one night after attending my 37th game at Shea. This is great, I thought in Boston, but I like Shea better. As if to confirm that I wasn’t deluding myself, my second Fenway trip took place two nights after attending my 155th game at Shea. Fenway’s still great, but I’d still rather be at Shea.
Neither Shea Game No. 37 nor Shea Game No. 155 was extraordinarily special, but they didn’t have to be. They were Shea.
What did it mean to be at Shea, for me? It meant exciting and it meant comfortable. It meant soothing as much as it meant electric. It meant simple and it meant brilliant.
It meant home.
Actually, in its way, it was better than home. You need a literal home, but you also need a place you just want to be…y’know? Home carries certain responsibilities, not all of them desirable, depending on what else is going on in your life. The place where you just want to be is there for you, free and clear of baggage.
That was my Shea. I sought it out and it accepted me. Every time I needed to be, I could be there.
When it was great, which was usually, I didn’t have to think about it. It was Shea being Shea. When it wasn’t, which was occasionally (and logistically), I could just write it off as, well, there goes Shea being Shea. I didn’t have to make excuses for it. Spend 400-some games with a ballpark, it will eventually explain itself.
Within the context of this countdown, it makes sense that the Dowager Queen from 1912 takes a back seat to our Municipal Mary from 1964. Fenway Park is the absolute best ballpark I’ve been to…of those that didn’t appeal to me as much as Shea did. It was just an instinctive feel. No knock on Fenway (not even with 1986 in our corner). No knock on the parks directly behind Fenway either. I admire the new classics like Pac Bell and Turner and Coors, but as alluring as they were, they couldn’t lure me from Shea if Shea was on one side of the street and one of those modern contrivances was on the other. I loved visiting that which beckoned and glittered, but I could never imagine wanting to stay away from Shea Stadium to spend more time in those places.
I wish I could spend more time at Shea right now. Two seasons of Citi Field haven’t dulled that desire. I’ve only recently managed to automatically go to Citi in my mind when I think “Mets game,” and it’s not instantly automatic. Sometimes it’s still Shea. In November, when I think of baseball, when I think of Mets, I think of orange seats and blue walls and perfect symmetry. I think of the speckles that preceded the 1980 makeover, like sprinkles on the cupcake I just had to take a bite out of the first time I eyed it from the Grand Central. I think of the murmur that began to pulsate with a runner on first and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth, the Mets down a run. I think of the likes of Lenny Harris being showered with plaudits for breaking the career pinch-hit record at the tail end of 2001 because when we speckled Shea, we were sincere in overdoing our appreciation for modest Met accomplishments.
I think of the aforementioned Game 37, from 1985. Rick Aguilera gave up a single in the first and then mowed down Expos inning after inning. When Tim Wallach doubled to lead off the eighth, there was a palpable awww in the stands. My god, we’re disappointed because our pitcher lost his bid for a ONE-HITTER. That felt uniquely Shea to me even though, until the next night, I’d never seen a game anywhere else.
I think of the aforementioned Game 155, a Thursday afternoon in 1999 against the Marlins, an appetizer for my mini-vacation in Boston. Took a half-day from work, barely made my train from Penn Station, got to my seat just after the game started. I remember I had brought an apple. Four-hundred plus games at Shea, and I never did that before or again. But it was lunchtime and I was on a fruit kick. I’m just gonna sit here and eat my apple and wait for the Mets to get the big hit they’ve been getting almost every game lately. One apple, one John Olerud double and one Robin Ventura single later, the Mets took the lead. Mostly I remember the apple, the serenity and the first good thing I ever saw Melvin Mora do. He made a splendid catch near the left field line of a fly ball struck by great-hitting pitcher Liván Hernandez. At the time, Mora was batting .000, so it was good to see him contribute.
Three months later, I’d see Melvin Mora define my favorite Shea Stadium game ever. I think of that, too. I think of the game behind it, Todd Pratt, same year, same month…same week. I think of 1999 when I think of Shea. I think of 2000 and 2006; and 1986 and 1985; and my first game in 1973; and my last game — its last game — in 2008.
I can’t think of all that and not think Shea beats almost everywhere I’ve ever been.
Aside from being my Home Plus (and the permanent repository for my Big Love), Shea serves in this countdown as a true dividing line. It’s No. 6. So you’d have to figure that anything I see fit to place above Shea Stadium would have be to something extraordinary. And by my reckoning, five ballparks fit that description. They are the places that, on their given day, I decided I’d prefer to be instead of Shea.
Imagine that…I’d theoretically cross Roosevelt Avenue and willingly spend a game somewhere besides Shea Stadium. It’s true. It’s not an anti-Shea thing. It’s a ballpark thing. Five ballparks were just that captivating to me. I look forward to sharing my stories from those magical venues starting next week.
In the meantime, I’ll settle in at Shea, if only in my mind.
There were approximately 55,300 seats in Shea Stadium, and it feels like I’ve written that many appreciations of it and tributes to it ever since the announcement of April 6, 2006 that served to herald its death sentence. The following is an excerpt from one of those appreciations and tributes, first published on November 14, 2006.
Whether Shea Stadium is afforded the cachet in death it’s been deprived in life remains to be seen. Its backstory — a municipal stadium situated among the parkways, amenable to several types of events, ideal for none — is 410 feet removed from the musty tatters of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field (former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in case you hadn’t heard). Shea probably won’t be bygone enough in our time to evoke objective wistfulness. The second the Mets can’t gin up nostalgia to sell everything from it that would otherwise go into a Dumpster, they’ll barely mention it. Thus, it’s on those of us who sat in it, stood in it, leaped in it and high-fived in it to give it the round of applause it’s earned…to love it in the present-tense while we still can.
We know the superb and the supernatural have occurred here. You can run down the catechism with minimal prompting, Casey to Mookie, Rocky to Robin, Agee to Endy, Del Unser to Delgado, John Lennon and Paul McCartney to John Maine and Paul Lo Duca (not to mention Jim Bunning to Jeff Suppan…sigh). We all know, too, our own histories: the first time we were brought here as kids; the first or last time we took our loved ones; that time it was so cold or so warm (sometimes in the course of the same week or same game, depending on your ticket); and, oh, that time it was so much fun. Say Shea and you’ve probably said all you need to say to conjure countless memories and umpteen emotions.
What I think is easy to overlook is how well we — counting us as Mets — and it go together. Hell, by the end of Game Six against St. Louis, I couldn’t tell us apart. Where was that corporate vibe that was going to quiet everybody and everything in October because every other fanny in every other seat would belong to a well-connected frontrunner? The place was more alive than I’d ever heard it or felt it. After Billy Wagner put out his final fire of 2006, we were sweating, we were trembling, we were barely able to stand. In other words, we were Shea and Shea was us. In tandem, we were just trying to hang on for one night more than we’d been told we had left.
Into each life a little rain must fall. Rain pours on Shea. Wind howls into it. It was allegedly supposed to be covered by a dome or at least be closed off. It didn’t and it wasn’t. If you believe Robert Caro’s assertion that Shea was Robert Moses’ “answer to the Colosseum of the Caesars,” it was never going to.
Hence, Shea is immune to nothing. Nor are we. We sit outside too long. We sniffle. We hurt. We don’t hold up perfectly in the course of a long year. Our calves go south at the worst possible juncture. Whether we throw or we house or we cheer, we’re all bound to be a little rickety in our forties.
But we are who we are. We don’t march in lockstep. We are not of one mind. We don’t all don navy windbreakers or red caps. We’re a little raggedy around the edges. We are individuals with our own quirks. Half a row loves the Met who’s at bat, the other half is actively demanding he be packed off to Seattle ASAP. The bon mots share vocal space with the You Sucks. We are individuals woven together for common cause. Shea, in that sense, is one of us.
I don’t see a cookie cutter — unless a chunk of cookie got stuck in the pan. Quick, how many other stadia have looked like Shea? Even in the multipurpose ’60s, nobody else mimicked the Colosseum. Credit/blame the vision of master builder Moses or architects Praeger-Kavanaugh-Waterbury or Mayor Wagner for spending $25 million and getting a three-quarters complete facility a year late for New York taxpayers’ money (John Franco, who grew up in the Marlboro Houses of Bensonhurst and knows a little something about such handiwork, suggested anything built by the city wasn’t going to be all that nice). Shea may not measure up to the antiquities its generation replaced in terms of stone originality, but it was also never the Vet or Three Rivers. It was open. It was inviting. It was distinctive, even.
Before the Cardinals built the current Busch Stadium, they toyed with renovating the old one, specifically ripping open the outfield to provide a good glimpse of the Mississippi. Some computer models were worked up, one of which was dismissed by management as looking “too much like Shea Stadium.”
As if that could be a bad thing.
To really get Shea, sit in the Upper Deck, in left field. From high on in Section 36, say, as I did on a July afternoon sever years ago. From there, you see it all. You see why we’re where we’ve been since 1964. You see the lush green Moses yearned to develop into New York City’s premier park…the highways that link to create the heart of the Metropolitan area…the Long Island Rail Road station — “your steel thruway to the Fair gateway,” as it was advertised in the 1964 yearbook — originally opened to usher visitors to baseball over here and Peace Through Understanding over there…the IRT, also known as the 7 train, because, well, this was a City field.
That day, as prelude to Matt Franco zinging Mariano Rivera, I understood as I never did before the great truth of Shea Stadium. It was built for us. It was built for us kids, many of whom had parents who moved east, from Brooklyn, from Queens. It was meant to be our playground, our day care center. “I used to say,” Ron Swoboda once recalled, “that the Mets were the biggest babysitting service in the city.”
We raised a fuss and made a racket, but that was all right because we helped drown out the planes (does anybody even still notice the planes?). There’s a reason, I decided, home plate more or less faced Long Island — Great Neck, maybe — without decisive obstruction. It was gesturing toward us kids to come on over and come on in and come play. It was big but not daunting. It was colorful: yellows, later oranges. It had to be designed for or by children. “Tinker Toy architecture,” George Vecsey described it. The ballpark, like the team, was a gift to us, the kids who toddled out of the early ’60s. Did it have to be left open at one end? Let’s just infer that Mr. Moses and Mr. Wagner simply didn’t finish wrapping it in time for Christmas morning, April 17, 1964, and we were too anxious to wait another minute.
Shea’s youthful exuberance, even in middle age, remains its charm. Where else could have…
…taken off as it did in 2006? Jose Reyes heard those chants in Japan. He said they reminded him of Shea Stadium. So did Manny Acta. So did Ryan Howard, not altogether cheerfully.
That’s how we roll. We’ve never needed ThunderStix. We don’t really require the cues from DiamondVision. We know enough to get out of our chairs and go to the window, as it were. It’s what we do. We brought the ethic of Roger Angell’s “’Go!’ Shouters” over from the Polo Grounds and expanded upon it.
Has there ever been a purer exhortation of faith than LET’S GO METS!? It’s concise without being neat, raucous without being threatening. It can’t be contained, which is why it’s ideal for a horseshoe like Shea. It’s three easy syllables, perfect for the kids and the kid in each of us. The scoreboard need never rev it up again for it to be generated twenty times a game. It rises when we’re hitting and when we’re fielding. It squirts out with nobody on and it rocks the Queens night when the bases are loaded. It’s ours. I’m sure it will survive the trek across the parking lot but I can’t imagine it will ever translate to as much a part of home after 2008.
William A. Shea, the superlawyer whose Continental League machinations led to the formation of the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York (we should really name something after that guy), was a renowned mover and shaker. That makes sense because if you’ve sat in the upper deck for a playoff game, you know it moves and it shakes. I stood still for it in 2000, frozen when I assumed my demise awaited me below, somewhere in the mezzanine. But we survived. When things started quaking again this October, I joined in the jumping. If me adding my full force to a condemned structure couldn’t kill it, what could?
Oh yeah. Progress. We’re back to that.