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Lousy Year, Banner Day

Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log [1], a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 358 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.

8/29/93 Su Colorado 2-1 Tanana 4 36-43 L 6-1

Not to go all Top 500 [2] on you for a second consecutive year, but I have to direct your attention to the tune at No. 372, for it is critical to understanding the point this week’s Flashback intends to make.

The song is “I’m Coming Home” as performed by Johnny Mathis. It didn’t mean anything to me upon its release in the fall of 1973 (though anything from the fall of 1973 generally evokes a pleasant baseball memory) but I heard it on a Wednesday night in the fourth week of June 1987 and it meant everything to me, particularly the refrain:

I’m goin’ home
Goin’ home
Tell someone to meet me
I’m comin’ home

It is not incidental that I heard it when I heard it. I was ten days removed from having last seen my brand new girlfriend [3] whom I had met on her Summer in New York term of college. She had taken a train back to Florida. I had taken a trip up to Montreal [4] to delay what I expected to be a long bout of loneliness. It kicked in that Wednesday night, but not in a bad way. Although Stephanie was more than a thousand miles away, I knew once and for all and without a doubt that with her I was home. I felt a state of belonging unlike any other I’ve ever known. More than 20 years later, I still feel it.

And yes, I feel it with the Mets. That’s a given. I feel it here on this blog and I feel it when I listen to Howie Rose and when I read Screwball for the umpteenth time and when I stare at the high-number 1972 Jerry Koosman card a very considerate friend [5] sent me for my most recent birthday so my 1972 Tom Seaver card [6] would have someone to warm up alongside. It’s a given, I would think, that the Mets, like my wife, are my home. With both, I am where I belong.

Having acclimated to the Mets through TV, radio and newspapers, I suppose I technically didn’t need my very own stadium to feel all that, but I am lucky enough to have had one. Of course Shea is a part of this dynamic of comfort, familiarity and belonging. That’s what these Fridays are all about in 2008, that’s the subtext of this upcoming season, that Shea is home.

It’s easy enough for me to have identified Shea Stadium as home for 35 years, dating back to my first game there in 1973. It went like this: I’m a Mets fan; the Mets play at Shea; Shea is home. But if I’m honest with myself, I know the first two decades or so of my relationship to the ballpark had a bit of a wannabe quality to them.

Shea was the home of the Mets, absolutely, but it was just a place I got to visit a few times a season, first because nobody was volunteering to take me, then because I didn’t make it my business to go very often. From ’73 through ’92, I never went to more than seven games in a single season. It’s hard to believe I wasted my teens and twenties doing anything else, but apparently I did. I loved going to Shea then, but it was a place that on some level of my soul I felt I was just passing through.

Then came my thirties and I came home.

The people responsible for directing me where I belonged were the people who wanted as little to do with it as possible when I was younger. My family, agnostic at best [7] to our national pastime, decided it would be a fine thing to round up 15 pairs of tickets and present them to me as a 30th birthday present on New Year’s Eve 1992. Their sense of mathematics was poetic (15 X 2 = 30). Their sense of timing would, however, seem unfortunate (1993 = 59-103).

I’ve been kind of chortling [8] for 15 years now that that was some kind of present, a semi-access pass for the worst Met season since 1965, that I should feel fortunate that my father, my sister and my brother-in-law liked me because if they didn’t, I imagine the present would have been 30 pairs of tickets. But I think I’m ready to step off that easy-laugh bandwagon. I think I’m glad I was at Shea as much as I was in 1993, even if it involved watching the 1993 Mets as much as I did.

1993 was the year I came home to Shea. 1993 was the year I stopped feeling like a visitor, like a guest, like a tourist. 1993 was, through repetition and because there was so much elbow room, when I started feeling truly at home at Shea. I could stretch out, put my feet up and not have to ask where the bathroom was or if anyone minded if I used it. The lay of the land would become so familiar as to become second-nature across five months of dismal baseball. Whatever residual self-consciousness I carry with me in public places that tend to intimidate me wore away. I’d always called Shea home. 1993 was when I began to mean it.

I’d say it took the entire season, at least my portion of it, to gain the experience necessary to clinch my sense of 100% belonging. I wound up going to 16 games in 1993 (my record of 6-10 an eerily accurate reduction-facsimile of the overall 59-103 mark, so it wasn’t like they were singling me out for punishment), the last of them at the end of August. That was the day I would pinpoint as my finally being all moved in. I would have to deem it a banner day.

Or, better yet, Banner Day.

No bedsheets were harmed in the course of this milestone in self-discovery. Banner Day was one of those dates that had intoxicated me from afar, the way oodles of fans would materialize from behind the centerfield fence between games of a doubleheader, how wave after wave would march upon the sacred track, how the faith never waned, how when I was 16 and the Mets were crap, there was a banner that insisted “AIN’T NO STOPPIN’ US NOW” even though, clearly, our forward progress had long been kicked into reverse. But Banner Day was no time for a reality check. I had to see one of those Days one of these days.

My Banner Day, thanks to my foresightful brother-in-law (he selected the 15 pairs and took great care to find me all the best promotions) was August 29. For the third time in 1993, I secured the company of my wife for a Mets game. I’m pretty sure I had promised back on New Year’s Eve that she would not be my default companion every time out, especially on the chilly nights, but this occasion required no persuasion. It was Banner Day. Banner Day had been featured in “An Amazin’ Era,” set to the tune of Petula Clark’s “Sign Of The Times”. Stephanie liked Petula Clark. Stephanie liked nonviolent tribal rites. Stephanie liked art. Stephanie even liked the Mets if I didn’t assault her with too much strategy or trivia. How could she not like Banner Day?

The scheduled doubleheader was dead as the dodo by ’93 (just as well for my purposes, as I’m trying to imagine a world in which my wife consents to attend two events of any kind in a single day), so the parade would precede the 3:10 start. So we wouldn’t miss a single word of laundry-markered encouragement, we arrived nice and early and made our way to our Row A seats in loge, roughly parallel to first base.

Alas, they were ruined. It had rained some the night before and those blue seats had turned to white. The mezzanine found a way to leak heavily on them and, though it was now bright and sunny, continued to do so. Our seats were unsittable.

You know how useless your Shea ushers are? Not when they sniff opportunity, they’re not. Standing in front of our seats, we were approached. Look, I said to the man in orange trim. These are not banner seats. What can be done?

Usherdom kicked into action. The man ushered us to another man in uniform and, for a convenience fee of a dollar, we were handed off. Our new man was a higher-up armed with a walkie-talkie, and he ushered us to undamaged seating: Loge Section 1, Row G, Seats 7 and 8. Another cash consideration was consummated to complete the transaction.

These were the best seats I’d ever had at Shea. Not the closest I ever was, but for scope and breadth of the field, they were quite unMetlike in that they couldn’t be beat. Plus, my literally fair lady heartily endorsed the shade we’d be in. Far back enough to avoid the foul balls she forever feared, close enough so that Ryan Thompson wouldn’t be a rumor (as opposed to his talent, which was never proven).

Down went our butts. Out came the banners. Sanguinity was in abundance. There were hundreds of placards passing before us. I expected maybe a dozen in these, the dog days of a dog season, but no. You tell Mets fans they can walk the Shea track, they will at the very least feign optimism. Maybe they’ll even mean it. Me, my banner would have probably proclaimed…


…but like I said, I didn’t participate. I was just happy to be there.

That was the key to the day: I was happy — immersed in a pool of happiness deeper than a 1993 Mets fan could possibly anticipate. I had the great seats and of course the greatest of seatmates. We watched the banners flutter by and then we watched Frank Tanana’s pitches do the same. Of course the Mets lost, 6-1 to the expansion yet somehow superior Rockies. Of course they bowed without a fight, taking barely more than two hours to sink 40 games under .500. Of course I didn’t care. I was numb to the losing by the end of August. I had gotten used to it in that sad whaddayagonnado? fashion any sane fan adopts when a 1993 rolls around.

Yet the game wasn’t the point of this sunny afternoon in loge. Even the bucket list accomplishment of taking in one Banner Day before management unceremoniously abandoned this proudest of Mets traditions wasn’t. It was that feeling that I was where I was supposed to be, joined for the afternoon with whom I was supposed to be joined, doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was watching the Mets with Stephanie at Shea Stadium like it was no big deal.

Believe me, though. It was.

And not incidentally, Happy Birthday come Sunday to the woman who has brought me a passel of banner days since May 11, 1987.