By Aaron Schuldiner
For me, no word could better describe the feeling at Shea Stadium Sunday evening, as the Beatles’ In My Life played over the loudspeakers following the toughest of losses. I’ve watched the Mets at Shea Stadium for twenty years. It would be no exaggeration to say that it was there, at Shea, that I learned the game of baseball.
Florida had just bounced the Mets from playoff contention on the final day of the season, for the second straight year nonetheless, and about 40,000 Mets fans lingered to pay tribute to a building so many of us grew up in. The moment crept up all too quickly, as a win would have guaranteed at least one more game at Shea. All day, I refused to prepare myself for the possibility that it could all end so abruptly. I readied myself for a one-game playoff with Milwaukee at worst, and a divisional playoff series at best. I just couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge the fact that Sunday afternoon’s game could be the last before Shea closed her doors for good.
From the beginning, the day had all the makings of a celebration. Before the game, a packed house raucously chanted, “Let’s go Mets!” with the tarp still on the infield as the rain fell from overhead. When the grounds crew removed the tarp, they were greeted with such an ovation, you would have thought they were the ones in a playoff race. Marc Anthony belted out the National Anthem and Glenn Close sang God Bless America during Shea’s final seventh inning stretch, as New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg looked on with the crowd. Throughout the afternoon, video tributes to Gil Hodges, Casey Stengel, Bob Murphy and other ghosts of Shea past, played on the jumbotron. Great moments in Mets history were commemorated, like Robin Ventura’s grand slam single and Mike Piazza’s homerun in the first game after 9/11, helping to ever-so-slightly calm the nerves of the crowd between innings, if only for one moment at a time. There was a postgame celebration planned with Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, and countless other historical figures on hand to say their final goodbyes on the field. Indeed, there were all the makings of a celebration, except for one: The 2008 Mets surviving the day.
Before the game, when they announced that the first pitch had been delayed until 2:05, I told my father, “This is perfect. This means we might have a final score from Milwaukee before our game is done. We might get to watch the Mets celebrate a playoff berth on the field.” Then the guy sitting across the aisle chimed in, “Yeah, or we might see ‘em blow it altogether.” Thank you, black angel of death.
Once again, the Mets failed to deliver big hits when they needed them most, and appropriately, their beleaguered bullpen absorbed the season’s fatal blow. And 363 days after the Marlins ended the Mets’ 2007 campaign, history repeated itself at Shea as Florida once again sent the Mets packing.
The game was scoreless until the top half of the sixth inning, when Florida finally broke through, manufacturing two runs off Oliver Perez and Joe Smith. Then, in the bottom of the sixth, with a sense of impending doom starting to creep into the ballpark, Carlos Beltran smashed a game-tying two-run homerun to left. The homerun, Beltran’s 27th of the year, sent the crowd into a frenzy, but the excitement was short lived.
Leading off the top of the eighth inning, Wes Helms homered off Scott Schoeneweis to give the Marlins a lead they would never relinquish. Schoeneweis, who broke down in tears after the game, faced only the one batter and was booed mercilessly when he walked off the field. Luis Ayala relieved Schoeneweis and was promptly taken deep by Dan Uggla, as the Marlins jumped ahead, 4-2. An eerie calm fell over the crowd, as if they had heard this story before, and knew all too well how it ended.
The Mets mounted a rally in their half of the eighth, putting two men on with two outs, but it ended on the warning track along with Carlos Delgado’s inning-ending fly out. In the ninth, Damion Easley worked a two-out walk before Ryan Church flied out to end the game, and with it the Mets’ season.
The 4-2 Marlins win was even more disheartening than 2007’s finale, an 8-1 loss in which Mets starter Tom Glavine gave up seven runs before the Mets even came to bat. At least the 2007 Mets were kind enough to put the fans out of their misery quickly. Real humanitarians, that bunch.
Despite the loss, the Mets could have lived to host a one-game playoff if the Cubs had won in Milwaukee, but the Brewers seized their opportunity to bury the Mets. More than 50,000 scoreboard watchers at Shea roared early on when the Cubs took a 1-0 lead, then gasped when the Brewers tied the game 1-1, and finally let out a collective groan when Milwaukee took a late 3-1 lead. That groan was echoed moments later, with an even more distressful tone, when the score went final.
Wasted in the Mets’ loss was some amazing glovework by Endy Chavez in left field. In the seventh inning, after being inserted by manager Jerry Manuel for defensive purposes, he electrified the crowd with two outstanding plays that combined to keep at least one run off the scoreboard. First, Chavez made a nifty play holding the speedy Cameron Maybin to a single on a ball hit deep into the left field corner. He then ended the inning with a spectacular leaping catch while sprinting back towards the wall, robbing Jorge Cantu of an extra-base hit. It was made clear on Sunday that Endy Chavez is as much of a fan favorite as anyone on the current roster. The noise was defeaning following his two fine defensive plays, and again when his historic catch from the 2006 NLCS was replayed on the jumbotron.
Sunday’s loss had a feel that was unlike the ends of the previous two seasons. In ‘06, when the Mets came painfully close to their first World Series since 2000, there was disappointment, but also optimism for what was to come. In 2007, Flushing looked on in anger as a once-promising season culminated in the worst September collapse in baseball history. Sunday was different. There was an unfamiliar feeling of finality to the moment. Next year, even if the Mets make all the right plays, from the front office to the field of play, the place that they’ve called home for 45 years won’t be around to see it happen.
So, as bitter as they were about the Mets being absent from the postseason, approximately 40,000 fans stayed behind to take part in the ceremony to honor Shea Stadium. One by one, Mets radio voice Howie Rose introduced the star-studded lineup, as they emerged from the bullpens onto the field. Berra. Staub. Darling. Ventura. They stood in the infield waving as the crowd roared, a living timeline from the franchise’s infancy to the present day. Members of the 1986 World Champion Mets got some of the loudest ovations, with none warmer than the reception Dwight Gooden received. Gooden’s struggles off the field have been well documented, but the crowd screamed long and loud for him, as if to say, “We appreciate what you did on this field, and we’re behind you, Doc.”
George Foster was showered with boos, though it didn’t seem to surprise him. Upon his 1982 arrival in New York, Foster, the only player from 1966 to 1989 to hit 50 homeruns in a season, proclaimed that nearby LaGuardia Airport would need to adjust its flight patterns because of the bombs he’d be hitting at Shea. He never produced the way the Mets had hoped, and left the team on awful terms. On this day, Foster sort of grinned at the boos as if he understood that, in New York, you get booed when your words exceed your results, a lesson certainly not lost on this year’s team.
After everyone had been introduced, they lined up and strode single file towards home, each man touching the plate one last time. Bud Harrelson, shortstop for the 1969 World Champions, jumped on home plate emphatically. All that was left was one last pitch on the Shea Stadium diamond, from a Hall-of-Famer to a future Hall-of-Famer. Tom Seaver walked to the mound as Mike Piazza took his spot behind the plate and crouched down one final time. At one point, Piazza crept up a few feet to accommodate Seaver, who is obviously no longer in 1969 form, but Seaver gestured him back, and back he went. Seaver’s pitch bounced in the dirt, but Piazza came up with it on a hop, saving the moment like he saved the Mets so many times from the batter’s box just to his left. The two embraced on the mound, and walked painstakingly towards center field, waving in acknowledgment to the crowd as if they were the Pope and the President.
When they walked through the center field door, and the blue panels closed behind them, it finally hit me. All but four sets of the lights that line the Shea Stadium roof had gone dark, and John Lennon’s voice echoed over the loudspeakers. Through the smoke trail that lingered from the blue and orange fireworks display, it hit me like a ton of bricks: The ride was over.
Soon my natural pessimism, a prerequisite to being a Mets fan these days, will return. I will ask why GM Omar Minaya neglected to add to a bullpen that was doomed to fail before the season even began. I will ask what in God’s name the Mets will do with Luis Castillo for the three years that remain on his unthinkable contract. Soon enough, I will ask why some of the core players, for all their gaudy numbers, seem to play smaller as the games get bigger. Soon, but not yet.
What I’m about to say may bother some Met fans. I’m sure my sentiments are not shared by the entire lot of us, but in that moment, I couldn’t be angry about this year’s team. I honestly just couldn’t. I would have felt guilty. It would have been selfish to dwell on the 2008 Mets’ failures when this wonderful place, the place where I fell in love with baseball, was in its final hour. For Pratt hitting it over the fence, for Agbayani winning it in the 13th, for my twenty years worth of poignant memories, Shea Stadium had earned my full attention, if only for an hour or two. For all those unbelievable moments, I owed her that much. And as I stood there, half numb to the fact that the season was over, and fighting my hardest not to get choked up over the fact I’d never see that field again, I couldn’t help but smile at the memories. This was home.
At the end of it all, everyone recognized that the moment was about much more than the end of a season. It was about the end of an era. Thank you, Shea Stadium, for all the memories.
October 01, 2008
By Aaron Schuldiner