The first time I walked into the stench-filled dump known as Shea Stadium, it didn’t seem so bad to me. In fact, it was magical. The only comparison would be the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when the kids first enter the factory. The only place I’d ever seen major league baseball was on TV. And most of the time it was black-and-white TV. Of course, Shea was only six years old then (and so was I) so it wasn’t the broken-down, out-of-date shambles it is (and I am) now. But going up that ramp, looking out onto the field and seeing big-league players for the first time was better than Christmas morning. It’s like unwrapping a present under the tree and finding out it’s Cleon Jones. Thanks, Dad!
The first game I went to was sometime in 1970, when the World Champion Mets hosted the second-year Montreal Expos. Which really means only one thing: I’m old. Back in those days, bringing signs to Shea was all the rage. I once brought my “Mash ’Em McAndrew” sign when Jim McAndrew toed the rubber. I doubt he saw me out near the right-field foul pole. I don’t even remember who won the game but I remember the sign. My brothers held up their “Hit it Harrelson” and “Bomb it Boswell” signs too. McAndrew probably didn’t mash ’em, Bud Harrelson most likely didn’t get a hit and Ken Boswell didn’t launch a bomb. But we were at the game on a sunny Sunday afternoon, so what did it matter?
Years later in 1999, the Mets had to beat the Pirates on the last day of the season to have any chance at the wild card. And I was there when Melvin Mora scampered home in the bottom of the ninth on a wild pitch to win the game. Of course they ended up tying for the wild card and going on to the National League Championship Series.
And I was at the Mets-Braves game in 2000 when the Amazin’s were losing 8-1 and somehow scored 10 runs in the eighth inning, capped off by a Mike Piazza three-run blast, to win the game. I was in the upper deck behind the first-base foul line, and the whole stadium shook like it was an earthquake. I thought Shea was going to collapse. Unbelievable.
I don’t recall my first game at Yankee Stadium but I do remember sitting in the right field stands in the early ’70s in old Yankee Stadium and being mesmerized by Oakland A’s right fielder Reggie Jackson. I was transfixed because he was eating sunflower seeds all game long. He kept a pack of them in his back pocket and dipped into it all afternoon long. I thought, “Wow, not only does he get to play in the major leagues but he gets to eat snacks all day while doing it, too!” It doesn’t get any cooler than that.
In the new Stadium, in 1976, I was lucky enough to be at a 19-inning Yanks-Twins marathon. Dick Tidrow came in to relieve in the seventh inning and ended up going 10.2 innings! You’ll probably never see that again. But he wasn’t even in the game long enough to get the win as Grant Jackson recorded the victory when Mickey Rivers drove in Oscar Gamble with the winning run. My friend’s uncle took us to the game and was going to bring us into the Yankees locker room afterwards because he knew somebody associated with the team. But the game went on so long the clubhouse tour was cancelled. You can’t have everything. I also went to the game the day before David Wells pitched his perfect game. Not so much luck with timing at Yankee Stadium.
Now it’s last call for the two New York stadiums. Yankee Stadium has the history and championships but Shea had its own unique story too. And that was the first park I ever saw, so to me that’s just what a major league stadium looked like. I’m sure Citi Field and Yankee Stadium III will be impressive, but in my head Shea and old Yankee Stadiums I and II will always be home. I’ll always remember the games, the sights and even the smells. Shea, you had me at stench.
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