Thursday, October 02, 2008

Shea Goodbye

I believe that in America the edifices that have the most meaning to the greatest numbers of people - more so than any other public structures - are our baseball stadiums. First there is the love of the game itself. And what follows right behind that is an attachment to the stadium where the game is played at its highest level.

I grew up on Long Island, about 30 miles east of New York City. Throughout my entire childhood I played baseball in one form or another. There were the organized Little League games and the less organized choose-up games; there was stick ball, wiffle ball, softball, and made-up games like "Catch A Fly, You're Up" and "Running Bases". There were even table games (the forerunners of video games) like Parker Brothers Baseball. And of course there were the endless, solitary hours spent throwing a rubber ball against a wall or the roof of the house and catching it as it came back to you.

What went hand in glove with playing these variations were the sacred trips into the city with my father to see his team, and therefore my team - the New York Giants - play Major League Baseball in the ancient stadium that once stood in Harlem, the Polo Grounds. The Giants abandoned New York for California in 1958 but the Polo Grounds was not torn down. It proudly held its position in space until it was occupied by its new tenants, the New York Mets, in 1962. By that time I was 12 years old and, in those days, that meant you were old enough to get on a train with your friends and ride the rails all the way from Long Island to Harlem. To see the Mets!

Not that I didn't still go to an occasional game with my father. I did. But now I went to lots of games with my pals. Then, in '64, Life dealt me a winning hand: Shea Stadium was completed, the new home of the Mets, and it was much closer to my home on Long Island. I was set. In that summer of '64, I was at Shea so often that it became my home away from home and its address in the landscape of my mind would become the place where so many memories of the final days of boyhood would be stored.

Now, as the last game has been played in Shea and it awaits the executioner's wrecking ball, I find myself inevitably reminiscing about the place. I remember in particular two extraordinary games that I attended that year with my friends. The first was on May 31st. It was the second game of a double-header with the San Francisco Giants which lasted 23 innings. Aside from being the longest baseball game ever played, this game had several notable things happen, each of which was so special in its own right that, if you watched baseball games every day for your whole life, you might never see even once: there was a triple play executed by the Mets; there was a steal of home by a player on the Giants, Orlando Cepeda; Willie Mays played not only his usual center field, but played the shortstop position, as well (yes, I saw Willie Mays play shortstop!); and it was later revealed that a pitcher on the Giants, future Hall-Of-Famer Gaylord Perry, threw his first "spitball" in that game.

Of course, the Mets lost, but who cared? My friends and I were baseball savvy enough to realize we'd seen baseball history, and our appreciation of the game was senior to the game's final score. Also, we had a little code that we were proud to adhere to: we never left a game before it was finished. That day we had arrived at Shea Stadium at 11:30 in the morning and we didn't get home until 1 a.m. - a baseball fan's badge of honor.

Then, on June 21st, we went to another Sunday double-header, this time versus the Phillies. In the first game of the afternoon a pitcher on that team, Jim Bunning, pitched one of the rarest of all baseball events - a perfect game. Not a single Mets player reached first base. It had happened only seven other times in Major League history. That pitcher, Jim Bunning, is today a United States Senator from the state of Kentucky. Another less-than-once-in-a-lifetime, extraordinary baseball masterpiece.

But in looking back at my days with Shea, I can see that the memories I take from it that are the most meaningful to me are not recollections of particular games where I happened to be in attendance. They are the memories of the adolescent adventures my friends and I perpetuated in that arena.

This was a time in our lives - between the ages of 13 and 15 - when we were in the process of stepping away from our childhoods and testing out the world of adults, trying to figure out not only where we would fit in, but also experiencing by trial and error what we could get away with. And Shea fit in perfectly with this rite of passage. It wasn't just a stadium to us - it was a challenge.

One thing we knew was that we didn't like to pay to get into the place. So we discovered there were certain gates which, if we felt daring, we could sneak under and get in for free. But usually we did pay the $1.30 general admission, which gave you a seat in the upper deck. However, we never stayed up there. We always snuck down into the box seats and, more often than not, we wound up sitting right behind one of the dugouts.

As the season went on, and our boldness increased, we found new frontiers to conquer. For example, we'd always wanted to catch a foul ball, but we'd never gotten one. Then at one game during batting practice we noticed an errant ball lying near the stands which no one had retrieved. My friend Billy, a bit more bold than the rest of us, climbed over the fence onto the field to get it, then climbed back into the stands where he belonged. He was soon pounced on by a stadium cop who gave him a choice of either returning the ball or keeping it and getting tossed out of the park. The choice was obvious: Billy kept the ball, was escorted outside, then promptly snuck back in and joined us for the remainder of the afternoon.

As the season wore on it seems, in retrospect, that we were beginning to think of Shea Stadium as being ours. What else could account for this kind of impudence: we discovered that if we hung around in our seats for as long as possible after a game had ended and left only when being ordered to do so by security, we could duck into the men's room on our way out and hide there for about twenty minutes. Why would we want to do this? Because when we finally emerged from the men's room, everyone had gone and we then had the stadium all to ourselves. We would actually go out onto the field and run around the bases and talk to each other on the telephone that connects the bullpen to the dugout. A sign that hung above the top step of the Mets' dugout which said "Watch Your Step" wound up in my friend's bedroom.

We had balls, all right.

But what turned out to be our piece de la resistance occurred on Sept. 7th when the Mets played a game with a team then called the Colt .45s (now the Houston Astros). Billy and I decided to go up to the press box level of the stadium in the 9th inning to watch the end of the game. We discovered that if you carried yourself as if you belonged there, security probably figured you were the sons of some big-shot executive and they wouldn't bother you. So there we sat with the media, as if we ourselves were reporters. Then, just as the game ended, we opened a door we shouldn't have opened and found ourselves standing in the broadcasting booth with Lindsey Nelson, the Mets announcer, who was live on the air! The technicians in the booth froze in horror and begged us in pantomime not to interfere with the show, which we did not. Later, as a souvenir of our good behavior, they gave us the lineup card that had been shown on television prior to the game. It listed the players for the Mets on one side and the players for the Colts on the other. Billy and I later flipped a coin for who would get the Mets half. I won the toss, as you can see. That's Casey Stengel's signature at the bottom.

The success of our impertinence may have had an effect on the psyche of my friend, as he went on to have a career as a broadcaster himself. You may have heard of him. His name is Bill O'Reilly and what you just read is the story of the first time O'Reilly ever set foot in a broadcasting booth.
Ahhh, the good old days... sigh... anyway, that's my own story about a ballpark and what it meant to a kid. Thank you for indulging me in this bit of pure nostalgia that has nothing whatsoever to do with taxi driving.

And goodbye, Big Shea.


NYC taxi photo said...

ahh, now that's amazin. it's never gonna be like that again.

King of New York Hacks said...

great story g.s., I'm a Yankee fan but relate with you big time. Awesome souvenir.

Anonymous said...

A really nice story Gene and a good momentum for the Mets. I am a Yankee fan, but my girlfriend has been a Mets fan all her life, so I just had to come and see some games there. I loved it!
Louis from the Netherlands.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful post. I've never been a fan of Bill O'Reilly (I'm of a different political persuasion), but I'll have to smile next time I see him on TV.

Real cab driver said...

Nice story Gene. I only ever got to go to one ballgame in Tiger Stadium. The only way to get there from Ann Arbor was to drive. I did however, pay $1.00 with my school ID to get into the Michigan stadium and watched Rodger Staubach and The Navy wail on the Wolverines in the early '60's. Sure wish we'd had a train like that.

lauren said...

I know nothing about baseball, but that was wonderful. Please write a book, or somethin! :)

Fee said...

Great story and one that relates to football over here. Plenty of kids went off with their Dads etc to watch games in the 60s and 70s then football hooliganism raised its (very) ugly head making the game family unfriendly. Now that particular terror has receded somewhat the high price of tickets etc has performed the same way can the normal family afford to attend matches week in week out any more. It is a rich families sport now and the way things are going there will not be so many of them around for the next year or so!

Anonymous said...

Just seen you on the BBC dude - get some Google ads on here while the traffics still coming

TexSport Publications said...

Great story. The memories of the times of our youth come back to us at the times we need to remember what it was like back in the good old days. Kids today have no idea what it was like back then. They have nothing to compare it to in their lives. Thanks again for the post and for bringing back some great baseball memories of my youth.

PS: Do you still keep in touch with Bill O'Reilly?

april said...

Never having been a baseball fan, I would now do near anything to have accompanied my dad to the Polo Grounds or Shea back then. But he never did make good on those promises and now all are gone. Blessedly, chutzpah, like yours and Bill's, also brought me a few souvenirs well worth the risk. Here's to youth and NYC !