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Carry On My Sheaward Son

At last, I get the picture. (Photo by Andrew Richter) [1]

At last, I get the picture. (Photo by Andrew Richter)

Welcome to FAFIF Turns Ten, the long dormant milestone-anniversary series in which we consider anew some of the topics that defined Mets baseball during our first decade of blogging. In this, the tenth of ten installments, we make one last trip to our spiritual home.

Last week, I was taking the LIRR to the Mets game, which for me ultimately involves a change at Woodside, which sometimes involves a change at Jamaica. I’m generally on top of the changes that are involved, but sometimes a conductor looks at my ten-trip ticket — which identifies my destination as Penn Station — and asks if I’m staying on all the way to the end.

“I’m going to Shea,” I say. I always say that if a Mets game is involved. It’s been my own little act of defiance for seven seasons when there is no Shea to go to. It usually sounds good coming out of my mouth and going in my ear. Shea, I like to say, is a state of mind that transcends a demolished physical plant. Mets-Willets Point is bureaucratic and cumbersome. Citi Field is free advertising. Shea is Shea.

I change at Jamaica. I change at Woodside. But I don’t change so easily otherwise.

Yet when I said, “I’m going to Shea,” on Monday night, September 21, 2015, it didn’t sound right at all. It sounded out like I got on the wrong train in the wrong year. It momentarily confused the conductor. It may have permanently broken me of my habit.

So here, on this particular ride, for what I’m pretty sure will be the last time, I’m going to Shea. I’m certain it will come up in conversation again, but never again will I head there so purposefully.

***

You remember Shea, don’t you?

“…[A] picturesque, elaborate and once widely celebrated establishment. I expect some of you will know it. It was offseason, and by that time decidedly out of fashion, and it had already begun its descent into shabbiness and eventual demolition.”

Wes Anderson did not write the above paragraph to describe Shea Stadium, circa 2008, but he could have. Our Grand Budapest Hotel [2] of a ballpark was doomed. We still visited, but we wouldn’t for much longer. But I kept going long after 2008, at least in my mind and on these pages. It was my default setting for where to find Mets baseball, past and stubbornly present.

Lately I don’t go there so much. It’s not too crowded.

Directors love referring to their settings as “another character” in their movies. Sometimes the locale for their story is as important as any actual character, but I guess they have to stop short of saying that so as not to offend their human actors.

I don’t have such concerns, thus I can say that the primary non-autobiographical character in the first decade-plus in the life of this blog to date, certainly from my perspective, was Shea Stadium. Even though it’s a place. Even though it ceased to serve as an actual setting for Mets baseball seven years ago tonight [3]. Even though its last physical traces were swept from the landscape more than six years ago.

Shea defined the stories I sought to tell for the first four years of Faith and Fear. It informed the subtext of much of what I wrote in the six years that followed. It lingered prominently in my Met consciousness until fairly recently, when I came to accept once and for all that it’s not coming back.

Which, at last, I’m fine with. Hence, to Shea I say a belated good night. Figuratively, emotionally, whatever.

It was hard to miss Shea’s literal lights-out on September 28, 2008, and the christening of its successor facility come April 13, 2009, wasn’t exactly conducted secretly, so, y’know, I got the memo. Still, there was something about the latter days of Shea that wouldn’t let go of me.

Factors that contributed to Shea Stadium’s continued hold on my psyche well into 2015:

1) Citi Field’s incognito phase, during which your guess was as good as anybody’s as to who played home games there.

2) Citi Field’s inability to sustain excitement.

3) The Mets’ inability to generate sustainable excitement inside Citi Field.

4) The relative recency of 2008 even as 2009 became 2010, and 2010 became 2011, and chronologically so on. (When a person passes a certain age, the use of “a few years ago” can mean anything from a few to a whole lot.)

5) Video footage from 2008 appearing a damn sight clearer and crisper than the film clips of 1963. If Shea Stadium at the end wasn’t all grainy and splotchy like the Polo Grounds apparently was, how is it possible that it was not still standing?

6) MSG repeatedly showing The Last Play At Shea and Live At Shea Stadium, wherein Billy Joel performs, crowds cheer and surely Paul McCartney is returning for one more encore. Like game action from 2008, but more so, it looked, sounded and felt far too contemporary to have taken place in a building long gone.

7) Wishful thinking. As predicted here [4], Shea Stadium grew in stature after its demise. Those who didn’t care for it had nothing to complain about. Those who figured they’d miss it didn’t stop missing it, and since there’s no antidote to absence, they…we were more than happy to invest it with supreme qualities it probably wouldn’t contain if it were still around.

8) Symbolism. Shea Stadium was where we had fun. Ergo, it was always fun and nothing but fun. It was where Joan Payson and Nelson Doubleday bought us whatever we needed and Tom Seaver pitched two-hit shutouts every other day while Darryl Strawberry went deep daily and K’s fluttered from above as Doc Gooden struck out side after side and Mike Piazza never, ever grounded into a double play and the Sign Man offered wry commentary and Jane Jarvis led us in the Mexican Hat Dance and Rheingold was on the house and each and every one of us was a guest on Kiner’s Korner, where we quipped with Bud Harrelson about our winning Banner Day entry that praised Ron Swoboda to high heavens. Oh, and it was always packed. We are more than happy to invest Shea Stadium with supreme qualities it displayed sometimes, maybe ofttimes, but, let’s be honest, not all the time.

Our happiest recaps remain the ones we’ve constructed in our mind. Those are the ones that refuse to be dismantled by demolition machinery. That’s OK. We are the sentimental ones.

***

“I’ve crossed that fine line from theoretical home stretch to the beginning of the end of the line. This is no longer a drill. This is no longer me thinking about what it will be like at the end of Shea Stadium. This one’s for real, I already bought the dream. I can stop having little fits of emotion late at night and during the day and on the train listening to the wrong song on my iPod. I can quit wondering whether I am going to miss Shea as much as I say I will or if I’m just saying that because I think I should miss Shea that much.”

With a little help from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker [5], I wrote those words [6] on September 26, 2008, two days before the final game. I was a wreck as the end encroached. So, on some level, were the Mets. They were in the midst of playing a final week of home games to determine if there would be any more to immediately follow. As someone said into a movie camera a couple of nights before, “We are hoping that this year will be different. Maybe one more day, one more night, you’ll be in Shea Stadium, and thinking, y’know, maybe this is the year we win a World Series.”

Actually, that was me, too, for ten seconds in The Last Play At Shea [7], which came out in 2010, two years after Shea did not give us one more day, one more night, let alone another World Series. During a drought-conscious period in the early 1980s, you’d see a sign by the picnic area that said, “Well Water Used,” assuring anybody interested that Shea was kept green via environmentally responsible methods. By the end, though, Shea’s well of magic ran dry a game short of extending its stay on the active roster. On September 27, Johan Santana worked wizardry. On September 28, everybody returned to mortal. A final pitch from Matt Lindstrom was lofted by Ryan Church into the glove of Cameron Maybin, and there went 45 seasons. One all too brief procession of Met immortals later, that was that. Shea was done.

Now what?

***

In the middle of June 2015, it occurred to me I had just reached the 40th anniversary of my sixth-grade graduation. It was probably the first rite of passage I went through conscious that I was experiencing it. All I had known for six scholastic seasons was elementary school. Junior high awaited on the other side of summer.

I remember my reaction after leaving the ceremonies with my family. “I am finally done with this!” I shouted on the way to the car, not really pausing to think, “Now what?” All I had known would no longer be accessible to me. When I arrived in seventh grade in September, roaming the same hallways with supersized eighth- and ninth-graders, it was a whole other world and not an easily inhabitable one. I was one of the big kids in sixth grade. I had tenure. I was somebody. Groping to get a grip on seventh grade in the fall of ’75, I had never felt quite so small.

Maybe that transition informed my reluctance to exult that I’m Finally Done with certain phases of my life. Maybe that’s why when All I Had Known Stadium was being taken away from me, I hesitated to embrace the unknown. Besides, it wasn’t my idea to take my educational business to Long Beach Junior High School; somebody said I had to go.

That’s how it felt with Citi Field.

Home is where the Mets are, I tried to tell myself, but Citi Field took forever to feel that familiar.

***

Seventh grade was harrowing for the first couple of months, but eventually I got used to junior high (though I was perfectly happy to skedaddle to high school when tenth grade rolled around). 2009 was an awful season, even if it wasn’t exactly Citi Field’s fault the Mets lost 92 games. But Citi Field wasn’t helping, either. It was built, I suppose, as a counterpoint to Shea. If Shea was symmetrical, Citi Field had kooky angles. If Shea could hold 56,000 people, Citi Field would limit its seating by a quarter as much. If Shea was referred to, lovingly and otherwise, as a dump, Citi Field would be presented as “world-class,” with exclusive club upon exclusive club wherein the favored could accumulate points in their Infrequent Rewards program.

It was like Shea and night.

In my bones, I hated that first year at Citi Field, a facility that wasn’t my idea, which only served to make Shea a paradise lost in retrospect. A paradise of puddles, perhaps, but in the heart, you don’t notice the standing pools of water.

I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, apparently. You could hear the longing in people’s voices and eventually you could see it on people’s chests. The creators of the I’M CALLING IT SHEA [8] t-shirt were nice enough to send me a couple of their signature items in ’09, which I was happy to wear, even if it never occurred to me call Citi Field Shea. I appreciated the sentiment. Those items were a fairly common renegade sight in those pre-7 Line days. I don’t see them worn out and about much anymore, but I occasionally slip mine on, mostly because it’s blue, orange and fits. To this day, whether I’m modeling it at Citi Field or anywhere else, I’M CALLING IT SHEA elicits more comments than any other t-shirt I own. The reaction is universally approving, usually with an addendum:

“I miss that place.”

I don’t know how it worked in other places, if Vet diehards couldn’t cotton to Citizens Bank Park, if the Three Rivers loyalists found fault with PNC, if there was a prevailing sense that Turner Field could never truly replace Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I do know that Shea kept getting better in the popular imagination the more it wasn’t there. I do know that Facebook groups sprang up to celebrate its every waking moment from 1964 to 2008. I do know that Shea became synonymous with Mets in a good way during the post-2008 years that Mets became synonymous with all kinds of unflattering adjectives.

Citi Field had no shot of winning if the Mets had no shot of winning. Shea couldn’t lose if there was no game today.

***

There’s a worm-turned moment coming in all of this; you just know there is. And you probably suspect it has something to do with the Mets being very, very good in 2015. It’s the logical conclusion. The Mets stopped being bad, and the author steps back and says, say, this joint ain’t so bad after all. Cue roar of the crowd, then a time jump to April 2016 where an eighth postseason banner (contents TBD) is affixed to the left field facing of the Excelsior level. Lesson learned: home is indeed where the Mets are.

OK, you can use that if you need to get going, but it wasn’t quite as simple as Wilmer Flores sockin’ that ball and making everything all right when it landed over the wall. Besides, this isn’t about Citi Field. This is still about Shea, Shea for the last time.

But we do have to go through Citi Field to get to Shea, and we have to do so when Citi Field is at arguably its worst. When it’s not world-class. When no gourmet burger can fix what’s wrong. It’s far more vexing a problem than any Upper Deck puddle ever was.

On the first night of July in 2015, I encounter standing pools of apathy. It’s the Mets and the Cubs and a stunning lack of offense. Nobody scores for ten innings. Ruben Tejada reaches third in the eighth but gets himself thrown out on a screwy squeeze gone awry. In the eleventh, the Cubs begin to successfully peck away. A walk, an out, three singles…a run.

Then chants.

“Let’s Go Cubs!”
“Let’s Go Cubs!”
“Let’s Go Cubs!”

And there is only faint retaliation. Little booing, little Let’s Go Mets-ing. This wasn’t one of those ballpark takeovers, mind you. The Cubs fans were not all over the place as the Giants fans have come to be on San Francisco’s annual trip in. There were enough— a.k.a. too many — of them, but not an infestation. It wasn’t the Victor Diaz game from 2004 when you understood the parameters — Cubs in a race, Mets nowhere near one — and could deal with the disproportionate cheers from the visiting fans (and truly relish Victor Diaz and Craig Brazell making it their game by the end). This was a light crowd to begin with, made lighter by the late hour, and now it was, as measured by volume, more a Cubs crowd than a Mets crowd.

Maybe it’s because I was at the game with my friend Mark Mehler, a Mets fan from when the Mets were aiming to overtake the Cubs in another July, that this really got to me. It didn’t help that these Mets, for all their inability to score, were still technically in a race on July 1, 2015. They were 3½ behind the Nationals entering the night’s action. At the same juncture of the 1969 schedule, through 78 games, the Mets were 7½ behind Chicago. Here we were, in contention, but nobody of a Met nature seemed to care or take it seriously enough to jeer the joyous Cubs fans into quietude.

Was there a single Cubs fan at Shea Stadium in July of 1969?

What’s happened to us? I wondered. How did it get this bad? This never would have happened at Shea. Of course it did happen at Shea. Just two paragraphs ago I mentioned the Victor Diaz game. That day Shea was two-thirds Cubs fans, but like I said, there was nothing on the line for the Mets that day. Here we were midway through 2015, making great strides, thanks to our pitching, yet in our home ballpark, it might as well have been some play-out-the-string September. The Mets would lose, 2-0, in eleven, but not lose ground because Washington didn’t win. The Nationals would have been doing us a mighty favor, I thought, if they’d just get on their inevitable winning streak and put us definitively away.

I was back at Citi Field about twelve hours later, at the gracious invitation of another friend, Brian Sokoloff, who had also asked Andrew Richter along. Andy is a gifted photographer who expressed his gratitude by bringing Brian a print of one of the photos he took from a series he’s particularly proud of. He documented the demolition of Shea Stadium. The pictures are haunting (I have a set of my own, thanks to the artist). It was a difficult subject matter for Andy to approach, but he said he felt it needed to be done.

“[T]his building was the first place I was allowed to be myself, and it was OK,” Andy has written on his Web site [9]. “It is in this building where I became a man. Facing its death was depressing. Documenting its death was cathartic.”

The Mets didn’t score much during my game with Brian and Andy, either. The fact that they scratched out one run was cause for mock celebration [10]. The Cubs would win this one, too, 6-1, Jake Arrieta excelling and Jacob deGrom fizzling. On the 7 to Woodside afterwards, I listened to giddy Cubs fans chatting it up as if the next stops were Belmont, Fullerton and North/Clybourn [11], and wondered if any other Mets fans were as innately offended as I was. The Cubs — our ancient rivals — waltz into Flushing and sweep three from the Mets and nobody does anything about it. Nobody beats them on the field, nobody menaces them on the train. Seven years into Citi Field’s existence, we are practically invisible in the shadow of our own ballpark.

I wanted to feel heartbroken that we’d been swept a terribly frustrating series in the midst of what the standings insisted was a pennant race, but I was incapable of feeling anything that deep about the Mets anymore.

If Citi Field didn’t care, why should I?

The line “Worst 24 Hours in Mets History” would be used toward the end of July to describe the time period encompassing the embarrassing spectacle surrounding the non-trade of Wilmer Flores and Zack Wheeler for Carlos Gomez and the twice rain-delayed ninth inning in which Jeurys Familia blew a save to the San Diego Padres [12], but for me, the night of July 1 and the afternoon of July 2 took the rancid cake. Those represented my worst 24 hours in Mets history…since 2008, at any rate.

***

Pictures and their capacity to say a thousand words put a crimp in my stock-in-trade. The picture Andy brought to Citi Field of Shea in its state of dismantlement spoke volumes to me. It stayed with me after July 2. Brian had posted it on Facebook and I kept looking at it there. I went back and looked at my own copy. When Andy had shown his work to me before, as early as April of 2012 at Hofstra [13] and as recently as March of 2015 at Foley’s [14], it was too painful, too fresh for me to fully appreciate. I had to look away. If Andy had shown it to me inside Citi Field before July 2, I might have called security. It was the wrong place and the wrong time for such an egregious exhibition.

Now that I was firmly convinced Citi Field would never care like Shea did, somehow Shea meeting its end looked right. Yes, Shea was gone. I had known it as a reality for seven years, but still sort of expected and wished for it to magically arise from the Citi Field parking lot every game I went to.

Dude, I said to myself somewhere in early July, that’s just not gonna happen.

With no particular fanfare, just the slow dawning of realization, I laid Shea Stadium to rest. The video clips suddenly didn’t look like they were shot yesterday. The pictures on Facebook appeared historical in nature. The I’M CALLING IT shirt stays in the drawer because it fits (physically as well as spiritually), but it no longer feels like a subversive rallying cry. It’s just a sweet curio from another time. SNY recently debuted a series of highlight shows called Amazin’ Finishes, the first three episodes of which featured great Mets games from 2006, 2007 and 2008. Anywhere between 2009 and 2015, something like that would have taunted me. I’d be diving into the television so I could sit in those orange or blue or green or red seats again, in a place where baseball mattered, in a place where the Mets were real.

Instead, it was just to fun to watch because it was the Mets and stuff. It was from a long time ago.

Sometime during the summer, we moved some furniture around our living room. A couple of slightly dog-eared pocket schedules appeared, one from ’07, one from ’08, previously prime fodder for fiercely protected nostalgia, the kind of trigger that would get me angry all over again that somebody switched stadia on me. Now? The schedules could have been from any old years. More fun Mets stuff to peruse and briefly dwell on — whatever became of Popcorn Night? — but not something worth taking to another level of separation pains.

The boldest sign of the times? It can be found in my Log, the steno notebook in which I record the results of every game I go to. From almost the beginning, the competitive contents of The Log II — the Citi Field edition — were outpacing the original, the one from the Shea days. For all my missing of Shea and lukewarmth toward its successor, the Mets had been doing much better for me at Citi Field on a game-by-game basis. For example, after a hundred games at Shea, my record was 46-54; at Citi Field, it was 66-34. I prefer the Mets to win the games I go to anywhere, but I found it atonal to have sustained better luck at the place whose existence I persisted in resenting.

The gap has been closing for a while now. It closed so much, it reversed. After 207 lifetime regular-season games at Citi Field, I’m 117-90. After 207 lifetime regular-season games at Shea? 118-89. Shea has retaken the lead on Citi…and I take no pleasure in it.

I really have moved on.

***

The 2015 Mets season is on the verge of being remembered widely and fondly for many wonderful things. For me, it will be at least in part about the summer a hazy Shea of winter finally dissipated. There will now and then be flareups of private nostalgia. There will inevitably be a pang to take refuge in the Mezzanine, as if you can always go back to the green. In a matter of days, it will strike many of us as useful to have maintained a seating capacity that includes 14,000 more chairs, and 14,000 or more of us will wish that additional seating had indeed been preserved for an October like the one suddenly on tap.

Yet Shea Stadium has finally stopped being present in my mind because it’s no longer present in the present. I still love Shea for what it was. I can’t love Shea for what it is. It’s not there anymore. A season like this and the postseason ahead, whether or not you change at Woodside, belong to Citi Field. The torch has been passed to a new configuration.

Citi Field is still a ballpark that kind of dares you to embrace it as your own, but it is there. It is where the Mets are. It is where the Mets are winning. It is home. You can’t fight Citi Field. Nor do I care to any longer.

The summer of 2015 was also when the New Horizons space probe, which launched in 2006, finally reached the general vicinity of Pluto. It happened during the All-Star break, which may be why I noticed. That journey took nine years, or as long as it’s been since the Mets last orbited October. My journey from leaving Shea to saying goodbye to Shea took only seven.

When you rely on the Long Island Rail Road, it’s difficult to travel at the speed of Dwight.