Sunday, September 28, 2008


Florida - Top of 1st
(Johan Santana pitching for New York)
H Ramirez flied out to right.
J Baker struck out swinging.
J Cantu singled to left.
J Willingham grounded out to pitcher.

My first Mets game was September 8, 1986, against the Montreal Expos. One of my aunts - whose deepest connection to the New York Mets was her undying affection for Lee Mazzilli - got tickets and took me to the game with a friend of hers. I had already been to three Yankee games with my father and one more with other family members, but this was the first time I had ever stepped foot in Shea Stadium.

The game itself wasn't memorable except for the promotional giveaway - a 1986 Mets pennant that hung on my bedroom wall for many years afterwards. But after the game, my aunt let me wait outside the Diamond Club to see if I could get autographs from the players. I saw Tim McCarver and Ralph Kiner and may have even gotten their autographs; Sid Fernandez nearly knocked me over as rushed through the crowd to his car. But the highlight of that night was briefly meeting current Met broadcaster Ron Darling, who stopped to sign my pennant and to talk to me.

"Relax kid!" Darling laughed as he signed his name. "You're only 10 years old and you're going to have a heart attack!"

Florida - Top of 2nd
D Uggla struck out swinging.
C Ross grounded out to shortstop.
W Helms struck out swinging.

I've only been to one Mets game with my father, but it's a game that we still talk about to this day. It was August 20, 1989, and the Mets were playing Los Angeles at Shea. The Dodgers had a young pitcher named Ramon Martinez on the mound and a Dodger fan behind us told his buddy to "keep an eye on this kid, he's going to be good." Martinez would win 20 games for the Dodgers the very next season.

You wouldn't have known it that day; the Mets knocked Martinez out before the fifth inning was over and held a 3-1 lead going into the ninth inning. Don Aase, in the twilight of an unremarkable career, had taken over for Sid Fernandez in the seventh inning and was still on the mound to close it out. Can you imagine - a reliever like Aase being asked to get an seven-out save!?

But there he was, mustache and all, still on the mound after getting the first two batters out in the ninth inning. Then Lenny Harris stroked a single, Alfredo Griffin bunted (!) for a base hit and the game was suddenly in doubt. Manager Davey Johnson had Randy Myers available in the bullpen, but decided to stick with Aase to see things through.

The next batter took the very first Aase offering and deposited it over the right-field fence to give the Dodgers a shocking 4-3 lead. It was his first home run in 463 at-bats that season and, in my opinion, sounded the death knell of the 1989 season for the New York Mets. Had they held on to win, the Mets would've only been 1.5 games behind the N.L. East-leading Cubs. Instead, they went 19-20 the rest of the way and finished well out of the money.

So who hit that season-changing home run, you ask? Willie F***ing Randolph, that's who. The man has been haunting me for nearly 20 years now!

Florida - Top of 3rd
J Hermida struck out swinging.
R Nolasco struck out looking.
H Ramirez grounded out to third.

I didn't start going to Mets games regularly until I was freshman in high school. I don't know how we pulled it off, but me and Joey Walnuts somehow got permission to leave school early to go to Opening Day 1991 against the Phillies. It was the first of 14 straight home openers I attended at Shea, an annual ritual that has spanned so many chapters in my life.

In high school, when tickets at Shea were cheap and plentiful, I used to go to 15-20 games a year. Most of those games were in the upper deck, including June 25, 1992 against the Cubs. It was the final day of our sophomore year of high school, so Walnuts and I rounded up a bunch of people to go to the game. The Mets took the field that season to the tune of "What I Like About You" by the Romantics - the same song playing on Friday night when Mike Pelfrey came to bat for the Mets.

I remember sitting in my seat next to a girl that I met for the first time that day - a friend of Big Boy who he grew up with in Forest Hills - and kicking our feet in rhythm to the song. We were all having so much fun - even after the Cubs put up seven runs in the first inning - that no one really noticed Greg Maddux was pitching a no-hitter. Chico Walker finally broke it up with two outs in the sixth inning, but the Cubs still cruised to a 9-0 win.

Florida - Top of 4th
J Baker grounded out to second.
J Cantu popped out to shortstop.

J Willingham walked.
D Uggla grounded out to third.

The girl from Forest Hills was the first girl I ever went to a baseball game with. At this point in my life, the only girl I'll take to Shea Stadium is my fiancee. Although she roots for the Yankees and only puts up with the Mets out of necessity, she still likes to go to a game with me on occasion. Last month, realizing that she was running out of chances to see Shea Stadium one last time, she asked if I would take her to a game before the season ended. On a Friday night in August, we saw Johan Santana and Roy Oswalt lock horns in a terrific pitcher's duel that ended 3-0 in the Mets' favor. The seats were in the upper deck, but only three rows into the upper reserved seats. It was as high as she was willing to go.

The Franchise and I have been to several games since we started dating five years ago, and each time we go she only has one request. She doesn't like the steep upper deck at Shea and doesn't want to sit in any seat high enough to make her nervous. I know she's going to like Citi Field much better than Shea Stadium - she'll never have to sit that high up again!

Florida - Top of 5th
C Ross singled to left.
W Helms flied out to center.
J Hermida walked, C Ross to second.
R Nolasco sacrificed to catcher, C Ross to third, J Hermida to second.
H Ramirez intentionally walked.
J Baker lined out to right.

I've been to four playoff games in Mets history and the Mets have won three of them. I've been lucky enough to see two of the most exciting moments in Shea Stadium's playoff history - both walk-off home runs by unlikely heroes.

Walnuts and I saw Todd Pratt lift the Mets into the 1999 National League Championship Series with a game-winning home run off Matt Mantei that just missed Steve Finley's glove as it sailed over the center-field fence. As the stadium wildly celebrated afterwards, Walnuts was heard to scream over and over again, "We're the Champs! We're the Champions!" When asked what, exactly, were the Mets now the champions of, he stopped for a moment and screamed, "We're the Champions of the Wild Card!"

Nearly a year to the day later, Suburbia and I braved the elements to watch Benny Agbayani hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 13th inning to give the Mets a 2-1 lead in their NLDS series with the Giants. I brain-locked before leaving the house and wore shorts to the game; this even though we were sitting in the upper deck for a night game in October with the winds swirling throughout the stadium. I have never been so cold in my life!

Florida - Top of 6th
J Cantu flied out to right.
J Willingham flied out to center.
D Uggla struck out swinging.

Not all of my memories of Shea are so kind. I was in the ballpark for the final game of the 2000 World Series, sitting in the upper deck and surrounded by Yankee fans. I saw every hop of Luis Sojo's ninth-inning RBI single that proved to be the margin of victory, and I will tell you to this day that Rey Ordonez would've fielded that ball with ease. I saw Mike Piazza hit a ball in the bottom of the ninth inning deep into the Shea night, that I was sure was going to land somewhere in the bleachers and tie the score. It landed in Bernie Williams' glove instead, and the nightmare of watching the hated Yankees celebrate a World Championship in Shea Stadium makes me cringe to this day.

My night didn't end there, though. I had gotten the tickets from an ex-girlfriend who worked for a TV sports outlet, and had to wait outside the stadium for 90 minutes afterwards for their coverage to finish up so I could drive her and a co-worker back to Brooklyn. It was 90 minutes of watching Yankee fans giddily celebrating their third straight championship and mercilessly taunting Mets fans. It was the kind of night that made you question your faith in a benevolent God.

Florida - Top of 7th
C Ross flied out to center.
W Helms flied out to left.
J Hermida grounded out to third.

In 2002, I went on a 12-day "Tour of Baseball" with Scoop and GI Joe, where we saw a ballgame in 11 different stadiums between New York and Chicago. (We spent one of those days, between Boston and Toronto, at Cooperstown). It was an amazing trip that I will never forget, because I got to watch a ballgame in some of the best stadiums in the country.

You see, if you grew up a baseball fan in New York in last 45 years or so, you have no idea how badly you've been cheated. Shea Stadium, for all the memories it has given me, is the worst stadium in the National League. It is ugly, it is dirty, it lacks concessions or other amenities and has all the charm and ambiance of a municipal football stadium from the 1970s. (And trust me, Yankee Stadium is nearly as bad; anyone who waxes poetic about Yankee Stadium is either delusional or has never been in any other major league ballpark.)

I got to see PNC Park in Pittsburgh on my Tour of Baseball, the most beautiful venue for watching a ballgame I've ever been to. I saw the new Comiskey Park in Chicago, which is a lot like Shea Stadium except that it is cleaner, more visually appealing and has an outdoor shower in left field for cooling off on hot days. Even old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, a charmless cookie cutter of a ballpark that featured artificial turf for a playing surface, was cleaner and more interesting than Shea Stadium.

The Tour ended at Shea Stadium, where we invited family and friends to meet us in the deepest reaches of the upper deck in left field. After 12 days on the road, it was great to be home and to see friendly faces, but sitting in Shea paled in comparions to the wonderful ballparks we had just seen. I realize now that the 15 or 20 games I used to be good for steadily turned into 5 or 10 a year after that trip. Shea Stadium has always looked better on television than in person.

Florida - Top of 8th
P Lo Duca hit for R Nolasco.
P Lo Duca flied out to center.

H Ramirez grounded out to shortstop.
J Baker struck out looking.

I can't believe that this is happening all over again. The Mets entered the final weekend of the 2008 season with three home games against the Marlins, desperately needing to win at least two out of three to make the playoffs. The Mets lost the first game of the series last night, just like they did in 2007. The difference was that, unlike 2007, I was in the ballpark yesterday to see their lifeless performance in person. There's not much more to be said about the game, other than to say it was so bad that I had to convince myself to go to the ballpark today in the hopes that it would leave me with a better final memory of Shea Stadium.

As it turns out, I was also in the ballpark for the second-to-last game of the 2007 season. John Maine provided what was, to that point, the best pitching performance I had ever seen in person. He went 7 2/3 innings before giving up a hit, to the backup catcher Paul Hoover, who nubbed a ball between third base and the pitcher's mound to beat out an infield single. If I ever meet Paul Hoover on the street I will punch him in the face for ruining my best chance at seeing a no-hitter.

That game was also memorable because it was the only game I have ever seen from a luxury box at Shea, courtesy of my cousin's wife. We stayed in the suite for well over an hour afterwards, watching the Phillies play the Nationals and praying for a Washington victory. Things went completely to hell less than 24 hours later.

Florida - Top of 9th
E Chavez in left field.
J Cantu struck out swinging.
J Willingham doubled to deep left center.
D Uggla struck out swinging.
C Ross flied out to left.

Upper Deck, Section 1, Row K, Seat 9.

This is where I sat to watch the last game I will ever see at Shea Stadium. I've been to over 300 games in the last 22 years and have sat in every single part of the stadium at least once. I have actually been on the playing surface of Shea Stadium on two occasions, one of those times during the off-season when Walnuts and I were still in high school. We snuck into the stadium and ran around like children, leaping against the outfield fence and robbing batters of imaginary home runs the same way Endy Chavez did in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. The other time was after a long-forgotten day game during a DynaMets Dash, when Rock Star and I jumped over the field level barrier and ran the bases with the rest of the little kids. Frank Howard was the first-base coach then and he slapped hands with me as I rounded first base.

I don't know what's going to happen on the final day of the 2008 season, so I wanted to write this down before the emotion of what's about to happen clouds my judgment. My greatest Shea Stadium memory was also my last, and I walked out of the stadium today still amazed at what had taken place.

It was the greatest pitching performance I have ever seen in person, in any stadium, and Johan Santana did it under the most adverse of conditions. He was starting on three days' rest for the first time in his career during the regular season. He did it on a rainy Saturday afternoon on a day the Mets could've been eliminated from the playoffs. He did it in front of a fan base that was ready to turn on their team at a moment's notice, and may well do so tomorrow afternoon if Oliver Perez can't turn in a quality start. It was nothing less than heroic.

Tomorrow's game is all that matters now, and I will never step foot in Shea Stadium again. I hope whoever goes to the game tomorrow will get to look back on their final memories of Shea as fondly as I will of mine.

1 comment:

tim said...

Nuff said.

But you don't think there is a chance you get some playoff tickets?