Field Report & Review:
Shea Stadium and the New York Mets, Willets Point, Queens, NY

Diana, MaceVindaloo, SuSu, PerfectBaby, Ugnought, KorRose

Not many people know or care who Will Alfred Shea was, but lovers of the great American summertime game owe him fealty. He saved modern baseball. He engineered the concept of "expansion teams" by threatening to create a new league to compete with the National and American Leagues, called the Continental League. Cities had signed up for teams, so desperate were they for a team. This was all done after requests for new teams were rejected and teams from other cities all refused to budge from their locales.

After the Dodgers and the Giants both left in the 1950s for California, it just wasn't the same. True, there were the Yankees, but they are an American League team, not the same at all. New York craved a National League team, and if they couldn't have one, they'd create a brand new league, spearheaded by the Georgetown educated lawyer who once owned a baseball team himself.

Forced to finally consider the idea, four teams were created, two for the American, and two for the National leagues. The American League cities were Washington DC (the Senators; later they moved to Arlington , TX and became the Texas Rangers), Anaheim CA (Angels); the National League cities were Houston (Colt 45's, later renamed the Astros) and New York (the Metropolitans, a.k.a. the Mets). They started play in 1961, and Shea abandoned the idea of the Continental League, like the true-blue baseball fan he really was. For this, they named a stadium for him.

So, if you are a true-blue Mets fan, the idea of knocking down the old stadium is sad, but then renaming the stadium — those ingrates!! It's the baseball world that Shea built, for crying out loud!

How much did this city need a new team? When the Dodgers and the Giants left Brooklyn and Manhattan respectively, people were heartbroken. Not just annoyed, but tragically heartbroken. They really and truly believed the National League owed them for this heinous loss. Those of us who grew up in those boroughs remember the laments of the older generation about how baseball just ain't baseball anymore. They equated the decline of New York City herself with the departure of its beloved teams. The Mets did play in the Giants' affectionately nick-named Polo Grounds stadium for year, but after Shea was built, that stadium was razed to become the Ebbets Field Apartments, a housing project for the poor. And Coney Island just became frowsy, not energetic enough to even be called dangerous.

So when the Mets were formed, the blue from the Dodger uniform and the orange from the Giants uniform were taken to create the colors of this new team. So don't be dissing our fashion sense — there's history and heart in them threads!

The heiress Joan Payson (of the Whitney-Paysons and Guggenheims) bankrolled the team. She loved the team without stint, and attended nearly every game. She hired the venerably and rambling Casey Steingel to manage the young kids. Expansion teams were brand new, and the idea of trading players or sending them to another team was anathema to many, so the players were the greenhorn kids who were lucky to be picked up at all, and old great players who were no longer needed, men like Gil Hodges who later became the most legendary of Mets managers.

It's said the venerable Casey refused the job when offered, in deference to his wife, who wanted him to be at home. But after putting down the phone, he sat in his chair and said nothing for several days. His wife finally gave in and called the Mets and begged him to take him.

No one but Casey could have handled the new, raw team so well. The older players respected him. The younger ones were in awe. Everyone forgave his Stengelese murmurings. Like talking to the press about a new young rookie, "He is 21 years old. And I promise you, in 10 years time, he will stand an excellent chance of being 31 years old!" And he said it so magically that people loved him and the new kid.

Though it was at Manhattan's Ebbets Field that the Mets created a record which still stands (41 wins that season — the lowest number, ever), we all believe it was at Shea. People came out in standing-room-only numbers to watch their Mets. They initiated the carrying of banners, such as the one of two old men in diapers and bonnets, holding up the sign, "Don't worry! We're still young!" in response to the losing-est season. They chanted crazily and were so happy with the simple things, like when a player didn't miss a catch. They embraced nicknames like "Marvelous" Marv Throneberry for a player who was anything but ... they loved their Mets and didn't complain through all the losses.

Which is why when they won the World Series in 1969, they were "the Amazins" and "the Miracle Mets." Banners declared, "God is alive and well and playing for the Mets!" Even the movie, Oh, God! starring George Burns in the title role declared that the 1969 Mets was one of His finest miracles. It was proof that God was not only alive, but had blessed the city of New York.

Now, we know the the Yankees win more, and they do it impressively. They have the Duke, Yogi, Joe DiMaggio, the Babe, and so many other legends. They have what is referred to as "depth" in all arena their hitting and pitching and fielding. But try to understand — loving the Yankees is like loving the prom queen. It takes no effort, it's a no-brainer, you don't suffer publicly for that love. But the Mets ... ah, that's like pure penance and torture. When a Yankees fan hears his team has lost, he can blow it off with a, "Wait'll next time," and mean it, knowing the Yankees will make good. But for a Shea denizen, even if the Mets are ahead, and it's the top of the 9th inning, two out ... you KNOW they can blow it. They can lose it all ... any time. But, conversely, as long as the game ain't over, the Mets can go into extra innings, or tap in a final run. Why, they have the record for one of the longest games on record at 25 innings. Or how about that 16-inning playoff game against Houston??

Shea Stadium is more than just a stadium. No player built it, unlike "the house that Ruth built" across the Throg's Neck or the Triborough. So we are attending as many baseball games as we can, trying to keep that memory in our bones when this stadium is finally razed.

Still, if it will happen, best to try to remember the brightness of the place. Sure, it's a concrete wind tunnel. It's as basic a stadium as one could expect, though it does of escalators to get the cheap-seat fans up to the upper deck levels without suffering unduly. At one point, it was decorated with blue and orange rectangles of corrugated steel; we hear they had to come down after the bolts rusted and threatened to release the flying guillotines out into the masses below. It's too bad because the ugly neon caricatures of generic players which replaced them aren't nice at all.

Those narrow little hazardous rail-less concrete steps will likely disappear, as well as those uncomfortable flip-down painted wood (plastic, these days) slat seats. The concessions do a lot of business by cart, since the idea of a dedicated place for food wasn't something normal back in the late 1950s. The offerings were limited, and Carvel soft serve ice cream is still served up in small Mets batting helmet replicas.

Prices are way higher these days, and they don't allow you to bring in drink bottles or their contents. But they don't prevent you from bringing in your own food. Our moms would cook up chicken thighs using Shake 'n Bake coating mix. To show ethnic diversity, there'd be no potato salad, but we'd get riceballs or knishes. If we went to the game ourselves, Dad might give us each $2. You paid 50-cents each way for the subway, and a dollar to get in for an upper deck seat. We carried sardine sandwiches in our pockets to have something to eat while at the game. And if the Metsies were doing well, you celebrated by spending 50-cents on an ice cream, and walking home from Flushing. Yes, America was a different place, and so was Flushing, Queens; it was okay for a young kid to walk home the three miles out of choice.

Tickets are more expensive these days too (field seats used to be $6!!), as well as the concessions being pricier. There are more "suits" and frat-boy types attending the games. There are now luxury boxes and the Diamond Club for a measure of exclusivity. It's less the game of the common man now, but then again, it's no longer the game of the white man, too. All races are included, and more than a few languages, and American baseball now acknowledges that other countries play baseball, too. Like Canada. And Japan!

When the Japanese pitcher Nomo was pitching for the Mets, the 7 train was full of nervous, twittering Japanese tourists looking to watch the man pitch. They were often treated to the Queens-accent hollering, "No mo' Nomo!" when he was pitching poorly. Taunting seems meaner these days. The game we went to had some bozo hollering, "YOOOOOO SUUUUUUCK" when a particular player came to bat. The rest of the crowd turned on the guy by hollering, "LET'S GO METS!" to drown him out, and when the player got hits anyway, the crowd pointed at the taunter and intoned, "YOOOOOU SUUUUCK!" To his credit, the taunter took his bows and continued to holler his battle cry throughout the game, honestly believing that his behavior caused that player to play better! It's a variation of the rally cap, a superstitious good luck charm which makes no sense, but it seems to work ... The taunter was even wearing a Mets blanket over his shoulders like a cape, perhaps as part of the fan uniform. (In fact, the player in question nearly hit for the cycle: single, double, and a homerun!)

The stadium was built as part of the World's Fair complex, which in turn was built on the fairgrounds of 3 decades previous. You've seen the features in movies like Men in Black or The Wiz. The place is called "flushing" because it was swampy and the waters ran, until garbage was used as landfill. Still, when it rains, the ground is mighty soggy, making for outdoor baseball on real grass a lot of fun. Shea was one of the stadiums which resisted astroturf, and infamously suffers from fans' enthusiasm when the Mets win. They tear up the turf and take pocketfuls of dirt home. We swear, a friend has a piece of home-plate area turf under his living room sofa, where it is hidden and enshrined for only believers to see and touch. (He lived in Boston, and after 1986, he was forced to hide his love of the Mets.)

Why are the Mets getting a new stadium now? Part of it has to do with fairness and that all stadia in New York are owned by New York City. The Yankees had the last renovation of their Christian Stadium, and so it was the Mets's turn. However, the Yankees were threatening to leave New York City over the lack of a modern stadium which occasionally crumbles atop seated fans, or luxury boxes, which are very important for corporate groups and higher profits. And Bill Shea's namesake had some minor renovations in the past, but it's been 44 years without major improvements, probably making it the current champion of non-fixed up stadia; maybe Fenway Park in Boston has gone longer.

This also explains why the naming of the stadia does not follow the lines of other stadia, in that no retarded corporate names are likely to be considered. Whew!

The new stadium is being built in the parking lot, so right now, there is no room to park your car. It costs $10, payable on entry, and you park and lock. Leaving the stadium can be hair-raising, since the roads around the area are a tangled web. Hurricane fences are opened to create temporary exits, so woe to you if you get out at the wrong side of the lot.

It's best to come and go via subway. The number 7 line is an overland train as soon as it crosses into Queens. You can get on at Grand Central Station, either the express or the local. You get to see the diversity of Queens from above. We like reading the graffiti on the rooftops as we go by. And you can also see the sparks spitting off the metal wheels as they skid along the metal tracks.

Before and after a game, it's like an impromptu parade, as people circle the stadium looking for their gate. We go the long way around to check out the fan shirts and Mets-latching offers like credit cards (fill out an application, get a towel) or newspaper subscriptions (get free tickets). We always like the lights lining the deck-like walkway from the overland subway station down to road level. It's confusing for neophytes, but we like it like that.

The train schedule frequency is increased before and after a game, so though it can be really crowded after the game, there will be plenty more trains coming. And you save yourself the agony of parking and driving on the spaghetti-like interchanges in this part of town. (Think the Jetsons-style or Flintstones-depicted "world of the future" style freeways. That's the concept behing the 1936 World's Fair, after all.)

And yes, now the subway stop is shared between Shea and the Billy Jean King tennis stadium where the U.S. Open is now played. That latter stadium was called the Arthur Ashe stadium, and before that, was Satchmo Armstrong. I guess there is a tradition of re-naming stadia. And heck, the U.S. Open used to be played at the snooty Forest Hills tennis club, that Wimbeldonesque structure in the middle of Queens.

Things change. For better or for worse. Our memories are not the memories of the people who come to the park these days.

Shea Stadium is also the place the Beatles played their memorable concert in NYC. It seats 55,000, which was considered humongous back in the day. When you filled that place up, serious money was being made.

The Mets played there during the "down years" when they did so abysmally that the new "me-generation" of fans didn't come at all. Nowadays, the middle aged kids who were young back in the mid-70s still cringe at mention of "the Midnight Massacre" when Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman were traded away in a non-amicable divorce. Both Mrs. Payson and Casey had died, leaving Mrs. Payson's daughter and granddaughters in ownership of the team. They knew so little about the team that they tried to save money by washing used baseballs and putting them back in play!

So, Mets fans have a great deal of affection — bought with chutzpah, tears, and angst — for their now-dowdy old stadium and the players who gather within it. It's like the backseat of your dad's old car, if you understand ... sure, we all have to move on, and this year's Mets do deserve a fine stadium with executive boxes and great food and all ... but there's something so right about taking the clunky 7 train overland to Willets Point and entering the clunky, clumsy stadium. It's not beautiful, but it does have a concrete-poured elegance that no one will repeat these days.

Those among us who were born into Mets fandom may snottily believe that they are true baseball fans, but that's simply not true. One of us lives in California, where there are baseball teams a-plenty. But when do they go to the ballpark? When the Mets are in town, playing the Dodgers, or the Giants, or the Padres. They pay for Internet broadcasting so they can watch games in real time. Another of us started out late in life, living between Toronto and Montreal when the Blue Jays were the champions. He enjoyed it, but when he moved to New York, he, too, became a Mets fan. And by extension, he fell in love with Shea Stadium, too. In fact, he's been to every opening day game for the past decade, even when the temperature was sub-freezing and there were icicles hanging from the seating levels in April!

We like how there are no trashcans apparent in the seating areas. You just put your trash under the seat, from where it will be swept away, then powerhosed clean. he place is pristine for the next game, which seems impossible.

The field is also pristine. The grass is mowed by a grounds crew into ever-changing patterns. The tarps which protect the field from getting too soggy are folded and rolled up by 30 or more men in black shorts. They lay out the chalk marks to determine whether a ball in in play or not, and they sweet the dirt in the infield and hope for no weird hops; they do this at the start, and at the 7th inning stretch.

The Mets have always had promotional days, like the aforementioned Banner Day which allowed the fans onto the field with their creativity on display. We fondly remember batting helmet day, too. Of course, now they get kind of silly, with ethnic days (like Irish night, or Hispanic afternoon, or African-American evening, etc.) and even things like seat cushion day, or funny nose eyeglass night. We were last there on the 1986 20th Anniversary night, where many of the players and coaches and Frank Cashen came to the game to wear what looked like Snoopy pyjama versions of their old uniforms.

We especially like any fireworks night, as they hire the Gerucci family (who also create the 4th of July Macy's fireworkds show in NYC) to put on the show. It's spectacular and really, really loud. They usually end with American style fireworks, which are the percussive shells which don't create much sparkle, but it will blow your eardrums inward!

There is more emphasis on families these days. Before the game, there is a play area open with an inflated moonwalk bouncy room simulating a stadium in shape. There is a batting cage and a pitching area equipped with a radar gun so you can figure out, once and for all, if you are a Nolan Ryan. We notice parents line up as eagerly as the kids.

There is a bleacher area which was called a barbecue picnic area at one time, and featured a tent with grills. We remember when a tubby outfielder appeared to lose concentration when catching balls, and the bleacher bums yelled out, "Get away from the burger tent, Benny!" These days, it's open only for groups, or on "Pepsi Night," were you get free admission in exchange for a Pepsi can. It used to be every Wednesday night homegame for the first 50 can-weidlers. We're unsure of the rules .. they keep changing.

We love the Mets whether they win or lose, though of course, being idiot fans, we prefer that they win. But we are frankly disappointed when they win easily. It's not a typical Mets game without drama. Plus if they waste runs, will there be any left for tomorrow?? (Told you we were idiot fans ...)

And we kept telling people we'd never get a new stadium because we didn't deserve one — the Mets, like all teams, cycle through bad performance years. But this year (2006) they are doing very well. As for this writing, they are 16½ games ahead of any other team in their league. So, that arguement won't hold this year. (However, we never like the Mets's ad agency and their stupid annual new slogans! We stick with the classics.)

Mind you, being true-blue-and-orange Mets fans, we know they can still blow it. During the playoffs, they can dump their chances to a much less worthy team, like one of the wildcard teams so many games behind them. We like the idea of the wildcard, by the way, because the Mets on any given year could win a race that way, too. So even though they are ahead, we expect it's not a sure thing ... and we like it that way.

R.I.P. Bill Shea, and thank you. Let's Go Mets!

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