If you thought 'Shea' was just the name of a stadium, or you don't know your Jay Payton from your Joan Payson, a trip to the New York Mets' Hall of Fame and Museum may be just what the baseball doctor ordered.
When Citi Field opened its doors to 41,007 baseball enthusiasts on April 13, 2009, the one thing Mets fans wanted more of was history.
There weren’t enough memories of former greats who patrolled the Polo Grounds, there was precious little mention of the World Series victories from 1969 and 1986, and, on a more superficial level, there simply was not enough orange and blue.
The Mets listened to fans’ suggestions and after ensuring the stadium was ready for Opening Day last year, they put in hours of work throughout the off season to make Citi Field feel like home this year.
Oversized baseball cards of historic Mets now line the concourse down first and third, the home run apple from Shea takes pride of place outside the ballpark right next to the No. 7 subway stop, and a new museum branches off from the Jackie Robinson rotunda to the right of the main entrance.
I had the opportunity to meet with Tina Mannix, the senior director of marketing with the Mets, for a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum to learn a little more about the newest addition to the stadium. Putting it all together, it seems, is much more than just getting some game-used jerseys and balls and displaying them for a year or two.
Relative humidity in cabinets has to be maintained around 50 percent, UV filters need to line the windows, and every aspect of the storage and recording of each item is determined ahead of time.
"This was all built as part of the game day experience,” Tina said. “The goal was to house and pay tribute to Mets history in the right way and to build it in a way that it can stay here for a long time.
"We wanted to honor our history, whether it's players or managers or members of the team that made a mark—we kept using the term 'an indelible mark' on the franchise. We wanted it to be a great place for fans to learn a little bit about the history that they may not have known, and for a generation to pass along to another generation.
“We wanted it to be a place people would be proud of. We will have been around 50 years in 2012 so it's not like we've been around that long, but our history is very unique and very different, and we clearly wanted to celebrate those great moments."
While the two World Series trophies are the first thing you notice in the Ring of Champions when you enter the museum, the Mets hit all of the right notes with their displays.
The busts commemorating all 21 members of the Mets Hall of Fame that were on display in the Diamond Club at Shea Stadium have been replaced by Cooperstown-esque plaques, and there are fantastic displays dedicated to the history of Mr. Met and defining moments of the franchise.
Add that to one of Keith Hernandez’s 11 Gold Gloves, Tom Seaver’s Cy Young award, an original record of Meet the Mets, Benny Agbayani’s bat from the Subway Series, and John Franco's FDNY cap that he wore after 9/11 and you leave the museum full of nostalgia and pride.
Even Casey Stengel's handwritten notes saying Ed Kranepool "should block more grounders at first base" and that Bobby Klaus was a "fair bunter and good hustler" are pure gold for fans of an older generation.
The Mets have a rich broadcasting heritage too, and it seemed only fitting that Ralph Kiner, Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, Howie Rose, Gary Cohen, Billy Berroa, and Juan Alicea were represented in the museum. You can hear four famous calls from each broadcaster and watch the corresponding footage on an overhead monitor, reliving the moments these personalities brought into your living rooms.
Tina said: “Interactive displays are part of the whole experience and they are important especially with our younger fans because they help them learn about the team and its history...about where the team came from.
"We are very proud of the Jackie Robinson rotunda and we realize that we are a product of the Dodgers and the Giants. It's fact. We wear the NY symbol because of the New York Giants and we wear orange and blue because of the blue of the Dodgers and the orange of the Giants."
History and story-telling is a theme throughout the 3,200 square-foot museum, and nothing tells a better tale than the ball that Mookie Wilson hit that trickled through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series, on loan from private collector Seth Swirsky.
Swirsky, a songwriter and long-time Mets fan, said he was more than happy to loan the ball to the museum.
"I'm a die-hard longtime fan and I went to Shea Stadium,” he said. “I went to the World Series at nine years old in '69, and I really grew up with it. So for me to end up with this ball was a tremendously humbling experience and I was glad to be able to lend it to the Mets. I'm so, so happy that fans are getting a good feeling from it.
"I was completely thrilled to help the Mets in any way I could. They have given me so many thrills and they're my team, you know. The way the Mets have done everything is very professional.
"I’m happy to give back to the Mets. The more that see it, the merrier."
The ball is housed next to the timeless photo of the ball getting through Buckner’s wickets in the Defining Moments exhibit, inscribed with the message to Mets traveling secretary Arthur Richman: "To Arthur. The ball won it for us. Mookie Wilson, 10/25/86."
Tina added: "We all knew this ball existed, the Mookie ball. This is the ball. We knew Seth was a big Mets fan and he wanted to make sure it was protected."
To read a special article on the history of the ball and an in-depth interview with its owner click here.
While the ball is one of the higher-profile artifacts at the museum, there are more than 60 items in total, many on loan from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and private collectors.
The museum was specially designed by Populous, formally HOK Sport Architects, who helped create the Royals Hall of Fame at Kauffman Stadium, and there are a number of controls in place to make sure everything stays in pristine condition.
"The National Baseball Hall of Fame has been amazing to work with and they were one of the first people we called. We have a great relationship with them," Tina said.
"These display units were built to Cooperstown's specifications and we wanted to make sure we did everything the right way. They're trying to protect what they loan, and so it if meets with Cooperstown approval we should be good.
"We had talked about a museum for a long time. It was something that had been part of the conversation and it was really just a matter of priorities and finding the right space and allocating the right amount of time to do it the right way."
Temperature and humidity monitors, called thermographs, gauge conditions inside the cabinets and staff members record the totals every week before reporting back to Cooperstown every three months. The exterior windows all have UV treatments to limit the type of light entering the museum, and the exhibits are strategically arranged so that sensitive items are not exposed to direct sunlight.
In addition, the museum staff has to reach a consensus on the appraisal of every item on display, and loan agreement forms have to be exchanged and signed between the Mets and every exhibitor.
When I spoke with Erik Strohl, senior director of exhibits and collections at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, he said it takes years of experience to put a museum together successfully, but that he was excited to be able to help the Mets highlight their own heritage in Flushing.
"We have had a couple of staff members visit the museum and they have said it is fantastic. From the pictures it looks like they have done a really good job and the visitors seem to enjoy it," he said.
Erik worked with the team to determine everything from security measures and cabinet temperatures to where the Mets store items that are not on display to where they check new artifacts in when they come to the stadium.
Most of the items on loan from Cooperstown are hardy and durable—Tommy Agee's glove from 1969, Mike Piazza's batting helmet, Agbayani's bat that drove home the winning run in the Mets only Subway Series victory—and that is important because they generally require less stringent care than items like documents or photographs.
"It’s hard to maintain levels exactly in a museum where members of the public are. You really want the temperature around 68 degrees, but for relative humidity it depends because each type of artifact needs a different type of humidity. In this case where you are talking about things that are made from all different types of medium you really just try to pick a happy point in the middle, somewhere between 45 and 55 percent relative humidity.
"The most important thing is not necessarily what the actual temperature and humidity are, but that they maintain a standard and that they don’t fluctuate. That is more dangerous than having it a little bit too high or low."
There is a fine balance between invaluable and priceless at the museum, and I think that is one of the things that makes it intriguing.
The original scouting report on Darryl Strawberry is a remarkable artifact, but it actually came from the Mets own human resources department, and the paper mache head of the Mr. Met mascot is one of the originals from the mid 60s that was just stored away until now.
Strawberry's original free agent player report, taken by Mets scouts in 1980 when Straw was an 18-year-old kid playing out in California, is actually one of my favorite pieces in the museum.
Scout Roger Jongewaard observed that although Straw had below-average hitting ability, power, speed, fielding, range, and aggressiveness by Major League standards, he had the potential to be an above-average power hitter with an accurate, strong arm.
He estimated that Strawberry was worth $60,000. The Mets took him as the No. 1 overall pick two months later, Strawberry collected Rookie of the Year honors, and he went on to become one of the best power hitters in Mets history. Within five years of being at the Mets, he was earning $516,000 a year. When he signed with the Dodgers in 1991, he received $3.8 million. Well, scouts can't be right about everything.
Wherever you look, there’s a story to be told. That is one of the reasons behind replacing the Hall of fame busts, like what you would see at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, with the plaques which provide an insight into their careers and contributions. Four more will be added on Aug. 1 when Strawberry, Doc Gooden, Davey Johnson, and Frank Cashen are inducted.
“We knew we wanted to do something different with the busts because they don't really tell a story. We felt like we wanted to tell a little bit about the person and what their impact was," Tina said.
“It's not that the Hall of Fame wasn't a priority, but we decided we needed to bring it back. We needed our Hall of Fame to actually have a home, otherwise you have these members but what does that really mean? It's just something on paper as opposed to a place where people can really learn about it. You want people to know about who Joan Payson and Casey Stengel were.”
They will join the famous icons of Mets history, which include Bud Harrelson, Jerry Koosman, Ed Kranepool, Gary Carter, and Tom Seaver—someone who is featured prominently throughout the museum.
Speaking about the Seaver jersey on the uniform display wall, Tina said: “A lot of the collectors have different items, and it was just about what tells the best tale.
"Collectors have game-used Seaver jerseys, some have signed Seaver jerseys, and others have jerseys from the '69 season. But this is a Tom Seaver game-used 1969 signed World Series jersey. That’s pretty special.
"Could we have filled a wall with Tom Seaver stuff? Sure, but we wanted to show unique stuff and and we also wanted to show more current stuff which is why you'll see a Jose Reyes jersey or a Carlos Beltran jersey or a Gary Carter bat. We didn't want it to be just about guys in our Hall of Fame because our history's more than that."
As Tina moves along the display she stops at a smaller jersey that evokes a completely different emotion. “I can stand here and look at Mookie Wilson's jersey and think 'Oh my God, I remember when he wore that, look at how small it is. Look at the different fashion through the years.'”
If the jerseys were an expected element of the museum, one little collection which was not was the set of four World Series press pins.
"The press pins are a baseball tradition if you will,” Tina said. “They end up being collectibles and you have to work with MLB on the design.” In the past, say in 1969, only a small number of pins were made for the press. As more and more credential were handed out, clubs decided not to date the pins with a specific year, allowing them to be created in advance when a trip to the World Series loomed.
"More recently the pins will say ‘Third World Series,’ ‘Fourth World Series,’ etc. They’re not dated like they use to be.”
While there are obvious benefits to this in ensuring the pins are ready, it also leads to disappointment when they have to be locked away. As for the Mets' “Fifth World Series” pin, it has been safely locked away since 2006 when Carlos Beltran struck out against the St. Louis Cardinals with the bases loaded in Game Seven of the NLCS.
Tina added: “It takes a while to create a pin and we were one inning away in Game Seven from going to the World Series, so our pin was already made. That is the world of baseball. There were t-shirts in my office saying ‘National League Champions 2006’ which we had to mail back to MLB.
"You can't have thousands of pins made overnight. You have to prepare a little ahead of time."
And when history moves on and the need for the press pins leads to the Mets bringing home a third World Championship trophy?
"You bring me that problem and I’d be very happy," Tina laughed. "I don't think anyone would mind having to move parts of the museum around to deal with that."
The Hall of Fame and Museum is open to all ticket holders on game days. Individuals and groups can also visit the museum as part of the newly-announced Citi Field tour which opens on Memorial Day next weekend. For more information, click here or call 718-507-TIXX.
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