Sunday, September 28, 2008


Stirrin’ Up the Ghosts
It happens without fail; a venerable stadium or sports arena comes to the end of its lifespan and no matter how flawed or frayed it’s reputation or viability over the course of its advancing age, a flood of emotion and sentimentality always swells within the public and the press.

Now I’m not usually given to parroting news articles I read for use as blog subjects. However this morning while in the midst of our Sunday A.M. ritual of coffee, quiet conversation and the Sunday Tennessean newspaper, I became aware of something that I’m really not sure I knew before I read it. The more I read, the more emotional I became. Twinges of sharp sentiment filled my chest as the story brought to the surface memories that had lay dormant for years.

If you have any more than a modicum of awareness about the current doings of Major League Baseball, then you know that world-famous Yankee Stadium closed its doors last Sunday night. The New Yankee Stadium will open for business next spring in is new location right across the street from its esteemed predecessor.

However New York’s ‘other’ baseball team, the Mets, despite its own storied past, is also getting a new stadium next year. But I’ll be damned if I was aware of it.

The author of the Associate press article I read pretty much assumed that; his opening line: “By the way, Shea Stadium is closing, too.”

The article went on to celebrate the stadium, located in Flushing Meadow, NY, a place not only rich in sports history as the home of the Amazin’ Mets of 1969, but also that of the old American Football League’s New York Jets, who upset the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Superbowl III that same year behind Quarterback ‘Broadway’ Joe Namath’s ‘guarantee’ of victory.

Several other non-sporting events dot the landscape of Shea’s forty-four year history. Of the most notable were The Beatles groundbreaking first U.S. major outdoor stadium concert on August 15, 1965, and the October 3, 1979 Pope John Paul II visit in which the Pontiff supposedly stopped a steady rain by the raising of his hand.

That wasn't the only miracle seen at Shea; in the summer of 1969, they seemed to occur there on a nightly basis. A team that had up to that point been the joke of Major League Baseball would finally come of age; and in the process, ignite the love of sports in a young boy observing, nearly a thousand miles away in rural Indiana.

(My) Amazin’ Mets
Given that I’m such an unabashed California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels baseball fan, and have been exclusively for thirty years, it’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time talking about, my onetime affection for the New York Mets. But for a period of about ten years, beginning in 1969, I ate, slept, drank, and breathed the New York Mets. They were my introduction into the phenomenon of sports fandom.

In ’69, when I would turn thirteen years of age, I really wasn’t all that much of a sports fan; of course that fact wasn’t because I hadn’t been surrounded by it. In my sports-mad family, my Dad was a big-time Chicago Cubs fan; my elder brothers pulled for the Cincinnati Reds. But if anything, my baseball allegiances fell in the direction of the New York Yankees, due to them being the favorite team of my best friend at the time, my Cousin E. He was by far the most influential person in my life during my early adolescence. Between my 3rd and 7th grade years we were inseparable; I looked up to him like a big brother. So naturally, as E rooted for the Yanks, I rooted for the Yanks. But at the end of the day, I was just imitating someone whom I respected; I really don’t remember having any sense of connection with the Yankees or any other team. I was just tagging along with the bandwagon.

And then along came Jimmy Qualls.

Urrrghhh…Freakin’ Jimmy Qualls.

A career minor leaguer in the Chicago Cubs system, Jimmy Qualls spent a grand total of two-and-a-half seasons in the big leagues, amassing 141 at-bats strung out over 63 games. To say he was a marginal player is an insult to margins. Nevertheless, his 15 minutes of fame are fixed in the annuls of Baseball history.

The day after one fateful game, on July 9, 1969, a newspaper article changed my life. The game it reported launched an obsession and perhaps a miracle as well.

Tom Terrific
In 1969, Tom Seaver was a young 25 year-old pitching prospect in his 3rd season with the Mets. He had already had two back-to-back 16-game winning seasons for a horrendously mediocre Mets franchise that was now finally beginning to open some eyes with their better-than-expected start to the season. They were chasing the division-leading Cubs, who appeared to be the class of the National League, and hosting them at Shea Stadium for what would turn out to be a pivotal series.

Seaver was magnificent that night, mowing the Cubs down inning after inning. After eight rounds at the plate, the Cubs still hadn’t managed a baserunner. Tom Terrific, as the New York press had dubbed him, carried a perfect game into the ninth. Three outs to go, to achieve the rarest of pitching feats.

After getting the first out on Randy Hundley’s failed bunt attempt, up came Qualls. No one in the humongous crowd of 59,083 thought that the little-known rookie was any match for Seaver, but on this night, he was.

Qualls laced a soft line drive into left center field for what would be the Cubs only hit — or baserunner of the game. The Mets won 4-0, but Seaver lost his perfect game bid. Nevertheless, that performance by the Mets’ young ace is unarguably regarded as the catalyst game of the Mets’ pennant run. After having trailed the Cubs for the division lead by 8 games on July 4th, this victory fueled them into overtaking Chicago and going on to win their first Word Series title.

But the next day, when the Associated Press reported the story of Seaver’s near-immortal game, it was painted as if Obi-Wan Kenobi was explaining a ‘great disturbance in the Force.’ How dare this little pipsqueak deny Tom Terrific of his date with immortality! Jimmy Qualls name became mud in the New York media and in my mind as well.

I read the article, reprinted in the local newspaper, not because I cared about the Mets at that point, but rather because of the front page-of-the-sports section photo of Tom Seaver, displaying his now-famous knee-drag delivery, making a pitch during his one-hit performance. The photo’s caption read, “A very determined young man.” That description intrigued me, so I read on, becoming entangled in the drama of the story, so beautifully crafted — albeit one-sidedly so — by the New York-based writer.

How could you not root for a talented, determined young man like Seaver, leading his team, once the laughing stock of baseball, to a date with destiny?

This is my first and most lasting memory of Shea Stadium, although I didn’t know anything about the place at the time. I would however know plenty before the season was over, as I immediately became a Mets-Maven, and most accurately, a Seaver-Sycophant.

Everything went right for the Mets from that point forward. The Impossible Dream would be realized. New York would go on to win the division, the National League pennant, and finally, capture the World Series title from the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles. I was on Cloud Nine. The Mets were MY team, and WE had won it all.

Kinda screwed over my expectations for future seasons though…

Life in a New Citi
Shea Stadium has seen its last game. Unfortunately, the Mets of 2008 couldn’t pull off the magic act of their predecessors of 39 years ago. It came down to the last game of the season, Sunday. Had the Mets won they would have forced a one-game playoff to determine the NL Wild Card team in the playoffs. However they fell short in their last stab at bringing an October game to their venerable home field.

But they’ll just have to wait until next year, beginning a new chapter in a brand new state-of-the-art ballpark, which like the New Yankee Stadium is slated to be ready on Opening day of 2009.

Unfortunately, the construction of the new Citi Field just beyond the outfield walls were all the Mets faithful had to look forward to after Sunday’s final game at Shea Stadium.

Photo courtesy Nick Laham/Getty Images

The new ballpark, will (initially at least) carry the corporate brand of financial giant Citicorp. Citi Field is currently under construction in the parking lot of Shea Stadium, which will be razed over the winter.

It’ll be bigger, more comfortable for fans as well as players, and should provide an exciting new element for the Mets faithful.

I always dreamed of one day attending a game at Shea, now sadly, that’s never gonna happen. But I may be able to eventually take in a game at Citi Field, hopefully before they tear it down.

I’ve decided that if that opportunity ever presents itself, I want to try and figure out where, in what will be the parking lot of the new stadium, the old one once stood. It’d be kinda cool to at least imagine that I was standing in the spot where the old pitching mound was; where Tom Seaver and his mates plied their magic so long ago, when the Mets truly were ‘amazin.’

Here’s hoping on behalf of Mets fans that some of those ghosts still roam the meadow.

blog comments powered by Disqus