“This is the train to Woodside and Penn Station,” the Long Island Rail Road conductor informed us as the westbound 11:04 pulled out of Jamaica on Opening Day. “Change at Woodside for Shea.”
Best advice I’d heard since my iPod’s 1986 playlist was telling me twenty minutes earlier to get Metsmerized, get Metsmerized .
Shea the Stadium may have been impossible to find for a fourth consecutive Home Opener, but Shea as eternal psychic home for Mets fans was alive and well as the 2012 season emerged from its interminable 190-day gestation period. When Shea is going on in your head, then Shea as geography — bordered by chop shops to the east, a World’s Fair’s footprint to the south, a landing strip to the north and, for my commuting purposes, Woodside to the west — defies the efforts of dead-on balls accurate cartographers who pretend there is no such place anymore.
Oh, it’s there. To borrow from a now vintage t-shirt  I saw in action Thursday, “I’m Calling It Shea” is best understood as a compliment on a day like Opening Day.
The LIRR conductor was surely speaking the Mets fan dialect as much as he was out of regional habit. I live in a co-op that is a converted school building. I once asked a cab driver to take me there. He had no idea where the address was until I described its location. “Oh, you mean the old school? Why didn’t you say so?” I didn’t say so because it hadn’t been a school for more than twenty years.
Citi Field? I know where that is. It’s at Shea, where we as Mets fans live when we’re not forced to be doing something else. And what on earth was there to do on Opening Day except be a Mets fan, wherever you were?
It was Opening Day long before 1:10 and it stayed Opening Day well after the 2:39 it took for the Mets to stifle the Braves. As there has been no Met baseball played since Frank Francisco zipped strike three past a lunging Jason Heyward, I’m in a mode to think it’s still Opening Day until we get on with the business of the next 161.
When Opening Day works, you don’t let it go so easily. When Opening Day looks promising, you rush headlong onto that train to Woodside. You grab a couple of papers en route because they contain baseball previews. True, they print little that you didn’t already know, but you’re tickled that for a day newspapers again seem the best delivery vehicle for baseball news (especially when every phone in Citi Field drains the battery of every other phone in Citi Field).
You take that conductor’s advice and disembark at Woodside for Shea. You’re up the two flights of stairs for the 7 in as much of a flash as you can manage when you hear the train you need rumbling into the station. Bam, you’re on the local (one of the better ones, apparently ) streaking toward what the MTA insists on referring to as Mets-Willets Point. Is there a ballpark there? Is it surrounded by water, planes, “auto repair” joints and a transparent globe? Then it’s the Shea stop.
You’re there! You’re at Shea! It’s your…let’s see, I was there in 2011 and 2010; not 2009; in 2008 and 2007; not 2006; yes in 2005; not in 2004 or 2003; at the five in a row before then; plus ’96 and ’93…thirteenth Home Opener of your life. Home Opener Number Fonzie! And it’s actual Opening Day at home, the first you’ve been to since 2010 and, before that, 2002. The slate is the cleanest it can be. We’re 0-0. We’ve been 0-0 for 190 days, since the day after we finished 77-85 , but now 0-0 counts for something other than a clever retort to a miserable Spring Training record.
Spring Training? What’s that?
Set loose on the Mets campus, my first stop, of course, was the OUR FIRST DATE brick, right where I left it. It, like its fellow bricks, looks a little more weatherbeaten every time I greet it. Someday it will look like the headstones in colonial-era cemeteries where you have to squint to make out anybody lesser known than, say, “Haym Solomon ”. But I’ll be gone by then, so I won’t get on the Mets for that.
I will get on the Mets for replacing the Jose Reyes banner down the third base line — in the procession of those attached to the ballpark itself — with Mr. Met. I mean, c’mon…Mr. Met? I understand we’re not in the business of promoting Jose Reyes anymore, but I found that tacky 10% from a history standpoint and 90% from “you couldn’t rustle up an Ike or a Dickey to stand in until the distant future when all is forgiven?”
One more Jose-Jose coverup: there’s a gorgeous 50th anniversary insert in the yearbook (the cover of which features every yearbook cover since 1962). Within in its pages, however, Jose Reyes barely exists as part of the Mets’ first half-century. He’s mentioned as one of six Mets to make the 2006 N.L. All-Star team . No mention that he’s the franchise leader in runs scored, bases stolen or triples struck or that he won the Mets’ only batting crown.
I’ll also get on the Mets for not having printed a single pocket schedule in advance of Opening Day. I didn’t see any lying around ticket windows, so I asked at a fan assistance booth. “We’ll have them during the next homestand,” was the cheerful response. No pocket schedules on Opening Day? Did whoever’s in charge of such fundamental Metsiana not realize the season started Thursday? (Perhaps not, because that person had no pocket schedule to consult.)
One final gripelet before I get back to feeling very, very good about the Mets and Opening Day: How long does it take to get a person frisked and wanded? Well in advance of the deluge of this week’s “biggest crowd ever ,” I stood for many minutes between the bag search and the turnstile waiting…waiting…waiting…to receive my requisite once-over. I didn’t want it but I accept it as part of the 21st century Metscape. Nobody seemed to be finding anything dangerous on anyone and no one was putting up a fuss. It was just taking almost forever.
OK, with those observations off my chest (funny how Mets personnel never detect any of that stuff when they feel me up), back to the excitement.
Yay! Opening Day!
After the brick, it was time — once I paid my own personal homage to Gary Carter by tapping my brand new 50th Anniversary cap on his old home plate — to make my perennial pilgrimage to Parking Lot E for the serious Chapman tailgate extravaganza. The Chapmans, truly the first family of Mets fans, are lighthearted; it was their annual soiree that was serious. There was so much to eat that you (or, more specifically, I) didn’t have to eat very much to feel nourished. And that was just the food. The soul derived its RDA of protein from being around such nice folks on such a nice day in such a nice spot (Section 12, if I have my Shea ghost fixed correctly). Here’s to incredibly hospitable people who make the Mets look good by choosing to associate with them as loyal customers.
The walk back to Mets Plaza to seek out my favorite Rotunda entrance security guard (a mensch among men) had a surprise in it for me. Passing through Lot D, I drifted to last August, when our family — me and Stephanie in the unprecedented company of Mr. and Mrs. Stem  — took its one and only shot at baseball togetherness. We parked in Lot D and then proceeded to watch the Mets fall way behind the Brewers, surge comfortably ahead of the Brewers and, finally, lose in disgusting fashion to the Brewers. Somehow, despite Mr. and Mrs. Stem (my brother-in-law and sister) proving again their allergy to the game I love is untreatable and, oh yeah, the disgusting fashion of losing, that day, August 20, remains my favorite Citi Field memory of 2011.
And by Citi Field, I mean Shea. When it can all feel of a piece, I’m very happy.
Then I noticed the Jose-Mr. Met banner switch, and I was annoyed. Then I saw my favorite security guard had a short line, and I was happy. Then I waited and waited and waited for the wanding, and I was annoyed. The Mets giveth, the Mets taketh away. But I got given my wanding, my ticket-scanning, my surprisingly sincere-sounding greeting from the fellow with the scanner — “welcome back” — and my magnetic schedule (which I’ll obviously need until the next homestand) before buying my slightly Soviet yearbook and scorecard, the latter of which hyped the April series against the Marlins as bringing to town “one of the biggest fan favorites in Mets history”. Long lines for the store made knickknack shopping prohibitive, but the museum had space, so I detoured in there.
Good choice. I wish the museum was bigger but the 50th anniversary is receiving a representative exhibition there all season. The two additions that thrilled me to my Met core were a couple of seats from the Polo Grounds and the plaque from the exterior of Shea Stadium, the one that let all New Yorkers know the identities of the city officials they could thank for the 1964 construction of WILLIAM A. SHEA MUNICIPAL STADIUM. I used to stop at that plaque regularly on my stroll from the 7 extension to Gate E. I’d wondered where it went. I’m glad it’s on the premises again.
Oh, and blue. Blue walls. Beautiful blue walls. With an orange stripe to avoid or perhaps inflame complications should Jason Bay get a little closer to not quite hitting one out. The outfield fence now appears a Metsier shade of blue than even Shea showed off. Sometimes progress functions brilliantly if you wait long enough.
Once in my seat in the right field Promenade Boxes — h/t once more to the Chapmans and their recognition of Opening Day as the Metropolitan holiday it deserves to be — I soaked in the full blue of the walls as they stood against their repurposed black backdrop. No, it doesn’t quite flow aesthetically , but I relish realizing Citi Field has been around long enough to have a past. The black walls that are no longer the outer limits of the outfield declare 2009 through 2011 were here. They were lousy years, mostly, but they existed. The Mets attempted their first post-Shea iteration, none of it worked, and now everybody’s trying to make some sort of amends. The outfield has been scaled to human-sized, the color has been fine-tuned to correspond with the Met palette and a little more is right with the world. I feared the seven postseason banners that so overjoyed me when they were added to the erstwhile Great Wall of Flushing in August 2009  would be “misplaced,” but I saw them faux-fluttering in the breeze on the third base side.
Good job, Mets. If I had a pocket schedule, I’d circle a date to come back ASAP.
Then the old shoe slipped on and the ceremonies I lust after every late March/early April commenced. Alex Anthony introduced Howie Rose. Howie Rose directed our attention to Bill Shea’s progeny (and aren’t we all essentially children of Shea?) and their presentation of the good-luck floral horseshoe WHICH…I…LOVE!. Then came the Braves. I spitefully jeered Fredi Gonzalez, the world’s worst manager, reluctantly put my hands together for pitching coach Roger McDowell (“homophobe ,” I muttered) and stood to applaud Chipper Jones — while simultaneously booing him. Both gestures were offered out of respect.
When the Mets began lining up, Ray Ramirez heard an echo of the clever derision he took as head trainer two years ago for the injury-racked fiasco of three years ago. It’s not as clever anymore (though there’s always something to be said for tradition). The only Met I booed was bench coach Bob Geren, and I didn’t boo him for being Bob Geren. I booed him for being assigned No. 7.
Some booed Mike Pelfrey. Some booed Jason Bay. Some booed Frank Francisco. All who did were not using their heads. Cheer your Mets when the season starts. Encourage them so maybe they will succeed beyond your wildest boos. It’s just simple math, for cryin’ out loud.
Howie Rose introduced Ralph Kiner to introduce the starting lineup. That was simple poetry.
The Gary Carter tribute was absolutely beautiful, though one wishes it was unnecessary. “KID 8” on the blue wall, revealed by his wife and three children, was a perfect flourish. The four first pitches to the four Carter teammates was sweet, too. I suppose it’s the job of every 1986 Met to fill in as catcher from now on.
But nobody has to fill in as Mets ace in 2012. I don’t think I realized just how much I missed seeing Johan Santana in a Mets uniform. I knew I didn’t realize how much I’d love hearing “Smooth” again. I’ve been sick of that song  since the end of the last millennium, but for a healthy Johan Santana, I’d gladly hear it 35 times this year.
Because he’s so smooth.
As the other Santana played on the PA and the real Santana warmed up, it was Shea again as far as I was concerned. It was that last unabashedly great date in Mets history , September 27, 2008. Has it really been that long since we saw Johan pitch? Of course it hadn’t been. He pitched a whole bunch of games for us in 2009 and 2010 — the man even hit a home run for us two Julys ago . But that’s how big the recurrence of Johan Santana felt shortly after 1:10 PM on Opening Day 2012. It was like he’d been as hard to find as Shea Stadium.
Just as was the case on 9/27/08, Johan didn’t give up any runs. No Met pitcher has this year, not even the unreasonably booed Frank Francisco. I mean, yeah, I had the same “here comes every Mets closer of the past two decades” thoughts as he warmed up (to, strangely, Todd Rundgren’s “Bang On The Drum All Day,” which sounds like a dare to opposing batters), but it’s Opening Day, and on Opening Day, no new Met is to be pre-emptively dismissed. I couldn’t even hold it against Ronny Cedeño that when it was announced, “Now playing second base, number thirteen…” I shivered in anticipation that the Mets had re-signed 38-year-old Edgardo Alfonzo without telling me.
A 1-0 Opening Day win is always uplifting, no matter how many innings it requires. Jason and I high-fived as we did at the conclusion of the last 1-0 Opening Day win , gave our best wishes to Section Chapman and ambled down the stairs, good old “Let’s Go Mets!” providing a rousing 1998-style soundtrack to our journey (though fourteen years, fourteen innings and fourteen ramps earlier, “Let’s Go Mets!” shared vocal space with “Yankees SUCK!”).
Moments after we parted ways, I met up, as arranged via text before my phone’s battery gave out, with my non-biological sister/2007 Opening Day  co-frostbitee Jodie and her own very friendly entourage. We attempted to avail ourselves of one of the many fine clubs Citi Field offers as a perk to holders of tickets like the ones they held. The only one of them open after the game was Caesars, and Caesars’ long bar wasn’t pouring anything by then. “They’re turning down revenue?” Jodie wondered. Indeed, a few postgame drinks could have paid the printers’ bill for at least a few pocket schedules, but who needed a cocktail when you remained intoxicated by a 1-0 win?
Left dry, we let the win wash over us anyway, until the Caesars staff told us (courteously) to take a hike. So I did. After another round of upbeat goodbyes, I carefully packed up Opening Day and transported as much of it as I could from the environs of Shea, onto the 7 and off to Sunnyside to meet my lovely wife for a celebratory supper. Following a steady stream of Stephanie’s colleagues congratulating me as unofficial Mets proxy, we decided to Discover Queens a little, walking from her office back to Woodside. Along the way, random Queensians reminded us — it wasn’t tough to discern by my garb where I’d been all afternoon — what a swell Thursday we all had just experienced in this blessed borough.
“Hey! The Mets won!”
“Hey! The Mets are one and oh!”
“Hey! The Mets are in first place!”
Hey! You can tell me that until the sun goes down on Opening Day, clear into the scheduled off day Friday, right up to 1:10 Saturday. We took the first game in nine tidy innings, but really, who wants a day like that to be over so soon?