As Shea Stadium closes, a look back

Far more than the moments any DVD could ever capture, my memories of Shea Stadium run much deeper than that. I grew up on Long Island, and my dad and brothers and grandfather influenced me at a young age to root for the Mets, which can be thrilling and heartbreaking at different times, sometimes at the same time.. I suppose that’s the case with any pro sports team, but the Mets and Shea always had some sort of magical undertone going on.

Which is why it’s incredibly sad that yesterday, the last regular season game at Shea clinched nothing more than a ticket home for the players and coaching staff. As I texted my buddy Dave and his kids during the game (they were there in person to experience the heartbreak), I watched the game and had some awful memories come flooding back—the collapse of this year equaling the collapse of last season. I also felt the familiar disappointment that was a little more pronounced in the 2006 NLCS, as Yadier Molina clubbed a two-run homer the inning after Endy Chavez made one of the most spectacular plays you’ll ever see. Chavez did it again yesterday, and then the Marlins hit two home runs in the following inning off of a Mets bullpen that was overmatched pretty much all of 2008, but more so since Billy Wagner went down with a season-ending elbow injury.

But, well, we can’t change fate. And while the Brewers and Phillies play in the 2008 postseason, and Shea Stadium gets ready to be torn down for good, I’d like to share a few memories that stand out in my mind, whether I was there or not….

1. My first game, July 26, 1971…it took me a bit of research for this because I was only 7 years old at the time. I know it was summer night game against the Cardinals, and Bob Gibson not only dominated my Mets but hit a triple off Ray Sadecki. I can still see Gibson flying around the bases. I also remember how green the grass looked and how great peanuts and hot dogs could taste at ballparks. And how cool it was that you could throw your peanut shells under your seat. And names like Bud Harrelson, Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones.

2. My first playoff game, October 11, 1986…this is a day I’ll never forget. There was an October chill in the air and a buzz in Shea that lasted the entire game. Darryl Strawberry hit a 3-run shot off of Houston’s Bob Knepper that tied it, and then little Lenny Dykstra hit a 2-run line drive homer off Dave Smith in the bottom of the 9th that won it. As if in slow motion, I thought the ball was going to reach the wall for a double, but when it cleared the fence my buddies and I man-hugged and high-fived for half an hour. Remember that high fives were both acceptable and cool back then.

3. Watching Game 6 of the ’86 series, October 25, 1986 at Harry-O’s bar in Mineola, NY with my buddies Tom and Dave. Amazingly, as we all sulked in our beer, Tom kept positive with the Mets trailing the Red Sox by two runs with two outs and down to their last strike. Tom said, “Come on, just a base hit.” What followed were three hits, a wild pitch and some divine intervention as Mookie Wilson’s grounder rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs. So low, then so high. And if you experienced it like I did, you’re getting goose bumps as you read this. If you were there, I can’t even imagine what it felt like. My dad handed me the newspaper the following morning, and the headline was something like “Mets win with Miracle in 10th!”

4. The last game I saw at Shea, May 25, 2002—It was also the first time my wife Jen had been to Shea, and it was while we were dating. The Mets lost to the Marlins (sound familiar?) 6-5 with Kevin Olsen beating them. There were guys like Mike Lowell and Cliff Floyd and Luis Castillo in the Marlins’ lineup and guys like Mo Vaughn and Timo Perez and Robbie Alomar in the Mets’ lineup. Man, how times change. That was also the day I bought Jen a rally monkey, Mo Mo (named after Mo Vaughn). She still says it was the best $20 I ever spent on her.

5. That painful Game 7 of the NLCS in 2006, October 19, 2006. Jen and I went to the Smoky Mountains for a three-day weekend, and while the Mets were playing in a critical Game 7, I was not allowed to sulk for too long if they lost, nor did I want to sulk in the great Smoky Mountains! It rained really hard during our four-hour drive, and even harder once we arrived at our log cabin. Then the unthinkable happened. Right after Chavez’ spectacular catch that I thought was a positive omen, the power went out, and we had to sit in our car and listen to the game on the radio. Making my nerves rattle more was the fear of a black bear rapping on the driver’s side window. I remember hearing Shea fall silent as Molina hit that home run. Then the power came back on, and I got to see Carlos Beltran look at a called third strike against (grrrr) Adam Wainwright to end the game.

There’s plenty more…..the beer man who would shout “Hey load ‘em up!”……my buddies and I, all recent college graduates, taunting umpire Joe West one night when he was manning first base…..going to Shea almost every time Dwight Gooden pitched in 1984, and watching him blow hitters away with the nastiest fastball-curve combo I’ve ever seen…..experiencing early heartbreak when the Mets lost Game 7 to Oakland in 1973….and experiencing it again when the Mets lost to the Dodgers in the 1988 NLCS….and again when they lost to the Yankees in 2000…..having my older brothers take me to games when I was a kid…..watching games on TV with my dad on Sundays.

It’s the end of an era, but memories like this, good and bad, make the ushering in of Citi Field in 2009 that much easier. Let’s hope the magic, mystique and memories continue on, and let’s hope the new era of the Mets brings with it a few more championships.

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