It’s 8:30 am on April 8, 2008 and I begin my drive down to the last home opener at Shea Stadium. It’s also the home opener of the 2008 season. These are two separate events, even though they are the same baseball game. I am grim and nostalgic about the first, fearful and desperately hopeful about the second. I know that I will see Citifield today for the first time close up. I am bracing for that. It’s a bright morning. It’s cold and I am not feeling the enthusiasm that all of these new beginnings call for.
I turn on WCBS-AM 880 to get the news, weather, and traffic. They are having a little sequence about the last home opener at Shea. The reporter asks one of the construction workers, a Mets fan, about his best memory of Shea. “Some girl,” the construction worker says. “Did it work out?” the reporter asks. “Yeah,” the construction worker says with a kind of chuckle. That’s it. I think of how I should be mad that that’s all they have about this very big event in the lives of so many people. But then I think of how this interview kind of sums it up. Who knows what happened to that guy? Maybe he married the girl, maybe they had dinner, maybe they spent a wild night in bed with each other. What means the most to us about Shea Stadium is what has happened to us there: what has happened over 44 years to tens of millions of people who’ve come to spend a few hours looking for something more than what life usually gives them. Is it any wonder that people have such a particular love for stadiums, and for amusement parks, and for bars and restaurants and all these other places where things have happened that aren’t the things that just happen at work?
I turn off my ignition in parking lot C around 10 am. So many people are here, eating hamburgers and sausages and drinking beer at ten in the morning. People are playing catch just for the symbolism of it. There is, as always, wind off the bay, and party tents shake and banners flutter. Here is Citifield. And there is Shea. Both of them are together now, side by side, for one year. Shea is so tall, all sharp blue angles and curves, all silly and funny and tacky. Citifield is short, broad, and graceful, classical columns and arches. It is a lovely thing, I admit sadly to myself. It is even prettier than I thought it was going to be.
I walk all the way around the two stadiums. Shea looks as it always does. It looks as if it has no idea that it is not going to be there forever. Citifield looks exactly like pictures I’ve seen of Ebbetts Field. It looks as if it should be on a street corner in Brooklyn in the ‘40s or ‘50’s. It doesn’t really belong on this windy plain off Flushing Bay. But it is here because Ebbetts Field meant a lot to someone. This is what stadiums are. They are things that, by containing our lives, become part of what we are. And when they die, they live only in our memories, like dead people. Unless we own a baseball team. Then we can bring the dead back to life. If I owned the Mets twenty years from now, would I rebuild Shea in the parking lot of Citifield? No, I wouldn’t. But I guess I’d want to.
So there is the new thing, with slender arches like waves. It looks like the Baths of Caracalla. Look at the keystones on top of the waves. Look at how where the waves end, a stately colonnade continues the march and the movement. Here is beauty. Here is architecture. And there behind it is my big old friend Shea. In his stupid clown costume. What taste in clothes my big moron friend has! Who let him in the building? Oh how embarrassing it is to be related to someone like him. How do I explain him? Did he even have an architect?
I’m sorry. I am loyal to Shea unto death. And when I finally get into the stadium and see that Citifield is only as tall as Shea up to the top of the mezzanine, I am angry as I have been angry for two years. Citifield is too small. It is. I don’t want to hear what the accountants have figured out about profitability. So they hired good accountants. They also hired good architects. The goddamn thing is beautiful. I haven’t changed my mind about it. But it is beautiful. And my new ambivalence does not make me feel any better.
I go inside and do my Shea things. I stand on the field level and look around. The arches overlook the apple. I get my hot dogs and knish and find my seat and sit and have lunch with my sister Stefanie. We talk and watch the goings on. There’s the New Milford High School Marching Band. There’s a ceremony to honor the Shea family who will now no longer have a stadium named after them and there is a very good little documentary narrated by Gary Cohen on the Diamond Vision about how William Shea forced Major League Baseball into expanding by threatening to found a new league and had a stadium named after him for his efforts. The teams are introduced and as always, the Phillies clubhouse staff takes the brunt of the booing by being announced before the players. Jimmy Rollins gets it because Mets fans still can’t get over him saying that the Phillies (the Phillies!) would be the team to beat in the NL East in 2007. I think we should just shut up about that already. “Friend of the Mets Michael Amante” gets to sing the Opening Day National Anthem AGAIN. And then some super duper Hornets or something wow us by flying over the stadium (Stefanie says to me “Yeah, like what Shea stadium needs is a flyover.”) The game begins. The crowd is into it. Fists pump into the air when Oliver Perez ends the first half inning with a strikeout.
Delgado hits a long home run and is now a fan favorite. The season will be different. We will be redeemed. You feel the hunger of the crowd for a great season. How glorious it is to be at the ballgame. How perfectly Perez is pitching. From my seat in the Mezzanine, far back in the cold dark shade under the Upper Deck, I watch as flatbeds of blue cotton candy float over the field and the boxes so bright in the early spring sunlight. I’m at the game. The last home opener at Shea. The beginning of a bright new season of memories, hope, and redemption.
The game is good and the crowd is happy. And then it all turns bad, just as the home opener suddenly did last year. And then you feel once again that feeling from last year. That sense that a three run lead by the opposing team is simply insurmountable. Oh you cheer and clap when the Mets come up. But although you don’t join the stream of people leaving between the eighth and ninth innings, you know that it is just not going to happen. The crowd is not filled with the despair you saw at the end of last season. But as we fall behind, it feels sullen, glum, hopeful, and fearful. It is a hard year already. We don’t lose hope over three ugly losses. But we’ve got something around our neck, something as big and as awkward as the blue and orange horseshoe of flowers presented to Willie Randolph by the Shea family at the start of the game.
What will get the yoke off? Jose Reyes flies out deep to end the game. The last home opener is over. The season is just beginning.
Please come meet me and see me talk about and read from my book Mets Fan on Thursday, April 10 at 7 pm at the Hillside Library in New Hyde Park, Long Island. I know there’s a game on, but I believe I can offer a more reliable guarantee of entertainment.
This piece is simultaneously posted on the great blog, Mike’s Mets.