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All ‘Shea’ Wrote

10/2/08

Last Sunday, Shea Stadium lowered it curtain for the last time, closing the book on 44 years of memories.

While the ball club crashed their own party by failing to qualify for postseason play for a second consecutive season, Sunday was as much about remembering and celebrating the life of a ballpark that saw it all, from baseball to concerts to religious royalty.

When it opened in 1964, the still infant New York Mets finally still lacked the talent to compete, but no longer lacked a home of their own.

Located on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens, Shea and it’s surrounding area leave little to be desired aesthetically, in fact more often than not the ballpark is referred to (being kind and keeping this appropriate) an eye sore (among many other lovely names).

When stadiums and ballparks go up today, the buzz word surrounding them is often ‘state of the art’, and while the Mets new home, Citi Field, will certainly fit the description, back in 1964 upon opening, Shea already seemed to appear outdated.

It didn’t help that less than 10 miles away sat another ballpark where another New York team played. A ballpark they said was built by some guy named Ruth. A ballpark where guys proclaimed they were the luckiest man on the faith on earth”. A ballpark that saw championship flags raised and a ballpark that saw both records and legends fall.

Ok, so Yankee Stadium has the history, the mystique and aura and the ghosts.

While Shea lacked all of the above, what it had was a team that gave New Yorker’s lovable losers, who brought National League baseball back to a National League town.

Those early years were as brutal as the traffic is getting there these days, but those Metsies (as Casey Stengal lovingly referred to them as) had charm.

It didn’t take long for Shea’s theater to feature its first true performer, as the right arm of Tom Seaver toed the rubber for the first time in 1965, the same year some kids from Britain sold the place out. From what I hear, they weren’t bad.

Beatlemania was fun, but it was four years later when miracles were made.

Led by Gil Hodges, who had already captured the hearts of New Yorker’s for so many years wearing Dodger blue, made those National League holdovers proud again with an Amazin’ finish in 1969, giving Shea some much needed interior decoration.

It won’t be soon forgotten that Shea hosted football too, and the Jets flying overhead had nothing on the

Just four more years later, another New York baseball legend, who told us it wasn’t over ‘til its over, had the Mets just a win away from a second championship.

Behind a rallying call so often still uttered, the ’73 edition of the orange and blue gave us “Ya Gotta Believe”, but ultimately gave us bitter disappointment.

The next decade saw icons take their final curtain calls (Willie Mays ’72 and ‘73), and also saw hometown heroes make unexpected exits (Seaver in ’77).

As Shea was hardly enjoying its teenaged years, it would be some teenaged stars that would be called upon to revive a drowning organization.

With a Doc and a Straw, the energy was back, even if the magic wasn’t (true Mets fan will appreciate the reference to one of the teams countless ill-fated marketing campaigns).

An MVP from St. Louis along with a ‘kid’ from Montreal, and the pieces were finally in place for Shea to host another October party.

With a game six groundball and game seven comeback, Shea was once again a house of champions, and once again the center of the New York baseball universe.

Another crushing playoff defeat in ’88 saw the end of an era in Queens, as young stars were quickly becoming troubled veterans.

As disappointment turned into embarrassment, and money couldn’t buy success, the dawning of a new era was arriving in the spring of 1998.

A Piazza delivery had a rejuvenated fan base buzzing, looking to quench it’s postseason thirst.

Just a year later, it was Piazza who delivered, as Shea prepared to get ‘wild’.

Never shy from dramatic, the Amazin’s brought with them back to playoffs some magic, as the names Pratt and Ventura were forever etched into both Mets and Shea Stadium lore for homeruns and grand slam…singles.

Another year, and another trip to the playoffs, this time with a National League crown to show for it.

A meeting with those cross town rivals scheduled, with more than titles on the line.

And although a mighty drive from Mikey fell harmlessly in the glove of Bernie Williams, the Yankees may have had their three-peat, but the Mets once again had significance (hardly compensation, but important none the less.)

Fast forward another year, to events that forever changed our lives.

September 11th, 2001 saw time stand still, and when it picked up again in the baseball world, Shea Stadium would serve as 55,000 seat therapist’s office.

Whether or not we should have been there was certainly a question, but by night’s end, doubts were erased with what many agree was the most significant swing Shea ever saw.

With broken hearts beating and crying eyes watching, Mike Piazza’s 8th inning home run might have given the Mets a lead, but more than that, gave a city a much needed chance to smile.

It didn’t win a playoff series, and didn’t clinch a championship- but it didn’t have to.

That swing was about more than baseball, and for the first time since those towers had fallen, New Yorker’s spirits were lifted.

After coming up short in 2001, Shea went silent again for another 5 years, surpassing the big 4-0 without any playoff celebrations.

Before there was talk of a new ballpark, there would be talk of the “New Mets”.

A superstar shortstop and a hot corner cornerstone, along with a hall of fame ace and all star centerfielder made up the framework of a new generation in Flushing.

Led by a GM from Queens and a manager from Brooklyn, it would take only two seasons for the “New Mets” to be National League East champions, dethroning 14 years of consistency down south.

In what few expected to be its final postseason party, Shea was home to a pennant clinching celebration it hadn’t seen in 6 years.

What few also expected, was watching the winners wearing the wrong colored caps, as a called third strike would make a legendary class go for naught.

Seeing it’s replacement finally take some shape, Shea watched it’s own demise slowly resurrect in its parking lost, while it watched the demise of its favorite tenants painfully play out within its walls.

Known simply as “the collapse”, the numbers 7 and 17 would forever be infamously synonymous with the Metropolitans, having nothing to do with a shortstop or a ‘stache’.

In 2008, Shea’s swan song wasn’t the only music playing, as the Piano Man hosted Shea’s last play…twice. With the help of some friends, including one who hadn’t seen Shea’s stage since he first graced it in ’65, Billy the Kid had the house rocking like it had some 40 years before.

Two weeks ago, we bid farewell to Yankee Stadium, known to many as the House that Ruth Built and baseball’s cathedral.

Among those who called it home included the Babe and Iron Man, a Clipper and the Mick. From Reggie and Thurman, to Donnie, Derek and Mo.

That other park in town, the one with the airplanes and the one that looked like it needed to be torn down not long after it went up, might not have been built by sultan of swat, or proclaim itself as religious arena.

Among those who call IT home were Tom and Tug, Daryl and Doc, Mookie and Mike, David and Jose. Not a Hall of Fame guest list per se, but not bad either.

To those who called Shea home, this author included, it might not have been the best looking and might not have fanciest.

It might have lacked mystique and aura, and it might have lacked a pretty white facade.

For all Shea might have lacked, it made up for with its familiarity and unexplainable charm.

To those who have called Shea home for any period of time, what it lacked in physical appeal it made up for with emotional sentiment.

Although few will argue it’s no longer up to the standards set by the new era of ballparks springing up, few will also argue that Shea will be torn down not having lived the fullest of lives.

It saw baseball and football, championships and heartbreaks, religious icons and rock and roll immortals.

But most of all, it was place where millions of people would gather for whatever the reason, not caring about what that place looked like, but more just how they felt once inside.

And more often than not, thanks to 44 years of moments and memories, they felt like they were home.

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October 2, 2008 Posted by | New York Mets, Sports, Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Hero

5/24/08

But I have to say that my time with the Mets wouldn’t have been the same without the greatest fans in the world. One of the hardest moments of my career, was walking off the field at Shea Stadium and saying goodbye. My relationship with you made my time in New York the happiest of my career and for that, I will always be grateful.”

Mike Piazza, while announcing his retirement from professional baseball

A hero is defined as “an illustrious warrior”; “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities” as well as “one that shows great courage”.

Living in New York City, the term hero underwent a facelift after the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, as the brave policeman, fireman and other rescuers took on the hero role, and fittingly so. With all due respect to those men, as well as the soldiers overseas and those probably more deserving of the hero title, but from the minute he arrived on May 22nd, 1998 Mike Piazza became my hero.

Everybody has their own interests, whether its music, movies or sports (among countless others) and within those interests, chances are everybody has a favorite artist, singer, actor, actress, athlete and so on and so forth.

Well, as a young kid growing up in Queens, there was no thrill bigger than going to Shea and watching Mike Piazza play baseball for the New York Mets.

From the day he was acquired in May of 1998, through all the memorable home runs and accomplishments, up until his fareware back in ’05, Mike Piazza was always larger than life for me.

Before Mikey was traded to the Mets, my favorite players were rather generic, whether it was Ken Griffey Jr. or Cal Ripken Jr to name a few. The Mets weren’t very good and certainly did have the household name- big time star player who I could brag about having on the team I root for.

But when Mike Piazza arrived, and singlehandedly changed the culture in Queens, making the Mets matter again, he had no bigger fan than me.

I must have spent hundreds of dollars on his baseball cards, t-shirts and plaques, while the very authentic jersey I got as a gift was a pinstriped Mets home jersey with the number 31 and Piazza’s name on the back of it.

You have to understand, I wasn’t just a fan of his, I did anything and everything I could during my childhood to watch him play and get close enough to him for an autograph, because that was what was important to me when I was 12.

My first Piazza memory came a year after the Mets traded for him, as the team held their annual photo day at Shea, where you were allowed to walk around the field before the game and take pictures of – not with- the players.

Well, Mike was standing there, among the final players you could photohgraph, and standing jus a few feet away was a shaking, nervous 12 year old.

As nervous as I was, I realzied this was probably the closest I was ever getting to him, so I ran up to him, shook his hand, and had an absolutely perfect picture taken of the moment, with both Piazza and myself looking directly into the camera.

After Piazza arrived, I had my parents drag me to batting practice before games, desperately trying to get his autograph.

Finally, when the Mets took a trip up to Boston for interleague play in 2000, divine intervention was at work as I just so happened to be staying in the same hotel as the Mets.

Upon walking out of the hotel, I, along with a storm of other Mets fans, followed Mike halfway down a block as he got on the team bus.

I managed to push my way right beside him, asking him for an autograph, with his response being “sorry bro, I got a game to play” (exact words, forever engraved into my memory) and proceeded to get on the bus.

As disappointed as I was for Mike not signing an autograph for me I knew I wasn’t giving up in my persuit. Sure enough, when i got to Fenway, I made a mad dash for the visiting dugout, where I was fully stretched out, arms and legs, smothered by dozens of other fans, trying to toss Mike a ball to sign.

And wouldn’t you know it, in what is among the greatest single moments of my childhood, he reached out for the baseball I was holding and signed it.

To this day, I cannot remember a single moment- sports related or not- which had me smiling ear to ear the way I was after getting Mike Piazza’s autograph. Just thinking about it brings me back.

It may not sound like much, but to a 13 year old kid, having his idol sign a baseball for him was about as big as it gets. I can’t really put into better words how incredible a moment that was.

I could probably fill up a book with Mike Piazza moments, but there are a handful which standout.

I was at his second game ever with the Mets. I remember that being the first time I had asked my parents to specifically get tickets to this game. Piazza was now on the team and I needed to be there to see him in person.

Remembered a lot for the big home runs he hit, for whatever reason, Mike Piazza seemed to have power outtages when I was there to see him. I probably went to somewhere between 100 and 150 games between when he arrived in 98 and 2005, and I think he probably hit less than 10 home runs in those games.

That being said, the ‘quality over quantity’ argument holds true, because of all the home runs Mike Piazza hit, there is one that will always stand out above all the others.

Im not talking about a walk off against Trevor Hoffman, or the capper in the 10 run 8th against Atlanta.

I’m not talking about the grand slam off Clemens in Yankee Stadium, or the shot which gave him the most home runs ever by a catcher.

No, I’m talking about an 8th inning homerun he hit of Braves reliver Steve Karsay on September 21st, 2001.

Just 10 days after the attack on the World Trade Center, baseball had made its first appearance in New York City. Shea Stadium was the site, and with emotions running high, the Mets and Braves provided New Yorkers with their first chance to escape, live and in person.

I was lucky enough to be at the game, and between the pre game ceremonies, the sining of God Bless America and New York, New York and the fact that the Mets happened to be in the midst of a pennant race, it was an overwhelming night to say the least.

Through 7 and a half innings, The Mets were struggling to put anything together offensively, trailing the Braves 2-1.

With a runner on, Piazza stepped up to face Karsay, who left a fastball just a little too much over the plate, and with one swing, an entire city was lifted.

Piazza crushed a bomb of a home run to left center, getting a reaction from the crowd that you had to be there and experience first hand to fully understand.

With everything going on, just a short 10 days after the most horrific attack on this country, a city that had been devastated was on its feet, cheering and screaming, while also crying and praying.

For me, not only was I just happy to be watching my favorite team playing baseball again, I had my favorite player- my hero- step up and deliver like only true heroes do.

To this day, I get goosebumps just thinking about that night, along with all of the other Mike Piazza memories.

Watching as he said goodbye in the final game of the 2005 season, I’ll tell you I cried for the first time in my life for something sports related.

When he came back the following season, I had tickets and got to Shea earlier than I had for any game in my life, making sure I had a spot on top of the visitors dugout, making sure I was among the first to see him back at Shea for the first time since leaving.

Standing and cheering his name throughout the night was terrific, and props to the Mets for playing Piazza’s entrance song Voodoo Child when he stepped up to the plate for his first at bat.

Even watching him hit a few homeruns the following night, AGAINST my Mets had me clapping and smiling.

The year after that, I had box seats when the Oakland A’s came to town, and little did I know I would be seeing Mike on the field at Shea for the last time ever. He was injured and not playing, but did come out to present the lineup card, receiving another thundering ovation from the crowd.

After two season playing to extend his career as long as he could, refusing to quit on the game he loved, Mike Piazza called it a career this week, saying good bye and thanking everybody from his teammates to former managers, and of course the fans.

I look forward to the day Mike Piazza is inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame, hopefully wearing a Mets cap when doing so. Regardless of the cap he wears on his Hall plaque, I plan on being there, in Cooperstown, watching Mike join baseball immortality, giving myself just one more memory with Mike, one last chance for me to cheer and smile like I’m 12 again.

But most of all, one final chance to see my hero.

Thanks, Mike.

May 25, 2008 Posted by | New York Mets, Sports | , | Leave a comment