I’ve been going to Shea Stadium since I was five years old. I can’t remember who the Mets were playing when I saw my first game there, but I know I was sitting in the upper deck, down the first base line. My father tells me that I couldn’t wait to leave by the fifth inning, probably because I had already had my ice cream, gotten my souvenir mini bat and was ready for a nap.
All these years later, I can think back on a handful of other times when thanks to their poor play, the Mets dug themselves in 10-1 deficits I had no interest in sticking around for, and decided to depart Shea earlier than expected.
The following is a list of ten memories that had me spending just a bit more time inside a ballpark that is, was and always will be a home away from home for me, where I saw playoff games, big home runs, great catches, rock and roll legends, Opening Day’s and a final weekend.
The Mets have been as big a part of my life as anything else, and Shea Stadium was the place I was always able to go where I could the anything else would go away when I needed it to.
I grew up there, and I’ll always be thankful for the wonderful times I’ve been able to share with both family and friends, as well the baseball team that captured my heart some 15 years ago.
Here are my top ten Shea Stadium memories.
10. May 19th, 2006
All Wright Now
David takes down Goliath Rivera in Comeback win vs. Yankees
Few games bring a playoff atmosphere to Shea Stadium during the regular season like Subway Series games. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend at least one at Shea ever year since 1998, and in 2006, I was in attendance Friday night May 19th. I had just gotten home from my freshman year of college, and my first trip to Shea since being home brought the Yankees in for their annual three game series. The game seemed one sided before it started, with Randy Johnson pitching in pinstripes while the Mets were starting relative unknown Geremi Gonzalez. In the top of the first, Gonzalez allowed his nerves to get the best of him, allowing 4 runs staking Johnson and the Yanks to an early lead. But as they became accustomed to doing all season, the Mets struck back, with Carlos Beltran hitting a three-run bomb off Johnson. The game would be tied at 6 heading into the ninth, and Yankees manager Joe Torre brought in the seemingly invincible Mariano Rivera to keep the game tied. The Mets would have none of it, as they loaded the based against him which set the stage for David Wright to send a Rivera pitch sailing over the outstretched reach of Yankees Center fielder Johnny Damon, giving the Mets an inspiring come-from-behind 7-6 victory. For all of the Mets-Yankees games I’ve seen at Shea- and at Yankee stadium for that matter- I’ve never experienced a game with such a roller coaster ride of emotions, ending in such dramatic fashion. It was by far the greatest Subway Series game I’ve ever seen, and starts out my list as my tenth most memorable moment.
9. May 24, 1998
A Piazza Delivery: Mike Piazza’s first weekend in New York
It was a Sunday afternoon game in 1998 against the Milwaukee Brewers. In what would seem to be an otherwise meaningless, early season game with little significance, that Sunday will forever go down as the first time I can remember not asking- but begging my parents for tickets to a Mets game. I was 11, and just two nights earlier, my favorite baseball team suddenly revealed itself on the baseball map, by acquiring Mike Piazza in a trade with the Marlins. I’ll never forget hearing about from a Yankees fan friend of mine at the time, and I was so shocked I refused to believe him. When I finally had the rumor confirmed, I had never been so anxious to get to Shea. I wasn’t able to make it to the ballpark for Mike’s first game, which I’ll never forgive myself for, but Sunday I was able to persuade my father to get tickets. It was on that Sunday afternoon, in what was an 8-3 win for the Mets, I was able to- for the first time- feel connected to a player like never before. My fan-crush on Mike Piazza began that day, and hasn’t dimmed since, despite Piazza retiring from baseball earlier this year while not appearing in a Mets lineup card since the final day of the 2005 season. But that Sunday, I’ll never forget the electricity in the air, as fans finally seemed to have a reason to believe again at Shea. The Mets were the recipients of a future hall of fame catcher, while I was the recipient of a hero.
8. June 11, 2005: Cliff Banger
Floyd wins it in 10th with Homer after Anderson ties it with Inside-the Park Shot
Before my buddy Ian and I ever made it to Shea that day, we had purchased tickets to meet Pedro Martinez. After waiting several hours, we were informed Pedro was going to be a no-show, forcing us to change our plans for the rest of the day in hopes of making up for our wasted morning. We decided to purchase some cheap seats in the upper deck for that night’s game against the Angels, which we were just happy to be at regardless of outcome. The game itself was pretty dull, a 2-1 game with the Mets trailing heading into the bottom of the ninth. The Angels had their dominating closer on the hill, Frankie Rodriguez (who this season saved a Major League record 60 games), ready to finish the Mets off. A pinch-hitter extraordinaire that season, Marlon Anderson had other ideas. With nobody on and one out, Anderson laced a ball into right center field. Steve Finley, who Mets fans will always remember as the center fielder who failed to reel in Todd Pratt’s NLDS winning home run in 1999, dove trying to catch the ball, but ended up not only missing the ball but kicking it away from himself. Realizing the ball had kicked away, Anderson just kept on running, all the way home for what would be a game-tying, inside the park home run in the bottom of the ninth. I couldn’t dream up a more exciting way to tie the game, but that only got the action started. In the top of the tenth, the Angels went ahead 3-2, thanks to a Darren Erstad single, set the stage for a memorable bottom of the inning. Having already pitched K-Rod, the Angels were forced to turn over their closing duties to Brendan Donnelly. Jose Reyes led off the inning with a single. Mike Cameron followed with a walk. Donnelly then seemed to compose himself, striking out Carlos Beltran and Mike Piazza, leaving it up to Cliff Floyd. Floyd worked Donnelly into a 9 pitch at-bat, at one point sending a ball deep down the right field hooking just foul, but carrying home-run distance. After that foul ball I admit losing all hope, figuring that whenever a player hits a home run ball foul, he almost never actually ends up hitting a home run. Wouldn’t you know it, on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Floyd launched a moonshot over the right center field wall, winning the game 5-3 with two outs, bottom of the tenth 3-run homer. An unforgettable ending to an otherwise forgettable day at Shea.
7. May 23, 2006 & August 22, 2006
Belted: A pair of Walk-off Beltran Blasts
As stated earlier, in 2006, the Mets seemed to score early, score often and find new ways to win game night after night. En route to winning 97 games that season, Carlos Beltran settled the fears of fans who believed that the Beltran they saw in 2005 was a guy their team had grossly overpaid for. Beltran, after all, hit just 17 home runs while driving in only 78 runs, hitting .262. But in 2006, he rebounded with emphasis, tying the franchise record for homers in a single season (41), while driving in 116 runs. He was an MVP candidate, and helped carry his team into the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Two nights in particular stand out from that season. In May, Beltran helped end a marathon, 16 inning affair with the Phillies, sending a ball deep into the right field bullpen prompting Gary Cohen to call “…and we’re goin' home!” in a game that ended around 12:30 AM. Later that season, in a head to head match up with a fellow MVP front runner, Albert Pujols, Beltran seemed to be sitting in the backseat to the show Puols was putting on. Pujols hit 2 home runs, one a grand slam and the other a three-run shot, giving himself 7 RBI’s that night while opening up a 7-1 Cardinals lead. It would be another Carlos who helped get the Mets back into the game, as Carlos Delgado, in his first season wearing orange and blue, connected for a grand slam of his own, which coincidentally was also the 400th home run of his career. It was also his second home run of the game, which brought the Mets to within two, at 7-5. Jose Reyes drove in a run in the eighth inning making it 7-6, but the fireworks would be put on hold for another inning. In the bottom of the ninth, with a runner on and one out, as Cohen was on air uttering the phrase “and Beltran can win it with one swing”, Carlos connected on a first pitch from former Met Jason Isringhausen, sending a towering drive to right, sending the Mets to an 8-7 victory. The crowds on both of those nights seemed dead at times when the Mets were down or the game was stagnant, but both nights, it would be Beltran who lifted them up, along with his team to two memorable victories, both of which I was lucky enough to be at.
6. July 4, 1999
Pre-game Photos, Post Game Fireworks and a Handshake with my Hero
1999 was a defining season in Mets history, filled with as many memorable moments as any. Todd Pratt and Robin Ventura both ended playoff games in walk off fashion, while the team was just thrilled to be taking part in postseason baseball for the first time since 1988. Ironically, it was a member of the 99 Mets rotation, who I saw start that day, who single-handedly eliminated the Mets from the ’88 playoffs. Orel Hershiser, an old, washed-up has-been as my family and I affectionately referred to him as, didn’t last long, allowing 6 runs in only 2.2 innings. The Mets would end up coming back against John Smoltz highlighted by a seventh inning Edgardo Alfonzo home run, winning 7-6, and pulling themselves to within four games of first place Atlanta. The game itself was great, but had nothing on pre-game festivities, which included photo-day, a tradition the team has since removed. The first 500 (maybe 1,000) fans who showed up were allowed to go on the field before the game and walk around the field taking pictures of the players, with the rules specifically stating that you weren’t allowed to take pictures with them. A few things that stand out about that day: First, it was the fourth of July and I somehow convinced my parents to take me to Shea instead of doing whatever it was they would otherwise wanted to do. Secondly, it was no cooler than 105 degrees that day. I’m talking sweltering heat that made you want to wear nothing but freshly frozen ice trays as clothing. Lastly, for some reason that to this day I’ll never remember, I decided to show up at Shea wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It was hot, but I wasn’t a rationally thinking 12 year old, so the heat had nothing to do with my decision making. No Mets jersey, no Mets t-shirt. Not even a Mets themed Hawaiian shirt. Just a standard, I’m 45 and single Hawaiian shirt. Be as it may, I was there early with my parents, and we walked around the field, snapping shots of everyone from Rey Ordonez to Al Leiter, Bobby Valentine to John Franco and Benny Agbayani to Jay Payton. But of course, knowing he was their biggest star, Mike Piazza was the last guy you were able to see, and the crowd around him was huge. Realizing this might be my only chance to ever get this close to him, I decided to make a daring dash towards him, sticking out my hand to shake his. The ushers hadn’t yet finished yelling at me to step back by the time the camera did its job, getting a perfect shot of both Mike and myself, shaking hands and both staring directly into the camera. Not only was I not supposed to get that close to the player, but Mike didn’t have to shake my hand, and certainly didn’t have to smile and look at the camera. But he did, and it provided a photograph and a memory I’ll always have.
5. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, September 26, 27 and 28, 2008
Shea Goodbye: The Last Weekend at Shea Stadium
Had things turned out differently on Sunday, this easily could have skyrocketed higher on the list, but I actually debating leaving last weekend completely off following the disappointment I experienced during the 4-2 loss to Florida, ending the 2008 season for the Mets as well as the 44 year lifespan of their ballpark. That being said, I made it a point to drive home from school (Syracuse) early Friday morning, knowing that nothing was going to keep me from being part of the last possible games ever played at a place that as much a part of me as anything else. I’ve been going to Shea since I was five (so my father tells me), and between the ages of five and 21, I’ve certainly seen a lot (as this list proves). But I had never seen a clinching game, whether it was for a playoff spot or of a playoff series. The Mets had given me that opportunity, heading into the final weekend of the season tied with the Brewers for the Wild Card, while only trailing the first place Phillies by a game. Three games stood between me, my team and the playoffs. Also standing in my way was the worst weekend of weather I can remember. It rained seemingly non stop from the time I left Friday morning, through my drive home Sunday night. Incredibly, the rain seemed to break at the right time each day, giving the Mets and Marlins a chance to play some baseball. Friday night may not have been a wash weather-wise, but it certainly was on the field, as the Mets offense didn’t show. They lost 6-1, and combined with wins by both Philly and Milwaukee, the Mets would wake up Saturday in a do-or-die situation, needing a win to extend their season. Just as they had a year before, they came through, thanks almost solely to the left arm of ace Johan Santana. Santana, pitching with what we now know was a torn meniscus in his knee, on only three days rest, delivered a complete game, three hit shut-out. The Phillies clinched the east, but the Brewers lost, putting the Mets back into a tie with them for the wild card. This set up a win-and-in situation, meaning a win Sunday would at the very least force a 1 game playoff, but as had happened a year earlier, it wasn’t to be, as the offense didn’t show again, and the bullpen did what it became best known for doing all year, allowing two late inning home runs, giving Florida the win, and the Brewers a playoff birth following their win that day. In what I can only describe as the most awkward feeling I’ve ever had in a ballpark, the Mets then began their post-game, Shea Goodbye celebration. 50,000 plus fans had stayed behind, despite having just watched their season end. The Mets celebrated their teams history in their ballpark, bringing back 45 former players to take part in the festivities. From Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza, to the first Shea Stadium appearance of Dwight Gooden in a Mets jersey since 1994, to folk heroes like Robin Ventura and Cleon Jones, for 45 minutes you were almost able to forget about the gut-wrenching end to the season, and just embrace the teams past, while enjoying a final smile inside Shea. Personally, I couldn’t bring myself to leave, staying in my seats about an hour after the game ended, just thinking about all the years and all the memories I was lucky enough to experience there. I finally left and Ian and I took some pictures outside the ballpark before finally heading home around 7:45 that night. The ceremony probably ended sometime between 6 and 6:30. It was an unbelievably devastating end to both the season and my time at Shea, but it will also forever be remembered, even if not for all the right reasons.
4. April 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008
Opening Days at Shea
Starting back in 2000, the decision was made within my household that going to Opening Day was something we wanted to take part in. And since 2000, I’ve been sitting at Shea for both season and season home openers six out of nine times. Opening Day is no more important a game as far as the standings are concerned, but there is the hope a new season brings and the pre-game ceremonies that always bring 55,000 fans to the ball park for the first home game of the year. The Mets have historically played winning baseball on Opening Day, 29-18 during their 47 year history. Up until this past April, I had boasted a perfect 5-0 record, including a win over the Padres in 2000 thanks to an eighth inning Derek Bell home run. In 2002, the arrival of big names like Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and Jeremy Burnitz had a frenzied crowd anticipating a big season. We had to settle for a 6-2 win in the opener, but not much success thereafter. Fast forward to 2005, the ‘New Mets’ took the field behind new skipper Willie Randolph. The pre-game intros were highlighted by a resounding standing ovation for new ace Pedro Martinez, who a day earlier had secured the teams first win of the season after starting 0-5. The Mets beat Houston 8-4, as the theme of the day was old faces in familiar places, with Andy Pettitte starting for Houston and John Franco coming in to relieve later in the game against his former team. It was also the first time both David Wright and Jose Reyes took part in Opening Day. 2006 was when Mets fans saw Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner for the first time. David Wright homered and another new face, Xavier Nady had four hits in leading the Mets to a victory. The game ended with Carlos Beltran throwing out Washington’s Jose Vidro at second base for the final out of the game earning Wagner his first save as a Met. In 2007, Jimmie Rollins of the Phillies proclaimed his team the one to beat, but couldn’t back up his words during the season opener, going 0-3 and committing a big error which helped spark a seven run eighth inning to give the Mets another opening day victory. And just this past April, coming off their epic collapse, the Mets had the Phillies at Shea again, playing their last ever home opener at their home of 44 years. The Phillies would crash the party, winning 5-2 after the Mets bullpen coughed up a two run lead and the offense was unable to tack on any runs late, trends they seemed to continue throughout the entire 2008 season. Although the Mets lost in their final Shea Stadium opening day, they gave me yet another chance to see them start a season in what has become a tradition I hope to continue over at the new ballpark, starting a string of new memories.
3. October 16 1999, October 5, 18, & 19, 2006
In 1999, I was able to experience post season baseball at Shea for the first time, and I quickly learned just how different the crowd can be in October. The place was full of life, standing up from first pitch to last. It was game four of the 1999 NLCS, the Mets were facing elimination down 3-0 to Atlanta, but John Olerud wasn’t ready to let his team fall victim to the Braves powerhouse. After hitting a homerun earlier in the game, Olerud came through off Mets nemesis John Rocker with an eighth inning two run single to put his team ahead, forcing game five which would set the stage for Robin Ventura’s ‘grand’ heroics. Following the game four win, I would make a postseason return to Shea until 2006, when I was at game two of the division series, which saw Tom Glavine pitch six shut out innings in a win against the Dodgers. Two weeks later, I was back at Shea for game six of the NLCS against St. Louis. The Mets were down three games to two, and had the unproven John Maine starting against Cards ace Chris Carpenter. Jose Reyes got the party started early; hitting a lead off home run in the bottom of the first, and the Mets wouldn’t look back, as a 4-2 victory would force a game seven. I had flown home from school for game six, not having tickets for a potential seven or a flight that would have allowed me to get back, but when an offer came for a game seven ticket, I rushed to change my flight and come up with a hefty price tag for a ticket I knew I might never have another chance of getting my hands on. Game seven, trip to the World Series on the line at Shea Stadium. It just didn’t get any better than this. I ran into Tim Kurkjin from ESPN before the game, and asked him who he liked, and he told me he had picked the Mets to win and was sticking with them. If Tim felt the Mets were winning, that was good enough for me. It didn’t matter that Oliver Perez was starting despite having an ERA north of 5, or that the last game seven the Mets played in an NLCS saw them lose to the Dodgers in 1988. This was going to be different. And it certainly appeared that would be the case after the Mets scored first, and Perez pitched five easy scoreless innings. In the top of the sixth, with a runner on and only one out, Perez was facing Scott Rolen, who connected with a Perez pitch launching it deep to left field, chasing Mets outfielder Endy Chavez back to the wall. In a defining moment in Mets history, Chavez made a spectacular leaping catch, fully extending his arm over the wall and pulling the would be home run ball back into play, and throwing the ball back in to double off the runner on first. To this day, I can still hear the roar of the crowd when Endy made what is known to Mets fan simply as “the catch”. Of course that would be the last time fans would get to cheer that night, as Aaron Heilman surrendered an eighth inning home run to Yadier Molina, and Carlos Beltran left the bat on his shoulders with the bases loaded, striking out looking against Cards closer Adam Wainwright, sending St. Louis to the World Series. 56,000 people have never sounded so quiet, and watching the visiting team celebrate winning a pennant on my field was heartbreaking. I never though I’d leave Shea Stadium so emotionally crushed (little did I know what the team had in store for me last Sunday). As rotten as it was leaving game seven, the memory was a once in a life time sort of experience, and although they lost, the Mets, and Endy Chavez that night along with Jose Reyes the night before and John Olerud back in 1999, showed me that there is nothing in the world that compares to playoff baseball at Shea.
2. July 18, 2008
Billy the Kid rocks Shea
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined looking back on the hundreds of times I went to Shea that the second greatest night I’d ever spend there wouldn’t feature a single pitch being thrown or a single swing being taken. Back in July, I hit the jackpot of jackpots in landing floor seats to the second of Billy Joel’s ‘Last Play at Shea’ concert series. I had only been to a concert of any kind once before, and while I considered myself a fan of Mr. Joel’s, I was hardly the fanatic worthy of the seats I was lucky enough to get. I only knew the words to a handful of his songs, and couldn’t name half of the ones I heard by the time I left. But a number of things happened that night which have changed a whole lot of that. Since that concert, I find myself listening to his songs, all of them, dozens of times a week, knowing the words to most and anxiously searching on-line for an announcement of another tour. I also got to experience Shea Stadium in a way I never had before, being able to walk around the field and explore everything from the outfield wall to the dugouts to standing in straight-away center field, just admiring the 50,000 people looking down upon the stage. It was overwhelming to say the least. I was also able to scoop up some grass and dirt from Shea, knowing I would never have another opportunity to do such a thing. By the time the concert started, I had already gotten my money’s worth, or so I had thought. During a three-plus hour performance, Mr. Joel played all of his biggest hits, along with some of his lesser known gems, while welcoming a number of big name guests to join the stage with him. Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, Steven Tyler and Roger Daltrey all took the stage to amaze the crowd, but it was the final guest of the night who may have stolen the show. It had been more than 40 years since the Beatles took the stage at Shea, but Mr. Joel made sure the place wouldn’t be torn down without a final goodbye from one of the Fab Four’s shining stars. Sir Paul McCartney was introduced, singing two songs to a euphoric crowd who walked out in such a state of shock that it was unusually quiet for what had just happened inside. Piano Man, Movin’ Out and Scenes from an Italian Restaurant had Shea rocking like it was an October night with a championship on the line, while Sir Paul playing Let It Be was perhaps as spine chilling a moment as I’ll ever experience.
1. September 21, 2001
Baseball returns to NY after 9/11, Piazza wins it with Home Run in eighth
This was about more than baseball.
This was about showing the world we weren’t afraid, and that were going to pick ourselves up off the mat, and go on with our lives and prove that we could be bent but not broken. September 11, 2001 was a day that permanently changed the lives of every American. Living in New York City, I had a front row seat to the events which shook us to our very foundations. I also had tickets to a Friday night game at Shea only ten days later, not knowing if the game was going to be played, and if it was, whether or not it would be worth going. Once we knew the Mets and Braves would in fact be playing, the decision was easy. That was the first season I had my Tuesday-Friday season ticket plan, so the tickets were ours and we knew there was nowhere else we’d rather be than at Shea. The night was emotional to a point where you simply had to be there to appreciate. The crowd was excited to be back but cautious and still very much hurting from what had taken place less than two weeks prior. The replica skyline that rests above the scoreboard had a ribbon covering the World Trade Center. The American Flags waving around the ball park suddenly took on new meaning. Both teams took the field during the anthem, and greeted each other before the game to display an act of unity. Mark Anthony and Diana Ross sang, and the place was ready to watch some baseball, and distract itself for the first time since the tragedy. The game was tied at 1 going into the eighth, when the Braves took a 2-1 lead. While most fans would probably agree just being at a baseball a baseball game was distraction enough, walking out of Shea with a loss wouldn’t have helped lift the morale’s of New Yorkers who sorely needed a reason to smile. Trailing 2-1, on a night when New York’s true heroes were honored, Mets fans had their own hero put on his superman cape. In a moment scripted too perfectly for a Hollywood film, Mike Piazza hit a long, two run homer giving the Mets a 3-2 lead they wouldn’t give back. To this day, watching the replays give me goosebumps each and every time, and hearing the crowd erupt was a sound that still never goes away. The moment was so powerful, and so emotionally uplifting that people weren’t sure whether it was more appropriate to cheer or cry. It had been an inning earlier when Liza Minnelli sang New York, New York during the seventh inning stretch, eliciting a worthy standing ovation and cheer. But it was Piazza, the heart of a team who, if only for a night, sewed the hearts of a city with a swing that even he admits was probably bigger than any other he’s ever taken. Personally, watching my favorite player hit a home run to win a game would be special any night, but it was obviously considerably more special under the circumstances. On a night when baseball was serving simply as a way to think about anything other than the falling of those towers, it was mission accomplished thanks to the bat of Mike Piazza, who gave his team a win, and a city a reason to smile again.