IN CASE you
missed it, and many have, Shea Stadium, the big leagues' fifth-oldest ballpark,
is to be leveled this off-season. "Overshadowed by Yankee Stadium? You
could say that," says Bob Mandt, the Mets' former VP for Stadium
Operations, who has worked at Shea since its inception. "That's how it is.
It hurts sometimes, but we're used to it."
The twin killings
are coincidental, though the timing is fitting for Shea, defined over its 44
years in part as the lesser neighbor to baseball's most hallowed ground.
There's no area at Shea to browse plaques of Hall of Famers (the Mets, in any
event, have just one); no majestic facade; no 26-title tradition. Shea occupies
three acres of un-prime real estate in the stepsister borough of Queens, N.Y.,
smack in the flight path of LaGuardia Airport. ("When I got here," says
Mets infielder Damion Easley, "I kept looking up all the time.") This
is the house that the boys at Carlin-Crimmins construction built, and if Shea
could talk, it would do so in the local vernacular: "Fellas,
fuhgeddaboutit. Don't worry 'bout me. I've hadda good run."
A few distinctive
features may be preserved when Shea comes down. The mini New York City skyline
over the scoreboard; the fat red apple that rises frivolously out of a top hat
when a Met homers. Yet something important will be lost in the dismantling that
begins later this month: a place where an identity—in which tentative hope
braces against deep trepidation—was carved.
Shea opened on
April 17, 1964. Usherettes in seersucker suits greeted fans. Guy Lombardo's
band played. The Sporting News reported that "Almost all among the 50,312
in attendance ... could be heard to gasp such tributes as 'beautiful,'
'fantastic,' 'fabulous,' 'miraculous,' 'the best ever.'"
Even then, as the
Pirates won 4--3, such superlatives for the $28 million stadium seemed
excessive. Yet imagine a desert wanderer describing even a lukewarm glass of
water. Shea was an oasis for those abandoned when the Giants and the Dodgers
bolted for California in 1957, fans weaned on Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays
who had minted the phrase "Wait till next year!" and shouted it every
October after the Yankees had won again until, in '55, next year finally
arrived. Though the losing in the early years was prodigious, attendance grew.
Shea was "an alternative to the cold, machinelike excellence of the
Yankees," observed Bill Veeck in '64. From the start, folks liked to say,
"I've been a Mets fan all my life."
Shea has worn
over the years. Its cantilevered stands and narrow aisles seem outdated, its
sight lines poor. Though Shea is painted the deep blue of the Mets' color
scheme, many fans call it, affectionately, "the big purple dump."
their dump," says Mets COO Jeff Wilpon. "It holds their
Of this: the
Miracle Mets of 1969; the Mets who rallied to the World Series behind reliever
Tug McGraw's Ya gotta believe! mantra in '73; the '86 Mets, who with an
extraordinary revival in Game 6 of the Series (Mookie Wilson, Bill Buckner)
seemed to validate that decade's slogan: The Magic Is Back. Shea is where
baseball held its first game in New York after the 9/11 attacks. Mike Piazza
won it with a home run that sent a ripple through the sport. "The only game
in my career I did not mind losing," says Braves manager Bobby Cox.
"That night belonged to this place."
The losing has
been equally vital to the lore. The Mets are often "Amazin'," an
adjective affixed—and meant ironically—by Casey Stengel in the 1960s. At Shea
the past is ever present, in corny slogans, in happy-go-lucky Mr. Met walking
the stands. There's no pretense. Winning is regarded not as a given but a
Shea has hosted
others of course. The Jets were tenants from 1964 through '83; Joe Namath's
Super Bowl III team sprang from Shea. The Beatles came in '65, playing a
30-minute set before 55,000 crazed fans. "Oh, that was wild," says Pete
Flynn, a groundskeeper who drove the band out of the stadium. When Paul
McCartney returned to Shea this July, to play at Billy Joel's farewell concert,
he needed a ride again, this time to the stage in a golf cart through Shea's
weathered tunnels. Flynn, still working the grounds, still keeping the infield
three quarters of an inch high, still chalking the base paths, provided the
lift. "I told Paul McCartney, 'Welcome back.'"