Sunday was a somber day in Queens. Not only for the failure of the New York Mets to beat the Marlins on the last day of the season for the second straight year in order to reach the playoffs, but also because the loss meant the last Mets game in Shea Stadium had been played. The frustration over the Mets collapse was shared by the fans, the Mets management and the players. It was not as historic as losing the 7.5 game lead of last year, but it stings the same. As disappointing as not reaching the post-season is, it should not take away from what Shea means to the fans of the Mets. It is no Cathedral of baseball like its cross-town counterpart, rather it is more like the worn down Knights of Columbus meeting hall of baseball but it has seen its share of memorable moments and is home to a host of faithful, if not dejected fans.
To look at the Mets compared to last year the result was the same but the team was different. The Mets of this year did show up offensively, even if not on Sunday, and it was the bullpen that let the team down. Johan Santana was masterful all season and even better on Saturday as he pitched a complete game shut-out on three days rest. Since the move to replace Willie Randolph with Jerry Manuel, both Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran were more productive, particularly in the second half of the season. Beltran certainly has not lived up to the over 18 million dollars he gets paid per year, but he played much better this year down the stretch. Carlos Delgado would have had a solid case for MVP had the Mets reached the post-season. Every time the Mets needed a big hit, seemingly Delgado provided it. The left side of the infield was again terrific with the play of David Wright and Jose Reyes. Wright had some struggles in the final week, but there is no arguing with his numbers. But so many times this year the big plays of the Mets big four were thrown away by the bullpen. The relievers were 28-28 with an ERA over 5.00 and blew 29 saves. Pick any two of those games the bullpen threw away and the Mets would be a playoff team. The injury to Wagner was a huge loss, but the front office never made a move mid-season or by the deadline. Once Wagner was down, there was nowhere to turn, and watching Luis Ayala trying to be a closer was downright painful. The lack of motion by Omar Minaya and company coupled with the atrocious bullpen performances sank the Mets well before the final game. After Sunday’s game Delgado said the Mets were a playoff caliber ball club, but with that kind of bullpen, it is easy to argue against him. Even the late injuries to John Mayne and Fernando Tatis are not valid excuses, just ask the Tampa Bay Rays who weathered their storm by making a few late-season moves and having their pitching step-up instead of bail-out.
Stepping away from the gloom of the game, let’s take a last look at Shea. Many pundits, including some windbags at ESPN love to point out that Shea Stadium was named after a lawyer. While this is true, it was William Shea who was responsible for brining National League baseball back to New York after the Giants and Dodgers fled to California. Shea was the head of a movement to form a new baseball league, the Continental League and when MLB became wary they welcomed the Mets into the NL. Shea opened in 1964, when the World’s Fair came to Queens. The first 4 seasons at Shea were similar to their first 2 in the Polo Grounds: lots of losing. Even in losing, the Mets gained a fan base through their lovable team persona. The esteemed Casey Stengel who had won multiple championships with the Yankees was now the heartwarming grandpa over his bumbling young team. “Can anybody here play this game?” he would say. But when Casey had enough, it was Gil Hodges who in 1969 would help the Mets would pull off the stunning worst-to-first move that would propel them to the pennant and eventually the World Series. The Amazin’ Mets were a term coined by Stengel to describe his surprise when the Mets did anything right in those early years. In 1969 they were amazingly terrific and became the Miracle Mets after dropping the Orioles. Shea had some landmark moments in that series including two incredible catches by Tommie Agee to his left and right and an insane diving catch by Ron Swoboda in right field. The final catch of the series was made by Cleon Jones as he dropped to one knee and the fans poured out onto the field (as they did in those days) and the Mets became permanently endeared to their portion of New York. The Yankees had more titles than you could count on two hands at that point, but this one for the Mets was special, it was theirs.
The next magical moments in Shea came from Tug McGraw in 1973. The Mets trailed deep into August when McGraw heard a speech from Mets chairman M. Donald Grant about how they still believed in the Mets players and it was Tug who jumped up and yelled, “Yeah, you gotta believe that’s right you gotta believe!” That night the Mets won and McGraw got the save and from then on it was their rallying cry. It took them all the way to the NL pennant but in the World Series they could not overtake the mighty Oakland A’s, even with Willie Mays playing his final season with the Mets that year.
Shea wasn’t exactly a home of greatness during the next 12 years. The club floundered until the Mets began to cultivate their farm system where they produced two first prize crops: Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. After adding Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter they were ready to take the league by storm. The Mets of the 1986 were a new kind of Met team. They were still rugged and rough, but they were also confident, if not cocky. Their confidence was almost silenced until another magical moment at Shea took place in the World Series of ’86 against the Red Sox. Mookie Wilson’s roller past first (behind the bag!) is one that will always be a part of baseball lore, loved by Mets fans and loathed by Boston fans. The Mets had some great seasons following ‘86 including a NLCS against the Dodgers in 1988 which if not for the pitching of Orel Hershiser or the hitting of Kirk Gibson may have played in another World Series.
After the 1990 season Strawberry left the team and the Bobby Bonilla era began. Once again, the Mets’ faithful suffered some horrid years of baseball. It was not all Bonilla’s fault, but he was the high man on the payroll and took most of the heat. Shea would not see playoff baseball again until the late 90s. Although they would not win a third World Series they had some great moments, like Robin Ventura’s walk-off Grand Slam(err single due to Todd Pratt’s excitement) and the Mets run to the 2000 Subway Series against the Yankees. The first game in Shea Stadium after 9-11 was an emotional game for all of New York and included a late home run by Mike Piazza versus the Braves that will always be remembered by many including yours truly.
Many other moments outside of baseball happened at Shea from the Jets playing football to the Beatles playing their landmark American concert, but of course the Mets were the centerpiece. The Mets have 2 World Series titles, the Yankees have 26. Yankee Stadium is hallowed ground according to baseball purists, and Shea is most often referred to as a dump. The final ceremony for Yankee Stadium was featured for hours on ESPN and attended by the legends of the franchise and their kin, and at Shea the ceremony was missing some of the key players from its history and played out in front of a depressed crowd. Still that’s been part of the Mets and their fans’ identities; they don’t want people to pine after their franchise. It’s pretty easy to be a Yankee fan; it takes discipline and a strong stomach to be faithful to the Mets. When you root for a team and become a true fan, you love your team like a family member. You stick by them when they make a fool out of themselves, in the good times and when you wish they were not related to you, and most of all, when they need you. LeBron can keep his Yankee hat, that’s fine but the Mets’ fans are glad that they stand alone while America has its love affair with the Yanks. Shea did its job in representing the team for what it was: the team that is hard to love, but hard to let go of once you do. Citi Field looks like it will be a marvel of modern baseball, I just hope it keeps the charm of Shea Stadium, we already know it is keeping the home run apple and hopefully, the mini-helmet ice cream.
Here are a couple Shea articles:
Fans share their Shea memories. [Deadspin]
One last visit to Shea. [ESPN Page 2]