Saturday, September 27, 2008

Goodbye, Old Friend

Eulogies are hard to write. I know, that sounds like a whine.

Saying goodbye is hard. Saying goodbye to someone or something you've known all your life is harder, but I suppose we all must do it.

I grew up a Mets fan, which by definition means I grew up enjoying losing. From the lovable laughable team of Casey Stengel to the current crop of underachieving fuckheads (Scott Schoenweiss Schoe-n-tell is forever etched in my memory as the second worst reliever the Mets have ever had, second only to Doug Sisk Risk), a Mets fan learns to live with losing.

We also learn to live outside the spotlight, in the shadow of the bigger older brother across the Hellgate, the Yankees.

And so here we come to the nub of Shea Stadium. Mets fans love Shea, precisely because like us, it sits in the shadows of its older bigger famous sibling, Yankee Stadium.

Shea Stadium is the city. Yankee Stadium is a suburb. Shea Stadium sits across a small channel from the second busiest airport in the region, LaGuardia. Yankee Stadium rises up out of a park. At Shea, the smell of decaying fish and seaweed drifts and hangs over a game like a shroud. At Yankee Stadium, you might get a whiff of a nearby apartment building's cooking.

Shea sits amidst junkyards and hubcap dealers. Yankee Stadium sits amongst people, but somehow seems disconnected from them, like the dandy who brings his Bugatti to the local gas station because it broke down there on 161st Street.

Shea is of the people. Yankee Stadium is near the people.

Shea is undoubtedly one of the ugliest stadiums ever built. Conceived for two sports, designed for neither, and hurriedly built to open in time with the 1964 World's Fair, Shea exuded the early Sixties optimism for technology and minimalist architecture: get it up and get it built.

My dad was on the project that tore down the old Polo Grounds, the Mets first home. I remember walking that field as a young boy: it was cavernous and loud and echoed with the ghosts of crowds past, who watched the New York Giants play there, and Willie Mays and Ralph Branca.

I've had many opportunities to be on the field at Shea, both as a would-be player scouted for the organization, as a competitive athlete whose races often ended at home plate, and as a fan. It was always, always quiet in those dank mornings by the bay, as if God himself napped in the loge level.

And yet, so many of my memories these past 44 years have been loud ones. I even live-blogged a game in 2006 (sadly, the audio is a dead link) when the Mets captured the Eastern Division title, one of the few years where they achieved something, where they truly were contenders. I remember sitting for The Police concert in 1983, and watching the entire stadium bounce up and down as ninety thousand people stood and danced during "Don't Stand So Close To Me".

Like any good friend, I've seen Shea at her best and her worst. I've sat everywhere in the stadium, from the far reaches of the upper deck to the cushioned comfortable corporate seats just behind home plate at field level, and everywhere in between, including the press level. I've been to miserable Jets games there, when it was cold and rainy and windy...oh, the wind off Flushing bay! There is no wind that cuts you quite as deeply, since no other wind can combine with watching Pat Leahy miss three field goals or Sid Fernandez blow out his knee and the Mets get knocked out of the pennant race in May.

I've been to bright sunny games where the Mets lost by ten runs or were no-hit, but who cared? It was Shea, there was beer (or soda) and friends, and we just sat back and made fun of them.

Today, it is rainy and muggy and gray. Today, I go to wake my old friend ahead of tomorrow's funeral. A particular pall looms over the game today, as the Mets all but played themselves out of contention last night. The Mets will do that to you.

No matter. I go. I will wrap my arms around as much of the stadium as I can, and kiss her and say goodbye. And probably cry a little, just as I am now.

See, it's not a monument to urgency, or a house for a second class ballclub, or a buttugly-piece-of-barely-functioning arena.

It is my childhood. It is my life marching down the path in the woods that I have chosen. I mourn the path least taken, the one I should have, could have, been on.

It is my innocence. It is school day field trips to watch Bob Moose no-hit the Mets. It is the memory of watching John Milner, Rusty Staub and Wayne Garrett crank out home runs in a game in 1973 when the Mets made the most historic climb in history, from fourteen games out in last place to the top of the division in a month and a half. It is the memory of my unborn daughter kicking to root for Gary Carter trying once more for home run 300. It is sitting in the miserable cold October rain as Keith Hernandez pulls his hamstring trying to go first to third when the Mets desperately needed a run in a championship series against the Dodgers. It is Steve Trachsel bringing long-delayed relief to beleaguered Mets fans in 2006. It is heartache and it is unbridled joy and it is, simply, what love is.

It is a book and it is closing now. Goodbye, old friend!