You know, for all of the outpouring of love about Yankee Stadium (and deservedly so, it is a place rich in history and full of memories for many), I've barely heard a whimper about Shea Stadium. Maybe it's the lack of history, as Shea has only been around 45 years, as opposed to the 85 years of existence for the Bronx arena. Maybe it's the championships (2 for the Mets, 26 for the Yankees), I don't know. And I'm not sure it matters, but let me tell you about what Shea means to me. This is probably less about the actual building than it is about me, and about how this building, this team, has defined my fanhood.
My parents aren't huge baseball fans. As I was growing up, it was always about the NFL in my house. So I didn't have my parents taking me to games, teaching me about baseball, playing catch. In fact, until the time I was about 11 years old, I was a huge 49ers fan and a fan of nothing else. But something changed then. I don't know what it was, I don't know what made me start watching baseball (it might have been the McGwire-Sosa HR chase, I'm not sure). However, since then, I've been a Mets fan. I vaguely recall '98 for the Mets, have fond but fuzzy memories of '99 and 2000, and then clear memories start emerging in 2001. In these 10 years of my Mets fandom, there have been tons of memories, some great, some not so great (pretty much from 2001-2005), but I wouldn't trade my Mets fandom for anything. Not even back to back devastating, crushing, soul-sucking, season-ending losses can make me lose my faith in the Metropolitans.
(I'm not going to talk much about what happened on Sunday, but today I was assailed by questions about the loss. The most often asked question was, "Why are you wearing that Mets paraphernalia (they said stuff, but paraphernalia sounds better)? Aren't you ashamed after yesterday?" And the answer is, "No, I'm not ashamed." I'm disappointed, I'm angry, and I've got a broken door to prove it. This team never gave up, they fought valiantly, and to be quite honest, with a historically bad bullpen, it's a minor miracle they made it this far. And if I'm not going to represent the Mets when they're down (and it's hard to imagine being down more than this), then I don't have the right to celebrate when they're on top.)
Anyway, back to Shea... I've been there hundreds of times. Physically, I've only been to Shea twice, but through the magic of television, I've watched hundreds of games on TV, on WPIX, the CW11, and SNY (to name a few). Now sure, some baseball "experts" might deride my baseball experience, saying that watching on television doesn't count nearly as much as games in person do. There might be some truth to that. However, when you're a young teenager, live 8 hours from NYC (I actually don't think it's possible to be farther away from the city and still be in New York) and your parents don't care about baseball, it's very difficult to see games in person. The two times I've gone (May 30, 2007, and June 10, 2008), yes, it's been an amazing experience. I can tell why people think it's a dump. It is, to a certain extent. The halls are a mess, the prices are ridiculous, and the seats don't all face towards home plate. But I don't care. People talk about how green the grass is on a ballfield, and how sharp the crack of the bat is, and all those colorful adjectives describing the magic of baseball are just terrific. I've always thought that maybe they were a little overboard.
But the first time I was at Shea, when I stepped out onto the loge level, I discovered something amazing:
The grass was that green. The deepest, most verdant green I've ever seen.
The crack of the bat was that sharp. The sharpest, sweetest sound I've ever heard.
I remember watching Jose Reyes warming up, jogging across the infield, and I remember thinking that his jog is faster than my fastest sprint.
I remember watching Omar Vizquel make several barehanded plays, and marveled at how the 41-year-old still had that amazing coordination that made him one of the best defensive shortstops of all time.
I remember watching Carlos Beltran track down fly balls, gracefully gliding across the outfield, more like a gazelle than a person.
I remember some drunk hooligan yelling insults at Jeff Salazar during my second visit in June this year, including one remark that somehow was able to incorporate croutons into it.
I remember the Mets bullpen blowing a lead given to them by a monster David Wright home run. I've become all too familiar with that sight since that day.
As great as those games were, and they were amazing, both of them, they're easily trumped by my memories of the hundreds of games on television. Allow me to indulge. Here's a rather random smorgasbord of my favorite things/memorable moments about Shea (and really, about the Mets in general):
- I remember Rafael Furcal bunting a double past Robin Ventura during one of those many games when the Braves dominated the Mets. Many of my worst memories involve a Mr. Larry Jones, Bobby Cox, etc.
- During the lost days of the Mets (2001-2004), I distinctly remember Mike Piazza always batting third, and him always coming up in the first inning with 2 outs and the bases empty. In fact, I'm entirely not sure if he ever ended up with a first-inning RBI that wasn't off a solo HR.
- Robin Ventura's famous for his "Grand Slam Single" in the 1999 playoffs, but I always found it odd that the top 5 in career grand slams went like this: 23 - Lou Gehrig, 20 - Manny Ramirez, 19 - Eddie Murray, 18 - Willie McCovey and Robin Ventura. Career HR for these guys, respectively: 493, 527, 504, 521, 294. Which one of these things is not like the others?
- The Mets' perpetual inability to find a reliable closer. Ever since John Franco retired, the Mets have been unable to find a good closer. Braden Looper wasn't able to do it, and the exploits of Armando Benitez are legendary.
- Pedro in 2005. Probably the only year he actually earned his contract on the field. In 2005, Pedro was the man. Starts with him were an event, the atmosphere was alive and permeated his starts. You may argue that his injury-plagued seasons since then have been a disaster. Looking at the numbers, that's an accurate statement. But the change in culture that occurred when he came to the Mets has been stunning.
- It's going to be weird not hearing Gary Cohen start the Mets broadcast with, "A pleasant good evening from Shea Stadium." Citifield doesn't sound right... at least, not yet. And Gary, along with Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling, will no longer be in the Ralph Kiner Broadcast Booth. That's a little jarring. (One positive about not making the playoffs is missing out on national broadcasts of the Mets games. I'd rather listen to Gary, Keith, and Ron than any of McCarver, Buck, Brennamen, etc., and it may sound ridiculous, but I'm going to miss those guys between now and next spring.)
- The outfield configuration at Shea was something I loved. Sure, in person, it's got to suck not to have many seats in fair territory, but on television, the giant scoreboard in right, the batter's eye in center, and the picnic area in left were perfect. I'm not sure how I feel about having an enclosed stadium with seats all the way around.
- The 2006 season in its entirety. The Mets went 50-31 at Shea in 2006, and it was clear very early on that the Mets were the class of the NL East that year. The last 3 months were lighthearted ones, and every game was a party. When the Mets finally clinched the division on September 18, it was fitting that they did so at Shea, and it set off a huge celebration. Then there was the 2006 NLDS, the double play at home plate during the second inning of Game 1, the NLCS opener, Tom Glavine destroying the Cardinals (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R,2 K) and Albert Pujols (0-3 with a walk in that game) arrogantly declaring that Glavine wasn't very good that night. That was nothing compared to Game 7. Oliver Perez (then abysmal rather than maddeningly inconsistent) pitched a gem of a game, until Scott Rolen hit a shot to left in the 6th inning, which seemed to be unquestionably out of the park. That leads me to my favorite moment at Shea...
- Endy Chavez's mind-bending, fantastically unbelievable, earth-shattering grab (am I overselling it? Might be a little over the top, but it feels OK). Without a doubt the most thrilling moment of my sports life. It doesn't matter that the Mets lost that game on a Yadier Molina HR in the 9th, or that the Mets have not, in the two years since, been able to get back to the playoffs (boy, the endings for the last three seasons are depressing, aren't they?). And it doesn't matter that the Cardinals went on to win the World Series. All that matters that for that moment, those 10 minutes (both after the play was made and the 9 minutes afterward, in which I promptly lost my mind), I was in a state of euphoria. I remember thinking, this is why I love this game.
- Endy Chavez in general. I mean, his catch in the 2006 made him a legend among Mets fans. And he's had several more great moments since then. His walk-off drag bunt against Colorado in spring of 2007, his great catch on Sunday to preserve a tie in the late innings of a deciding game (that sounds oddly familiar). We love Endy, perhaps more than any other player, even Wright and Reyes (well, not me, my man-crush on David Wright is well-documented). Before Endy, there was Joseph Earl McEwing, more commonly known as Super Joe. He was the poor man's Endy Chavez, and if there had been big games in his heyday, I don't think there's any doubt he would have been as up to the task as Endy.
So, those are what I remember from Shea. I've left out some obvious stuff (Piazza's HR after 9/11, the Home Run Apple) because I feel like people have already covered these things. I've tried to bring my personal viewpoint on Shea and what it means to me, and I believe I've also brought my rudimentary writing skills with me. I hope people enjoy this, but if you don't, I understand. Yes, Shea is a dump, and yes, it did need to be replaced. However, I've got lots of fond memories and thousands of hours invested in the place, so it means something to me. Maybe it didn't deserve a 7-hour sendoff like Yankee Stadium, but it deserves to be remembered by those who love it.