- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Last Played at Shea

Late spring is the time to see Gil Hodges work. Not summer. Then heat sits on the cylinder of Shea Stadium and a baseball season, like New York summer, grinds down strong men.
—Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

Citi Field is entering its twelfth season. Children no longer eligible for whatever discounts being under twelve gets their parents will be charged full price this year, which means there are about to be people alive who are not all that small who weren’t alive when Shea was. Eighteen-year-olds — adults — going to the polls for the first time in November will do so with no more than the foggiest personal memories of Shea if any.

Conceptually frightening, isn’t it?

Suddenly, Shea Stadium is chronologically distant. Suddenly, ballplayers who debuted after Shea came down are announcing their retirements after reasonably lengthy and distinguished careers. Veteran David Freese won a World Series MVP and made the last out in the first Mets no-hitter. He started in 2009, a year after Shea ended, and called it quits following 2019, a decade after Citi Field began. Same basic situation for veteran Jeremy Hellickson, 2011 AL Rookie of the Year. He just said goodbye to baseball on Saturday, citing a shoulder injury too tough to overcome.

You may have noticed during the not horribly long though certainly long enough baseball winter that Curtis Granderson, who broke in with the Tigers in 2004, retired. In Met terms, Grandy may have been, except for batting average, his generation’s John Olerud, a lifelong American Leaguer who spent a few years in our midst and made himself one of ours as if he’d been a Met all along. You couldn’t help but embrace Curtis, the people’s choice whose presence coincided with an upsurge in franchise fortunes. When we think of the first great things to happen to the Mets as a team at Citi Field, from 2015 and 2016, we’ll picture Curtis Granderson in the middle of most of the images.

Upon learning that he was hanging ’em up, I closed my eyes and tried to see Grandy at Shea, the way I know some others who’ve retired this past offseason (Brian McCann, CC Sabathia, Ian Kinsler, Martin Prado) could say they played there as opponents. I thought he might have been there for a weekend in 2004, or at least hoped he was. Not that it really mattered, but wouldn’t have that been a lovely grace note to slip into our reminiscences of Curtis? You know, that time he came in with the Tigers for an Interleague series, getting a sense of New York’s better baseball half and then expressing it nearly a decade later when he said, “A lot of the people I’ve met in New York have always said true New Yorkers are Mets fans. So I’m excited to get a chance to see them all out there.”

Alas, Granderson didn’t make his major league debut until September 13, 2004, about three months after the Tigers were swept out of Shea Stadium, so it’s likely Curtis met those people in New York while he was a Yankee from 2010 through 2013. We’re glad he kept his ears and mind open once he became a free agent, yet we’re a little sorry he wasn’t with Detroit when the Mets took three from his first club in June of ’04. It would make a swell story that much sweeter.

The world isn’t wanting for those who knew first-hand what being in, perhaps playing in Shea Stadium was all about. I’m here. You’re here. We know Shea from its Upper Deck down to its Field Level and its Loge and Mezzanine in between. We’ll be around to tell anybody who as much as feigns interest what it was like. It’s our nature as baseball fans. I attend meetings of the New York Giants Preservation Society and regularly hear recollections of what it was like to sit in the Polo Grounds and strain to see the action. Few had a great view and nobody would trade the experience for anything.

To have seen a game at the Polo Grounds and remember it well enough to tell somebody something tangible about in 2020, you’d have to be topping 65; to make it a baseball game that didn’t involve the Mets, you’re talking 70. Longevity might not be a ballpark’s best friend, but actuarial tables fortunately provide ample space for fans hailing from venues long gone. If you were a kid at a Giants game as late as 1957, or a Mets game in ’62 or ’63, you’ve hopefully got a ways to go.

If you played for the Giants in the Polo Grounds, you’re not alone these days, but it’s getting close. Gil Coan, a Giants outfielder for 13 games in 1955 and 1956 — and a stalwart for the Washington Senators in the eight seasons following World War II — died on February 5. He was 97 and, until his passing, the oldest living New York Giant. There were seventeen New York Giants still with us at the dawn of this decade. Now there are sixteen. That will happen.

If you played for the Mets at Shea Stadium, nobody’s counting who’s still with us, except in the active player sense. That’s a cohort that’s been necessarily dwindling since the day the 2009 major league season opened without the likes of Moises Alou, Trot Nixon and Damion Easley, among other 2008 Mets who never made it into another major league game. It’s only in very recent years that the count of former Mets continuing careers that date to the Shea days has required no more than a single hand.

On January 16, Carlos Gomez removed a finger from our figuring, announcing his retirement from baseball effective at the end of the Dominican Winter League season. Winter is over, as is Carlos’s career. We got one good last look at the blur that was Gomez in 2019 when he briefly injected a little life into our outfield in May and June. Carlos Gomez homered twice as a Met at Citi Field a dozen years after homering once as a Met at Shea Stadium, making him the last to achieve such a delayed daily double.

When Gomez returned to the Mets, he was one of four onetime Mets to have made a mark at Shea Stadium still plying his craft in the bigs. With Gomez joining Granderson on the retired list — call it a complete game for a couple of guys initialed CG — we are down to three currently under contract to play somewhere in the big leagues in 2020: Oliver Perez, Joe Smith and Daniel Murphy (a fourth who played last year, Jason Vargas, remains a free agent). When they made their respective Met debuts in 2006, 2007 and 2008, Perez, Smith, and Murphy were what we refer to as kids. Today they are bona fide veterans. Perez of the Indians will be 38 on Opening Day; Smith of the Astros will be 36; Murphy of the Rockies turns 35 the first week of the season.

That will also happen.

If you want to talk about Shea and upper-case Veterans, you have to start with a name that spanned Queens ballparks proudly. Astoria’s own Luke Gasparre came to work at Shea Stadium in 1964, not quite twenty years after he fought for his country in the Battle of the Bulge. He left in 2008. Same exact tenure Shea had, except Mr. Gasparre, an usher in 109 who removed a “56” from the left-center field wall in Ol’ Blue’s final year, kept going, directly across the parking lot to Citi Field, where he would hold forth for another decade at the intersection of 310 and 311, on Excelsior. Luke kept greeting fans with the best of cheer clear through to the final weekend of the 2018 season. His last game came the same day as Jose Reyes’s, the afternoon after David Wright’s. Three legends who earned varying degrees of fame [1] from what they did to make two fields of dreams all the more memorable. Luke Gasparre died on February 13 at age 95. If you showed him your ticket or simply exchanged hellos, you had a great day in Flushing.

Gasparre was in his second year at Shea when Paul McCartney and his mates John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr first came around. McCartney, a lad of 77, still gets around plenty. A couple of Sundays ago the Cute One was spotted at Hard Rock Stadium (formerly Joe Robbie and every other name under the sun — and the final NFL stadium to have once regularly hosted baseball) watching Patrick Mahomes, a gent of 24, leading the Kansas City Chiefs to their first Super Bowl championship in a half-century. How nice, I thought, to see such a distinguished pair in the same place, given their Shea Stadium backgrounds. Of course we recognize Paul from Beatlesque appearances in 1965, 1966 and 2008, the last of those sitting in with Billy Joel. As for Patrick, who didn’t swoon at the archival sight of the quarterback as a child shagging flies [2] in the shadow of Mike Hampton as the Mets prepared themselves for the 2000 World Series? Talk about a Cute One! Mets fans found themselves feeling good for a Kansas City professional sports enterprise not five years after the Royals wrecked our autumn in 2015 because, hey, that’s Pat Mahomes’ boy! The elder Mahomes soaked up some valuable innings for us right before and right after the century turned. We’ll be loyal for something like that if you catch us in a Super enough mood.

(For the record, Larry “Chipper” Jones’s son Shea has not played in a Super Bowl. Also for the record, Papa Jones went 1-for-4 off Big Daddy Mahomes at Shea in 1999 and 2000, with the lone hit being a two-run homer.)

McCartney and Mahomes weren’t the only ones at the Big Game who knew what it was like to play at Shea. The NFL celebrated its 100 greatest players in honor of its centennial, many of them taking a quick bow at Hard Rock before Kansas City topped San Francisco. There was Dan Marino, who I remember ruining an October afternoon in 1983, when he was a Dolphins rookie. There was Terry Bradshaw, from the final game the Jets played in Queens that same autumn (it went better for the Steelers than it did for the Jets). There was Roger Staubach, who chalked up a win in ’75 when the Football Giants were borrowing the joint. Among the introductions as well was a blitz of AFL-era Chiefs and Raiders, a few of whom surely experienced in the ways of Shea, particularly the playoff winds of December.

Oh, and the boyfriend of the co-star of the halftime show was there: Alex Rodriguez. We definitely saw him at Shea, first in the stands during the 2000 Fall Classic when he was thinking about taking his talents there, and then annually between 2004 and 2008 when he was a visitor from slightly to the north. Last week we learned A-Rod, because being significant other to J-Lo might not fully fill his days, is “kicking the tires” on the notion of owning the Mets. Not “owning the Mets” in the sense that he hit particularly well against them — at Shea he batted only .218 and slugged a mere .327 — but actually throwing himself into a consortium that might pick up where Steve Cohen was nudged to get off. “Kicking the tires” is the phrase the Post used on Rodriguez’s potential ownership bid [3]. “Grain of salt” may also apply.

When he believes it serves to heighten his situational appeal, A-Rod likes to play up his childhood Mets affinity. Don’t we all? Seeing as how Alex managed to not sign with the Mets as a free agent when they were right in front of him (and, to be fair, when he was right in front of them), maybe “really liked the Mets as a kid” is no more than a talking point, like me remembering I really liked the Texas Rangers the year I was 11. Except the Rangers never tried to lure me to Arlington for $252 million. It probably would have worked out exactly as well for them as that time they got Alex Rodriguez.

The Mets of the moment, operated by a family that’s owned at least a piece of them since Shea was overdue for its first enormous paint job, have a player who knew what it was like to play there: A-Rod’s fellow infielder of yore, Robinson Cano. In eleven games between 2005 and 2008, when he was no older than 25, Robbie hit .250 and slugged .409 at Shea Stadium. His two homers were unwelcome intrusions. He’s welcome to do all the damage he can muster at Citi Field in this his age 37 season.

Cano and the aforementioned trio of Perez, Smith and Murphy aren’t the only 2020 players who can accurately tell their teammates what it was like when Flushing was truly Flushing. I haven’t conducted an exhaustive survey, but I do know the Cardinals somehow continue to feature Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright from the 2006 NLCS, a septet of games that ended sadly at Shea. The big bopper who we thought would give us the most trouble in those playoffs, Albert Pujols, continues to swing for the fences for the Angels. In the same series that Luke Gasparre removed his countdown number [4], Clayton Kershaw made his first major league road start (the Mets shelled him on May 30, 2008…and went on to lose anyway). Nick Markakis, who was kind of a pain when he showed up at Shea with the Orioles in 2006, is slated to remain a pain for the Braves in the months ahead.

If you’re not a stickler for major league affiliations, Rajai Davis, twice a hero for the 2019 Mets and a prospective member of Acereros de Monclova in the year ahead, pinch-hit for the Pirates in same 2007 game at Shea during which I saw the pitcher he faced, John Maine, belt a home run. I also saw Bartolo Colon pitch and hit for Los Angeles of Anaheim at Shea in 2005. Lucky Mexican League fans might see 46-year-old Bartolo do at least one of those two things this year, as he has signed with the same Mexican League club that has snagged 39-year-old Rajai’s services.

The last of Shea was torn down eleven years ago this week, on February 18, 2009, but the last of Shea’s players — home or away — have some time. We who inhabited its seats, concourses and puddles will continue to recall it for decades to come. We’ll remember days like April 5, 1993, Opening Day that season, my first Opening Day somehow. It took me four years from the beginning of my fandom to make it to Shea, then another twenty years to make it there for the outset of a year. When I settled in, the second batter I saw in the bottom of the first inning was Tony Fernandez, our big get that offseason. Nineteen Ninety-Two was a horrible Mets year, but we were willing to assign it a mulligan. Surely everybody who went off the rails would straighten up and glide right in ’93, and to make certain all that went wrong in ’92 would be corrected, the Mets went out and scooped us up a genuine All-Star shortstop from price-cutting San Diego.

We got Tony Fernandez! There he was, improving the Mets right away, driving in the very first run of the promising new season. There I was, watching him help the revived Mets to a 3-0 victory over the expansion Rockies. By the end of 1993, only one among the two of us was still hanging around Shea, and it wasn’t Fernandez. It will be recalled that Tony’s credentials, including four Gold Gloves earned as a Blue Jay, kind of went on hiatus when he was a Met. It should also be recalled that Fernandez battled kidney stones and didn’t mesh with the season’s second manager, Dallas Green. Losses were cut and Tony was sent back to his major league origin point, Toronto, where he immediately resumed his trajectory as a top-flight shortstop and batter. Come October, he’d have a World Series ring.

Tony Fernandez died on Saturday at the age of 57 after ongoing health problems got the best of him. Not only is he the third of the 1993 Mets to pass too soon (Jeff McKnight and Anthony Young preceded him), but he’s the first of the nineteen future Mets born in 1962 to go. That’s the year both the Mets and I came along, for what that’s worth. Tony was born on June 30, 1962. That night in Los Angeles, Sandy Koufax no-hit the Mets. Maybe some things simply weren’t meant to be.

Some would say the Los Angeles Dodgers weren’t meant to be, or certainly shouldn’t have been. Anybody who’s read Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer would come away strenuously objecting to their existence, never mind that if the book’s subjects, the Brooklyn Dodgers, had continued to maintain their geographic identity, we’d have a helluva time being New York Mets fans given that there probably wouldn’t be New York Mets. But let’s not this minute let the realistic interfere with the romantic. Roger Kahn, who died on February 6 at 92, wouldn’t have bothered with the latter. As for the Mets, on the eve of the 2000 Subway Series, he let it be known he wasn’t particularly impressed with what had been getting the rest of us revved up in Queens.

“I always felt, probably emotionally, that the Mets were a copied Dodgers,” Kahn told the Post. I don’t know if he had spent a ton of time at Shea in those days, but maybe he got a gander at that scale model [5] of what would eventually become Citi Field and intuited what the Wilponian heart yearned to recreate.

My interest in what Kahn had to say about anything emanated from a stroll I took along MLK Plaza on my way to class on a Wednesday, right around this time of year in 1984. I know it was a Wednesday because Wednesday was flea market day at USF. On a blanket covered by paperbacks, The Boys of Summer beckoned. I had known of it, at least by name, since its publication in 1972. I’m pretty sure I flipped through it in the Long Beach Public Library but never officially checked it out. At the flea market, on that blanket, the vendor was asking, I think, a quarter. Fifty cents tops. Microeconomics was a bane for me in college — I had to take it twice — but I didn’t need a business degree to recognize this was a bargain.

The Boys of Summer went up on my shelf in my dorm room and stayed there until I graduated a year later (the same semester Don Henley enjoyed a solo hit by the same name). I took my bargain book home with me to New York and somehow resisted its possibilities for another four years. It wasn’t until 1989, with a long trip ahead of me, that I grabbed it for in-flight reading.

I couldn’t put it down. I mean that more literally than you’d suspect. At least two legs of my trip, including one on a prop plane that bumped along between Tulsa and Wichita with a quick stop in Pearson, Okla., included incredible turbulence. Anything I could clutch I was not going to let go of. What I clutched was what I didn’t want to unhand under any event.

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn got me through those flights and then some. It took me to Brooklyn, where I’m technically from, to Kahn’s childhood and adolescence — he attended the same high school as my mother — and entry to serious adulthood, covering the Dodgers for the Herald Tribune in 1952 and 1953, two pennant-winning campaigns whose stories far outlasted their glories. That was Kahn’s doing. He brought those Dodgers back to life in the early ’70s, busting them out of their sepia tones via memoir and making them modern by capturing their where-they-were-now circumstances. In 1972, 1952 loomed as far longer ago in public perception than 2000 seems in 2020. What an achievement it was to so effectively rewind and fast-forward and do it all in living color.

Kahn got to those Dodgers just in time. The book was published in the winter prior to the ’72 season. Before Opening Day, we would lose Gil Hodges. After the World Series, Jackie Robinson would be gone. In my flea market paperback, there is an epilogue acknowledging the premature deaths of each man. Gil was not quite 48. Jackie was 53. They live on in The Boys of Summer, same as Furillo and Reese and Campanella and the rest of the team, all of whom — save for 93-year-old Carl Erskine — are since deceased.

One anecdote in particular struck me from my summer of ’89 journey with Kahn: his frustration that his father, who had indoctrinated him into Dodgers fandom, couldn’t believe manager Charlie Dressen was anything less than a deeply textured Leader of Men. The author had to break it to him that it didn’t necessarily work that way in real life and that Dressen’s sage advice to his team when it trailed late in a game was, “Hold ’em, fellers. I’ll think of something.”

That’s intermittently been my credo for more than thirty years when I didn’t have an obvious solution to a given moment’s challenge. I had it tacked to my workspace wall for several years. Since the quote wasn’t offered to paint Dressen in a flattering light, I suppose I muffed Kahn’s point, but I still like it.

Roger Kahn would write more about baseball, and I’d read (and quote) much of what he’d publish, straight through to his final book, 2014’s Rickey & Robinson. The heyday of the Dodgers was exponentially more ancient by then than it was when The Boys of Summer arrived, but Kahn was still revealing its truth, guiding us to the world where it happened. Somebody on the beat at a ballpark a few years from demolition, covering a team destined to pull up stakes, reporting for a newspaper that wouldn’t last too many years beyond all that, was writing what he saw more than six decades later. That was a gift for the rest of us. Those who were around and stay around and keep telling us what was around, reminding us of where we’ve been and who we’ve been…honestly, what could be more of a gift?

There’s also something to be said for getting a handle on what is and what might be. Fifteen years ago today, we started proffering our ongoing analysis of the fleeting present and maybe the immediate future when we founded Faith and Fear in Flushing. We’ve got Shea in our bones and Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds in our DNA, but we’ve also got a whole new season in front of us.

Can Jacob deGrom win a third consecutive [6] Cy Young? Will Pete Alonso achieve his dual goals of a Gold Glove at first and being “drunk as hell [7]” on a World Series parade float? Does Matt Adams have a chance of sticking if he can prove he can play a little left field [8]? Matt Adams is one of those veterans who, when no other option is viable, cadges an invitation to Spring Training so he can keep doing what he loves to do. This year he’s in Mets camp. Veteran Matt Adams is a ripe 31. Veteran Matt Adams began his major league career in 2012. When veteran Matt Adams was drafted out of Slippery Rock University by the Cardinals in 2009, Shea Stadium was already exclusively a memory.

What’s gonna happen next with Jake and Pete and Matt and everybody else currently in St. Lucie, and what will there be for us to write about it? Hold ’em, fellers. We’ll think of something.