(Written during the 2008 baseball season-the last season the Mets played at Shea Stadium.)
Now you can tear a building down
But you can't erase a memory-Vernon Reid-"Open Letter to a Landlord"
Cast my memory back there, Lord -Van Morrison
Anybody that I have become friends with during the last couple of years is always amazed by the stories I tell them about me and my friends, when we had our run at Shea Stadium.
Today, I want to talk about Shea.
Now memories are like snowflakes and fingerprints, in that they are all different. Here's mine:
Between 1979 and 1981, we did everything that could be done at Shea. Before the game, during the game and after the game. In the stands, on the field, in the press-box, in the dugout, in the clubhouse. Fu*k, we would go to Shea when the Mets had no game, just to have fun.
Before The Game
There was always a bunch of us going to Shea. We always took the train. We hardly ever paid for the train. Money was scarce. Shea was no quick train ride. We took the F to Roosevelt Ave. and switched to the 7. I remember smiling when Shea came into view on the 7 line; it was validation that it was still there, which meant we were going to have the time of our young lives.
We would always get to Shea hours before the game, as we always wanted to be at batting practice. We never bought souvenirs, for reasons you will soon see.
We always bought the cheapest seats, with no intentions of ever sitting in them.
Our immediate pre-game goal was to sneak into the Orange seats, the box seats. We always accomplished this goal. We got to the orange using two methods: (1) We would get our hands on an old box seat ticket. People would throw the tickets on the ground when they left Shea. We would pick up the old ticket off the ground and use it the next time we went to Shea. (Which was usually the next day.) Hey, one man's shit is another man's goldmine. We would present the old ticket to the security guard in charge of the box seat gate. Our fingers would strategically cover the date on the ticket.
The security guard did not notice or did not care. Presto, one of us were in! But we needed to get everybody into the orange. We did that by passing the ticket back through the gate to the next guy, or by meeting where the orange meets the lodge, and giving the old ticket to the next guy and the guy after that, until we were all in.
The second method we used was very primitive: as soon as a security guard turned his head, we would jump over the rail that connects the lodge to the orange. We would run down the aisle, making our way as close to the field as possible. Liked we belonged. Which we did.
Now that we were all in the orange, we concentrated on batting practice. During batting practice the goal was very simple. Get a baseball. Anyway, anyhow. They were everywhere.
We had a unique approach to getting a foul ball though: we employed team work. To this day, when you see a foul ball hit in the stands, its every man for himself, survival of the fittest. We did not do that. Because we went to Shea so many times, we knew there were enough opportunities to go around. If we were on the third baseline in the first row, I would hold CJ's legs as he stretched onto the field as far as possible to get a ground ball heading our way. And he would do the same for me, or BC or any of us, including some guys getting this email. I remember catching a batting practice foul fly ball hit by Jerry Martin of the Cubs in the short right field stands. BC shielded people away from me so I could get a clean shot at it. Oh yeah, we always used our hands to catch foul balls, we never brought a baseball glove to the game. Why bring a glove when there was a chance you could steal a major league glove later on?
There were two aspects to the game: (1) rooting for our beloved Mets; and (2) always trying to upgrade our seats.
The years we went to Shea there was no ESPN. There was no 24 hour sports radio. You did not have this "first or worst" culture that dominates modern day sports.
So we adored our Mets, regardless of their record. Mazilli, Steve Henderson, King Kong Kingman, who hit moon shots, our beloved Mookie, who Met fans loved from the minute he got to Shea, Pat Zachary, Doug Flynn, whose batting average was less than Karen Carpenter's weight, Claudell Washington and Ellis Valentine, who we thought would do great things, and many many others. (Even CJ, a Yankee fan did not at least openly root against the Mets.)
During the game, we were on a never ending mission to get better seats. As long as there were open orange seats somewhere in front of us, we just had to get there. And we did. We would always end up in the first couple of rows, after upgrading between innings, or during the game itself, by dashing to better seats when the guards were distracted by something exciting happening.
As for a specific game memory there was one time in 1980 when the Mets were losing to the Giants 6-0. Me and BC were there. By the 9th, the Mets cut it to 6-2. The Mets won when Steve Henderson hit a walk off 3- run homer. Shea went nuts. Couldn't have been more than 3,000 of us there at the end. It sounded like Times Square on News Years Eve. The sign guy at Shea held up "HENDU CAN DO". It was proof that the nuns were correct about the existence of God.
After The Game: The Press Box
What we did after the game is arguably what set us apart from everyone else who attend a Met game during this time period or any other time. You see, when the game ended, the real fun was just beginning.
When the game ended, our goal was to wait out all the cops and all the security guards in order to go the field. The best place to do that was in the press box. You see, if you hung out in your regular seat, invariably a security guard would come along and usher you out of Shea.
But in the Press Box we could find a place to hide, as well as being able to look out into the field to see where the security guards were stationed. Sure, there were guards up in the press box, and they would tell us to leave or escort us to an elevator. As soon as that guard left us to our own devices we would come back to a different part of the press box and hope we never ran into him again.
After the game the standard procedure was that Shea always kept one last security guard at home plate. He would survey the entire stands to see if anyone was hanging around who shouldn't be at Shea. We would be crouched down in the press box, with our eyes peering out at the security guard at home plate, waiting for him to leave.
People ask me how long we would wait for that security guard to leave The answer is I don't know. We just waited, knowing we could outlast every security guard. None of us wore a watch, and I can't remember anyone complaining that the wait was too long.
Eventually the guard would leave and we would be on our way to the field!
Going on the Field
I tell you once that last security guard left the field, its like Bob Barker was speaking to us:” Come On Down!"
We would sprint down the ramp to the orange, jump over the small rail to be where any young Brooklyn teenager wanted to be: ON THE FIELD AT SHEA!
I remember the grass. How soft and beautiful, how wonderfully kept it was compared to the grass we played on in Prospect Park .
We loved the dirt. To us, it wasn't dirt, it was something mystical. We would slide all over the infield, and wore the dirt on our clothes as badges of honor.
Basically, we would run around like lunatics, each fulfilling our major league fantasy. We would go back to the wall, and knock into it like we were Rusty in 1973. We would run the bases, go foul line to foul line in the outfield, and get on the mound, fuck around in the bullpen.
The Magic Apple? We were in it. There is a door on the side.
We Took (Almost) Everything
Once we were done with the Field (and it was thrilling every-time) we would make our way to the dugout. We learned that there was always stuff left in the dugout after the game. We took it all. Lineup cards, batting gloves, whatever we found we took. I remember there were always packets of chewing tobacco left in the dugout, we would take that! Its like anything that was connected to major league baseball or baseball players were holy relics, and we had to take them as proof of our conquests.
Beyond the dugout was the runway that led to the clubhouse, and other doors that led to other rooms in the bowels of Shea Stadium.
Here's where I need to give a shout-out to two guys: BC & CJ. In our never-ending quest to see every part of Shea (and take anything we could find) there were a lot of doors that needed to be opened and we did not know who was on the other side of those doors. Cops? Security Guards? The scumbag bat boys who were always busted our balls? We never knew for sure. But BC and CJ were always the first ones through the door. Always. They were brave kids, with balls. Me? I was never the first one through the door. If we were firemen, they would be in the high-rise fighting the fire, while I would be the guy looking for a wrench to open the fire hydrant.
Here are examples of the type of shit we found and took at Shea:
In the press box, we found the scripts that Bob Murphy & Ralph Kiner would use during the game. When Murph would say after a home run “Joel Youngblood this Bud's for you" I thought he was just a little Irish lush congratulating a player. It turns out all those announcements were scripted. At 14 who knew?
The best thing anyone ever scored out of the press box was when NBC was doing a rare "Game of the Week" at Shea. Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubeck were the announcing team. After the game, they left the press-box and we took over. CJ led the way and actually scored one of those "NBC Proud as a Peacock” microphones.
In the bowels of Shea, we found baseball bats, balls, old spikes that the players left lying around, the fan mail that they threw out, baseball socks etc. This was for the Mets and whoever were the visiting team.
I remember that CJ once scored a stunning St. Louis Cardinal helmet; it was either Ted Simmons's or Terry Kennedy's. Awesome.
BC once pulled the ultimate: He actually got into the Met clubhouse after a game, with the players still there and security everywhere and scored a Met hat! I remember the door to the clubhouse opened a crack and we saw a Met uniform hanging in a locker. To see that, it was like a Muslim seeing Allah. With the timing of a 25 year old Rickey Henderson stealing a base, BC made the quickest dash into the clubhouse anyone has ever made, and emerged a micro-second later with Frank Taveras's hat!
The most unusual things I ever scored were the video tapes the Mets always showed during rain delays: the 1969 tape and the 1973 tape. They showed that shit during every rain delay. I remember stumbling my way into a WOR TV room and found the two tapes. Remember, this was before VCR's or DVD's. I remember thinking when I took the tapes, now they will have to show us something else during rain delays! I had personally done something that would make a TV station change it's programming! I really thought that I had acquired the only copies of the tapes. The next time there was a rain delay, they showed the 1973 tape and I was crushed.
WHAT WE DID NOT STEAL
Like I said, we were in the business of taking anything we could find-with the notable exception of one thing. That thing was on the press box level. We went through door after door, not knowing where each was leading too. Then all of a sudden, we saw it, it was right there in front of us, and it took our breathe away: The 1969 World Series Trophy! Holy shit! This was the king of all baseball memorabilia, and we were face to face with it! Our first reaction was Let's take it! This was the holy grail.
Think about this: if we thought that packets of chewing tobacco were valuable enough to take, what value do you think we assigned to the 1969 Miracle Mets World Series Trophy? It was priceless. And it was ours. And we said no. I would like to think that we said no because it would be the wrong thing to do. But we really said no because we figured for something like stealing the World Series Trophy the Mets would come after us big time and we would get busted. So we let the biggest fish we would ever see off the hook.
Because of modern day stadium security in the age of terrorism, it is highly doubtful that kids nowadays would be able to do what we did. I don't think it was possible even after we did it, with the way the Keith-Straw-Carter Mets attracted fans as if they were rock stars.
But we were lucky. We got to sit in the press box in Bob Murphy's seat, and stand on the top step of the dugout like were were Gil Hodges. We stood on Tom Terrific'smound, and roamed Mookie's center field. I got to see Joe Pignatano's vegetable garden in the bullpen, and hung out in the Magic Hat when it was as new as an iPhone.
A pre-teen Big Daddy got to see a clearly drunken Ralph Kiner in the elevator, and I was able to get four foul balls in one year.
Shea was such a part of our childhood; we would go when the Mets were on the road, just to play. When Johnny R claimed he could hit a home run at Shea with a stick-ball bat and a Spalding, the only way to settle it was to look in the paper, see when the Mets were on the road, and pick a day to go to Shea to test Johnny's theory. Think that could have happened at Yankee Stadium? Or anywhere else? (By the way, Johnny not hit a homer at Shea.)
Let me make this clear, I am not saying Shea should not be torn down; clearly the time has come for a new stadium. But it should not be forgotten.
I remember George Steinbrenner saying once that he would never sell the Yankees because you do not sell the Mona Lisa. And I think he is correct. Yankee Stadium is like a Cathedral, or a work of art, you look at it, worship it and admire the monuments and plaques.
Shea, on the other hand, is a ballpark. With an emphasis on Park. And parks are meant to be played in by kids. And we did. So what can be better than that?