If you judge my love of the New York Mets by my first Shea Stadium experience, then it’s no wonder I’ve been a fan for twenty-five years now. In fact, I don’t really know what it’s like to start following a team when they are really bad, considering that the three pro teams I’ve followed since I was a kid–the Mets, Giants, and Rangers–were all competitive in the mid-1980s.
Then again, I hold certain members of my family and circle of friends responsible for my Mets fandom. In the spring of 1985, I was wrapping up my time in Mrs. Holl’s second grade class at Lincoln Avenue Elementary, a class I did all right in even if my best memory is catching shit for zoning out, daydreaming, or getting easily distracted (how was I not labeled ADD? Seriously …). In my class was John Purcell, with whom I had spent kindergarten and who would truly be responsible for my love of the Rangers and much of my not-so-storied Swindon Row street hockey career. But that’s a topic for another post, as he showed up in school one day having been to the previous night’s Mets game and did nothing but rave about how Gary Carter hit a home run and the Mets beat the Reds.
I was intrigued. I’d played for the Reds in tee ball and was playing real baseball that year–if you could call it that considering I couldn’t field for shit and spent my time at the plate dodging pitches–so I knew a little about how to play. And I knew that there were professional baseball teams because my grandfather on my mom’s side was a die-hard Yankees fan. But unlike my cousin Brian, I hadn’t been sucked into the Bronx vortex and after I expressed interest in the Mets, my Uncle Lou would help make sure that I definitely didn’t.
As much as I give credit to John for the introduction to the Mets, it was Uncle Lou who cemented my love for the team. Now, you–especially if you are a fan of the other team in New York–probably would scratch your head at this and wonder why anyone in their right mind would willingly make someone a METS fan, especially when the Yankees were so close by and had such a rich tradition of winning (yes, don’t forget the tradition. It’s a word Yankees fans recite more times than the touring company of Fiddler on the Roof). But you have to remember that back in the 1980s, the Mets owned that city. With Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Gary Carter, it wasn’t hard to like this team.
So, I said I wanted Mets tickets and my parents had Uncle Lou hook us up. He got us tickets, upper deck seats in section 7, row H, which were behind the plate and only cost $6.00 at the time (as opposed to the $25 or so that I’d spend in 2008). I think my parents wanted him to purchase tickets for a Sunday game because I was one of those kids who had an early bedtime, even in the summer and I’m sure that my parents didn’t want to be driving home from Queens with two little kids at 11:00 at night. The day of that game I quickly discovered that there were three parts to any trip to Shea Stadium: getting there, being there, and watching the game.
If you have ever had to travel by Flushing Meadows by car from out on Long Island, you know that it’s a haul. Not only do you have to contend with the traffic typical on the LIE or Northern State, you were likely to run headlong into a backup on the Grand Central Parkway near the stadium. We had a way around that because we stopped at my grandmother’s house in New Hyde Park and then went on from there, although there was a little bit of doubt about whether or not the game would be played because it had rained in the morning and the tarp was on the field at Shea.
Unbeknownst to us, rain on the day of a Mets game would become a family tradition (a tradition that would continue all the way up to that last game in 2008 I attended with my wife and sister), and the trip to Shea would seem more like an expedition than a simple car ride over the county line into Queens. If any of the four people in my immediate family had ever been to a stadium before, you wouldn’t have known it because we packed for all weather and situations, which made the stop at grandma’s house akin to checking in with base camp before you headed up the side of Everest. In fact, I think I even borrowed my grandfather’s binoculars.
Anyway, it’s a good thing that Uncle Lou drove because he seemed to know the best back way to Shea, a secret path to the Mets that wound through all of the neighborhoods of Queens with their apartment buildings, houses, and grocery stores that all had weird names written in weird writing (which I’d later figure out was mostly Korean). I don’t think that we had to get on the Grand Central, and I think we actually made it in time to park in the Shea parking lot as opposed to the satellite lot on the other side of Roosevelt Avenue that meant taking your life into your hands when you crossed over to Shea and prayed that Popeye Doyle was nowhere nearby.
Near Shea, as I would discover over the course of the next 23 years, was the site of the 1964 World’s Fair and the very famous globe as well as the U.S. Open tennis stadium. I’ve never had that much interest in tennis but have always wanted to stroll around Corona Park and visit some of the iconic Queens sites that I’ve only seen in photographs and books. Anyway, this fit right in with the history of the city at the time the Stadium was built in the early 1960s, spearheaded by Robert Moses, the man who I have to say probably gave birth to the era of multipurpose municipal stadiums (lets not forget that the Jets played at Shea until 1983). I’ve heard Shea described as a dump, that it looked like an ashtray, that it had no history or tradition (guess who says that?), but I take issue with all of that.
Because on my first trip inside the stadium, I marveled at two things. First, how blue it was. And not just any blue, but a darker blue than most of the stadiums I’d seen on television or in baseball cards. Second, it just seemed like the largest building ever. Granted, I was eight years old and the largest building I think I had been in at that time was Spaceship Earth, but the stands at Shea–most of which were in foul territory–towered over the field. It had the biggest escalators I’d ever seen and I got to ride those escalators all the way up to the red-colored upper deck tier before climbing the stairs of section 7 to our seats in row H.
This was a hike. Being that we were behind home plate, we really didn’t have far to go off of the escalators, but the steps were all concrete and were steep enough to make us all feel like actually were climbing Everest. I’m pretty sure I got dizzy from the lack of oxygen at that altitude (though that may have been the jet fuel from LaGuardia Airport) and when I sat down and looked over home plate and the outfield, I definitely felt a twinge of vertigo and instead of watching what was going on (practice and stretching, mostly), I flipped through the 1985 Mets Yearbook (revised edition) that I’d purchased for $4.00 from a vendor.
Anyone who knows that I’m a high school yearbook adviser should not be surprised that I found the pictures, stats, and highlights in the team yearbook fascinating. And really it was my first exposure to everyone on the team because I didn’t own a complete set of Mets baseball cards and had only watched a few games on television. I knew who Darryl Strawberry was but by reading the yearbook I knew that the Mets signed Joe Sambito that April and he was on his way to completing his comback with the Mets after injuries had ended his career with the Astros. I also got to see the faces of Ralph Kiner, Tim McCarver, and Steve Zabriskie (who had a Berman-esque comb-over), the guys who called the games on WOR-9.
Eventually, I did look out on the field because the game between the Mets and the Padres started and the Mets took the mound. I found myself amazed at how small everyone on the field looked and how different the sounds of the game were when I was on television. This was back before everything in baseball seemed to have a microphone attached to it, so I didn’t get much in the way of “sounds of the game” when I watched television (in fact, the crowd always sounded a little bit like they were underwater). But here I actually heard the crack of the bat and from that high up, each pop fly looked like it might go out of the stadium and hit the giant scoreboard in right field.
In fact, Shea gave one of the coolest views of a city I’ve ever seen a stadium give. In some way I guess it’s unfortunate that the view was of the stadium parking lot and of greater Queens, but I do say that I can still close my eyes and picture the large U-Haul sign and tower that could be seen from left-center field. It’s not Fenway’s Citgo sign by any means, but it was a landmark nonetheless.
New York’s starting pitcher that afternoon was Dwight Gooden, so it was a real treat for me to see him as opposed to, say, Ed Lynch. San Diego trotted out Eric Show, but this was Gooden in his prime, when the K corner would be a regular fixture in the left field stands, and nobody was there to watch any of the Padres do anything. In fact, the only two things I remember about the Padres at the time were that I was dismayed to discover that their uniforms had changed and didn’t match the brown and yellow colors on my small collection of Topps baseball cards, and that Steve Garvey and Tony Gwynn were playing for them. Garvey was kind of in the twilight of his career, as he’d retire by 1987 (and he did homer). Gwynn, however, was something to see … unless he was facing Gooden and going 1-4 like he did in that game.
The game never really seemed close, even if the box score says the Mets never led by more than two runs going into the bottom of the seventh, after Davey Johnson had already pulled Gooden for Roger McDowell. But that all changed when the Mets scored four runs, including a home run by Strawberry, after which a giant apple with a Mets logo appeared out of a hat in center field and the Diamondvision showed an opposing player getting rained on by strawberries. Between that and hearing “The Curly Shuffle” over the PA during the seventh-inning stretch, I was enamored of the stadium and the team. As a bonus, I was witnessing history. That afternoon, Gooden would win his 20th game, making him the youngest 20-game winner ever (a record I think he may still hold).
By the time we made the slow descent from the upper deck down the concrete exit ramps of the stadium, I had felt like I’d made a new friend. Of course I didn’t know that it wasn’t really a friendship but a full-blown relationship that I was starting that day when I sat in the upper deck of Shea Stadium in a Mets cap and yellow rain slicker (which I hated wearing, by the way). But it makes total sense because when you think about it, a team that’s in a pennant race and their ace starter getting a record-setting 20th win is a pretty awesome first date.