September 28, 2008

SHEA-ing Goodbye Is Hard To Do!! (Part One)

By David Rubin

As many readers know, I've lived in the Los Angeles area for the better part of 15 years now, and it's only been 4 years since I've been able to view every Mets game, via either computer or cable. That meant hitting sports bars at awkward hours, often the only one requesting a Mets-Pirates game, nursing a coke far longer than necessary just to get a glimpse of the team I've been rooting for all of my life. You see, like Shea, I too was born in 1964, and therefore, Shea is the only home of the Mets (or, for that matter, baseball) that I have ever known.

It was in that spirit that, on September 11th, 2008, I set out to return to the second home of my childhood, the concrete and steel known as Shea Stadium. The timing was right (and rife) for a homecoming; my family had scheduled the unveiling of my father's headstone for that weekend (again, as long-time readers know, he passed away this past January) and the best way that I could celebrate his life was to attend a few last games in Shea, the site of so many great moments of my childhood and adulthood, and a place where my dad, brother and I had spent so many wonderful days and nights. I could smell the hot pretzels from the plane as we passed over Shea, on the eve of the anniversary of the worst tragedy our nation had ever suffered through, and all I could think of was Mike Piazza, hitting that homer upon baseball's return to action, and how proud I was, not just to be an American citizen, but to be a Mets' fan, and a Piazza fan. And that's how I arrived in New York that afternoon; proud, as always, to be an American, and proud, as always, through think and (mostly) thin, to be a Mets' fan!

I am fortunate to have a family member who works for the Mets, and thus I was able to ensure tickets for Friday's and Saturday's games; to add to this, 2 of my best friends, Jonathan, my co-editor of this blog, and Mark, a dear friend and huge baseball fan, decided to fly in from Florida and Milwaukee, respectively, to take in these games together; we were joined by one of Jonathan's oldest friends, Danny, an amazing photographer who was more used to seeing games from the photo box rather than the stands. However, on Friday evening, it was Jonathan and I, arriving at Shea amidst heavy rain, taking in (what we thought would be) our last night game at Shea.

Now even though the game wasn't played due to the rain, it was still a very surrreal experience, as we dined in what Jon dubbed "Che' Shea" and as we took a long look around the stands; I remembered where I sat in a game in '69 with my dad and grandfather (my first game); in '73 (my first play-off game); in '77 (when the crowd numbered around 2,000 and mezzanine seats became box seats with a $2 tip to an usher); in '83 (the day it was posted on the scoreboard that Mex was traded to the Mets); in '86 (play-off and World Series games); in '94 (my last season living in NYC); and, finally, in '04 (the last time my dad and I would catch a game together at Shea). As Jonathan and I polished off some of Nathan's famous hot dogs and fries, the rain continued to fall and we knew that there was no way a game would be played tonight. However, we were left with a very content feeling, as we were able to say "good-bye" to the stadium itself, where few fans were left, allowing us to take our time departing, drinking in concession stands and restrooms, souvenir stands and stairways. In fact, although I've always had a fear of heights, and in spite of the couple of recent tragedies on the escalators, for some reason I always felt secure walking down the ramps of Shea, a place where, even in defeat and in spite of what some would call the coldness of the concrete and steel, I always felt warm and protected.

Walking outside Shea, once clad in green and blue corregated metal squares, the neon player sculptures buzzed and danced in the rain (see photos). I could see Dwight Gooden as the pitcher; Darryl Strawberry as the hitter; Mike Piazza as the catcher. And the realization began to set in hard- no matter how many great times the Mets might have at Citi matter how many great games I might get to see at Citi Field for the rest of my life, I'll never again be able to see where I was when I first saw Tom Seaver pitch or Rusty Staub bat or Ray Knight barrel around the bases, just like I'll never be able to point out the seats I sat in for my 10th birthday or where I brought a date to the stadium for the first time (her name escapes me but where we sat doesn't) - and THAT is the one thing that Citi Field will never have, that Shea will ALWAYS have- the MEMORIES!!!

Yes, Shea is delapidated and in desperate need of being blown up, as like an old car, it would cost far more to rehab the stadium then it would be to replace it, and no matter how many coats of paint it might receive, Shea can never compete with its younger brethren. So in goes a new, state-of-the-art stadium with a tribute to Jackie Robinson and Fred Wilpon's youth, while the tribute to my youth will be long-gone, along with Lum's Chinese Restaurant in Flushing, Rheingold Beer and Jerry Grote crouching behind the plate. That doesn't mean that Citi Field won't be impressive, as it already looks better then Shea ever did; it just means that it will be many, many years before I'll have any major memories of Citi Field, and it will never be the place where baseball first came alive for me, or for you. Those memories, thankfully, won't die, and will live on in our memories, in pictures, and in the stories that we tell to our children and their children...and the next generation will grow up in a world where the Mets will have always played in an upscale stadium (and, for that matter, will Citi Field be a ballpark or a stadium? I would guess they'll use the "ballpark" designation).

So good-bye, smell of urine from the men's room troughs; good-bye, roasted nuts and pretzel smells; so long peeling paint and worn concrete; farewell, my lifelong've remained faithful when others haven't, staying in the same place all these years, welcoming me with the open arms, strong winds and sounds of airplanes, the same way you did all those years ago...I just hope, at 44, that I'll be around another 44 years to see what Citi Field will be replaced with...

Back tomorrow with part 2, including our summation of this season, which hopefully won't be over...

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