It’s 10:15 am on April 9, 2007. It’s Queens morning sunlight, that bright gleaming sunlight that seems just off the ocean. I get my first glimpse of Shea from the Whitestone Expressway. It is so big. So permanent-looking, like the Roman Coliseum. And it won’t be there two years from now, when I am driving on this same road. I will have to summon its bulk in my imagination. How can something as big as that disappear? How do I feel about all this? Don’t ask.
I am getting off at my usual Northern Boulevard exit, wondering what the parking situation is going to be. I see the cranes. Right up against Shea. I see why they’re called cranes. They have the same sloping grace as the birds. They seem etched against the morning sky. I follow the signs, which take me to a lot on the shore of the bay. The lot is filled with bundled people hopping from foot to foot, holding beers, eating hamburgers, in clusters of friends and relatives. Three hours before the game. I park somewhere where I won’t have to worry about a hibachi.
I get out of my car and walk towards the place I should be able to walk under the expressway. I enjoy the smells of the burgers, dogs, and thick sausages. I enjoy all of these happy people in the windy cold. I can’t imagine all of my friends or family getting together in this way around folding tables neatly piled with chips and ketchup and condiments. Somehow, I wish I could. I feel very alone. But I feel I am with all of these people. I too love the names and numbers they wear on their backs. I love the smell of their grilling meat.
I cross under the expressway right where there are the old futuristic bus shelters left over the 1964 Fair. They are so beautiful. They look like white birds of the future poised to take flight. In 1964 nobody paid much attention to them. Nobody pays any attention to them now. But they have outlasted the Fair and now they will outlast Shea. I wonder how many people walking past them even know what they are.
I walk under the Expressway. I am near Gate A. I get as close as I can to the big walled-in construction site. They are working today. Nothing stops, not even out of respect. I see towers built out of slabs of concrete. Their tops are secured with orange metal beams. There are yellow scaffolds and wooden railings. Slowly and carefully, like dinosaur robots, the big cranes feed things to men on the tops of the towers. Big Shea, right nearby, is doing whatever it’s been doing for the last forty-three years.
Along the rim of the stadium, I see and hear the wheezing trailers, see the parked news vans with their big dishes. There are the ambulances at the ready, the traffic barriers soaked in the deepest Mets blue. There is the “7” train snaking along its elevated tracks. There is Mr. Met posing for pictures with fans. He swings his arms with that genial swagger he’s always had. He’s accompanied by a group of young people in Pepsi t-shirts with their names on the back. Are they his handlers, his bodyguards, his entourage? Herb and Danielle and the rest just stand around and smile at the big man. Everybody is happy to see him. A guy walks by in a jester hat, with a t-shirt that says “No. 1 Yankee Hater.” All kinds of people are entering the gates of the stadium now. There are families and groups of friends and single guys in bulging jackets and glasses and ski caps who look as if they might be that Jerome who always calls Steve Somers.
Inside the stadium, I pass the long line of people waiting to get allowed into the team store. I walk right down to the field and sit in a cushioned seat, from which I see Omar Minaya, working the crowd. That man is so cool. He’s so handsome and charismatic. He looks as pleased to be here as Mr. Met. People are as happy to see him as they are to see Mr. Met. He’s as famous as Mr. Met. But he offers a very different impression. Mr. Met lets you know that you will always be a Mets fan, that you have no choice, that you are a simple being. Omar shows you that finally, finally, the people who are in charge know what the hell they’re doing. The dumb loyalty you’ve always had to Mr. Met is finally going to be rewarded.
Jeff Wilpon is out there too, shyly following Omar. He always looks kind of sweet and pitiful to me. I wonder if you’ll ever see the command on his face you see on the face of his father. It’s so funny to see all the construction, to see all the people around their grills, to feel all this concentrated emotion of millions, and to look at these two men just thirty feet from me and to think that they are at the center of it.
Batting practice, always a weirdly uneventful event, is finally over, and it is time to leave this portion of the stadium where I never sit, where there are plaques with names on seats that make you feel a little as if you’re in a cemetery. I go up to the Loge where I normally sit and see their big new wall of computer-fake pictures of Citifield. I see a mysterious little clubhouse labeled “Citifield” with a doorman and a big leather sofa and flat screens and buffet tables. I go to Section 9, hoping to get my usual kosher hot dog with sauerkraut and my knish, and standing in the empty space, I smack my forehead remembering that it is still Passover. So I get some Nathan’s franks that taste nothing like the Nathan’s franks I remember from the Coney Island of my childhood. There are no knishes and you can’t even get sauerkraut to put on your hot dog. Why is the food so lousy at Shea, in the greatest food city in the world? It had better be different in that new little yuppie stadium they’re building. That’s all I’ve got to say.
I go up the escalators with my little box of food, my open Diet Pepsi bottle wedged between my not-warm-enough pretzel and my “Nathan’s” franks. I find section 4 in the Upper Deck and climb all the way up to my seat in row Q, to the pounding rhythms of the Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City on Rock and Roll.” I wonder why they play this. We’re not playing San Francisco. Do they know that there was recently a survey that named this the worst song of all time? Obviously not. So I’m carrying this lousy lunch to eat to this lousy music to my seat which may be the worst I’ve ever sat in at a game. It is freezing cold. This is a real Shea experience. There is a perfect storm of misery here. And I am so happy I can hardly contain myself.
From so high up, I really get a perspective on the construction site. You see how many towers there are. One of them, with its orange supports off, looks like something medieval, something knights would shoot arrows out of. You see the network of saffron girders connecting the towers. You see the ground that has been buried in obscurity under the asphalt of the parking lot for four decades but will someday be the field. You see what seems to be the milling about of the workers, you see how the rhythm of busy construction site seems to be set by the slow grand motion of the cranes. The thing that is surprising is how close the new stadium is to the one in which we are sitting waiting for a game. It is right up against it. Crowding it. Almost aggressively. Next year, that big blank space to the left of the scoreboard will be filled with the new stadium. Shea will feel closed in.
The Opening Day ceremonies begin as the Copiague and Lindenhurst high school marching bands, looking like toy soldiers, start coming out of the centerfield fence. They play what we can recognize way high up as “Meet the Mets” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and so we clap and cheer in appreciation. When they’re done, some Mets start sprinting into center field, their uniforms so white and bright against the green waffle pattern of the field. Then Howie Rose in a suit, behind home plate, and up on the Diamond Vision, looking disconcertingly like Tony Blair, starts announcing the Phillies. We begin by lustily booing their video coordinator and their assistant clubhouse manager until we realize that we need to start conserving our boos for the real Phillies, who actually seem to enjoy the boos we finally give them, and doff their caps to us. Then we start cheering wildly for the Mets personnel, with a bit of hesitation about the visiting clubhouse manager. Hojo gets a hearty welcome back and everything that is said about the real Mets is drowned out in a continuous cascade of cheering. Some cadets in white from the Merchant Marine Academy march in like a centipede looking really spooky, carrying a big flag. Michael Amante gives us an exceptionally histrionic Star Spangled Banner, his pant legs fluttering in the wind. After a couple of minutes waiting for an announced fly over, two fighter jets anticlimactically zoom over the stadium. Keith throws out the first ball. Hojo catches it. Us older folk get sentimental. The new New York Mets take the field. And Jimmy Rollins leads off the game, grounding out to the delight of everyone assembled.
The game is interesting and exciting although it is kind of hard to watch. It is fricking freezing and all of us were prepared for that, so we’re all bundled up like the Michelin man, taking up a lot of space. Plus, we’re bouncing up and down to keep warm, so the stands are filled with bouncing muffled people rubbing against each other. I think of getting peanuts but I decide not to. Everyone who eats anything is bumping into everybody around them. John Maine doesn’t look like he has very much, but he is avoiding disasters. He leaves before 5 innings are over. The game is close. We could win it or we could lose it. The crowd is psyched, but its enthusiasm isn’t exactly confident. They lead, then we lead, then they tie it, then we go ahead again. Then there is a perfect sour silence when Ryan Howard hits a three-run home run off of Ambiorix Burgos.
Not happy. Time is running out. It’s still fun to be at Opening Day. Not much is new between innings or in Shea itself. There is a big Dunkin Donut coffee cup in the visiting bullpen. That’s it except for all of looming chaotic newness visible beyond the scoreboard. As the game unwinds nervously, you can’t help watching what continues in what is now the afternoon light. What a view. What a mess. Expressways crossing grasslands with grey rivers. Big brick apartment houses looking like broad-shouldered robots with little square heads. Piles of dirt and other stuff. Chop shops. U-haul. The graceful green tower like a ghost from another age. Our view. Our mess. What will we see from the new stands? The seats will be wider and so we won’t rub against each other on cold April afternoons. Will we see anything?
We are scared in the eighth. Until Jimmy Rollins, afraid of Jose, makes his error. The heavens open. What is like a seven-run inning?! When eleven men come to the plate?! The runs just come and come and we all stand and cheer and clap for all that remains of the game. This is a good opening day. Filled with happy omens. We are no longer worried about Philadelphia. We only fear Atlanta. That makes no sense, after one week. But that’s how we feel. How good this team is! People like Jose Valentin and Carlos Delgado slump and then they do this. We think of Wright as slumping but he has a 19-game hitting streak. This team will always have life. It will always do well. And it won’t always be this cold.
Then there is the traditional and ceremonial victory romp down the ramps. We sing “Jim-my Rah-llins!” “Jim-my Rah-lins!” We showed him all right. We showed the Phillie Phanatic who is now dangled from the ramps in a noose. Strangers slap each others hands. We do the Jose chant. And ‘Lets Go Mets.” We evaluate the Yankees and the Phillies in exactly the same way. We see the afternoon gleam on the cars in the parking lot. We see the skyscrapers of Manhattan, grey and purplish, off to the west.
I walk all the way back to my car in a piercing wind off the water. The smoky picnics pick up where they left off hours ago. I join a long slow line to leave the lot, and open my window several times to slap the gloved hands of my happy, cheering, stumbling friends.