By Jason Wirchin
“Next stop, Shea Stadium.” Any lifelong Mets fan and experienced subway rider knows that those four words crackling over the 7 train’s speakers can only mean one thing: home is near. For 45 years, our beloved ballpark in Queens has provided us with memories to last a lifetime and summer afternoons to savor forever. Even if they meant emptying our wallets just to get there. But as another season draws to a close, this sky-high monument to the Boys of Summer (and many others) takes its final bow as it closes its doors and gives way to Citi Field next April. So in honor of Shea’s last hoorah, let us take a trip down Roosevelt Avenue (to the corner of 126th Street, of course) and reflect on nearly a half-century of unforgettable moments, rockin’ concerts, and way too expensive hot dogs.
Built in 1964 in conjunction with the World’s Fair, Shea’s early years were marked by baseball…absolutely terrible baseball! In the Mets’ first year there, they won a dismal 53 games and lost 109. Would you expect any better with no-names like Hawk Taylor, Bobby Klaus, and Roy McMillan in the starting lineup? Not exactly Murderer’s Row, huh! Shea did host the All-Star Game that year, though it was the only time the Midsummer Classic ever came to Flushing. Nonetheless, throughout most of the 60’s, the Mets never placed better than ninth in the National League. Then came 1969.
Up until the summer of that year, the Mets continued to play one mediocre game after another and it seemed as if ‘69 was bound to turn out like the club’s previous seven seasons. However, by the All-Star break in July, the Amazins’ had moved into second place in the National League East, trailing the Cubs by only 4.5 games in the standings. Remarkably winning 37 of their last 48 games, the team took over first place on September 10, and clinched the division crown on September 24 in a 6-0 win over the Cardinals. They went on to defeat the Braves in the League Championship Series and slaughtered the Orioles in five games to win the World Series at Shea on October 16. The lovable losers were losers no more and ruled as the Kings of Queens.
Following their first championship in franchise history, the Mets returned to the Fall Classic in 1973 – with the help of Tug McGraw’s “Ya Gotta Believe” mantra – only to lose to the Athletics in seven games. For the next decade, the team hit its doldrums and it wasn’t until the mid-1980’s that the Shea faithful began to feel the winds of October start to blow. In 1986, the Mets dominated the National League. Finishing the regular season in first place with a 108-54 record and a 21.5 game lead over the Phillies in the division (oh, how nice that would be today!); these Bad Boys were a team of destiny. They were unruly, they were obnoxious, but they were good, really good! After defeating the Astros in a six-game National League Championship Series, the Mets found themselves back in the World Series.
After losing the first two games at home and winning the next two out of three up in Boston, the team returned to Shea facing elimination. But this trip home would be different. The reason? Game Six. On October 25, in front of a paid crowd of more than 55,000, Boston was one out away from winning their first title in 68 years. Yet these Mets would not back down, and, perhaps with a little help from the baseball gods Mookie Wilson’s slow roller up the first base line somehow found its way under Bill Buckner’s legs and…, well, the rest is history. Two days later, the team won its second Series. Shea shook. Queens quaked. The Mets were once again champions of the world!
In 1988, Shea had playoff fever yet again. This time, though, the magic of ‘86 had worn off and the dream was not to be. After losing a seven-game NLCS to the Dodgers, that ass-haulin’ squad from just two seasons earlier was slowly dismantled and a new era of Mets would enter the scene. Nothing spectacular came from the 1989 to 1998 teams, the next two years finally gave Mets fans reason to believe. Having clinched the NL wild card in 1999, Bobby Valentine’s bunch found themselves in a spot to win the Division Series at home. Up three games to one versus the Diamondbacks, back-up catcher Todd Pratt came to the plate in the bottom of the tenth with the score locked at three. One swing of the bat was all it took as Pratt launched a series-clinching homer over the wall that just eluded centerfielder Steve Finley’s glove. Radio announcer Gary Cohen called it best: “It’s outta here! It’s outta! Pratt hit it over the fence! Mets win the ballgame!”
The Mets proceeded to face the Braves in the second round of the ‘99 playoffs, and despite Robin Ventura’s famous “grand slam single” in the bottom of the fifteenth to force a game six; Atlanta squashed the hopes of so many eager fans as they won the series (but lost to the Yankees in the Fall Classic – nice!). Speaking of those damn Yankees, 2000 was a year for the ages. In the first Subway Series World Series since 1956 (when the Yanks played the Dodgers), the Mets battled their cross-town rivals in a fan-crazy media frenzy. The city was ablaze in blue, orange, and pinstripes, and what better place to host the middle games of the series than at rickety Shea. The Mets salvaged the first game at home, but that was all. The Bombers went on to win the Series two nights later.
After a six-year layoff, Willie Randolph’s boys roared through the rest of the National League in 2006. Dubbed a relentless pursuit for the postseason, the team’s journey from Game 1 through Game 162 was marked by one stellar win after another. Clinching the franchise’s first division title since 1988, the dynamic duo of Reyes & Wright propelled the team past the Dodgers in the NLDS and into a classic second-round showdown with the Cardinals. Forced to a defining Game 7, Shea was the scene for two of the most exhilarating and heart-breaking events in club history. Following Endy Chavez’s superman catch to rob Scott Rolen of a home run in the sixth, Carlos Beltran took a called third strike to end the game, the series, and the dreams of Mets fans from Manhattan to Montauk. It still hurts.
Playoff appearances aside, the stadium has had no shortage of “Amazin’” moments. In April 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the Major Leagues, Commissioner Bud Selig officially retired number 42 throughout all of baseball, as President Bill Clinton and Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, looked on. And who could forget that stirring Mike Piazza home run in New York’s first sporting event since 9/11? With tens of thousands of uneasy fans packed into Shea, the place served as a house of community, a house of togetherness. As Piazza’s shot soared majestically over the centerfield fence, New Yorkers, at least for a night, had something to cheer about.
Although they are the ballpark’s primary tenants, the Mets aren’t the only team to have ever called Shea home. The Jets played their home games there from 1964 to 1983 and the Giants, in 1975. Shea actually hosted both New York football teams, the Mets and the Yankees, in 1975 as Yankee Stadium underwent renovations. Pity the schedule makers that year!
More than just an all around sporting venue, however, over the years Shea has served as quite the musical scene. From The Beatles’ landmark concerts in 1965 and 1966, Shea has hosted the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Who, The Police, Simon and Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Bruce Springsteen. This past summer, Billy Joel played two concerts to commemorate the stadium’s ultimate season.
So as autumn arrives and leaves the traces of summer behind, we salute Shea one final time. We will miss its deplorable parking, $20 foam fingers, stray cats, and ear-shattering sound system; and we’ll never forget the constantly flooded bathrooms (which resemble Temples of Doom, if anything else). Granted, it has its quirks, but they’re our quirks. What else would you expect from an outdated heap of steel and concrete nestled between Queens’ best junkyards and the Whitestone Expressway? As Citi Field looms ominously over the centerfield fence, it’s clear that Shea’s days are through. The last beer will be sold, the last out will be made, and the last fans will leave the turnstiles. But regardless of when our beloved park falls to the wrecking ball, that big ol’ blue, cookie-cutter of a stadium will always remind us of what it means to be a kid again. As tough as this is to say…..Farewell, dear friend. Thanks for the memories.