Admit that when Ryan Church recorded the final out yesterday you were in no mood for the closing ceremonies of Shea Stadium. Admit that for a fleeting moment, you were thinking the stadium would empty and whatever was planned for Shea's requiem would pass through quickly, as fitting as a 4th of July parade in February. Admit that you wanted to slam down the remote or get on the 7 train and forget that you are a Mets fan for at least a day. Admit that you wanted to go directly to the stages of grief that follow immediately after a season ends so abruptly: bitter disappointment, anger, resentment, depression, and acceptance.
Then we realized why we are Mets fans. You could not leave as soon as you saw the Florida Marlins congratulating themselves as if they won the seventh game of the World Series and cured cancer simultaneously. You managed a faint smile when you heard a distinct command from the Mets fans: "Get off our field...Get off our field." If you were at the game, the combination of the weather and the play on the field served as a microcosm of 46 years of New York Mets baseball: A dismal beginning of heavy rain and a lack of clutch hitting, followed by glimmers of brilliant sunshine, home runs and sparkling flashes of pitching and defensive excellence, concluded by ultimate disappointment and, after acceptance, final hope. Of course you did not leave.
And so with emotions about the 2008 season in abeyance, with questions about clutch hitting and abysmal relief pitching and Jerry Manuel held back, you were forced to get ready to acknowledge something tender and noble about your team in the seconds after the rawness of an in-you-face betrayal (see above: resentment). Only the Mets. Only the Mets could do this to you. Force you to smile when you want to wear a grimace.
The ceremonies started slowly, of course. They put some cheesy logo over the mound. For a second you thought Lenny Dykstra was going to come in on skis and slalom through the cardboard cut-outs of players set up in the outfield. There was some announcement that Jim Hickman couldn't be there -- (who?). Nolan Ryan couldn't make it either - (not a real Met anyway!). Then there was Pete Flynn, the grounds crew guy - (Oh yeah...I remember him.) By the time they rolled out Ralph Kiner, you were back wherever you were when you realized you were a Mets fan.
For so many in this city, remembering that certain truth that you are a Mets fan was as easy as remembering the first time you knew what a baseball was. It is a truth with roots as strong as a certain other baseball organization in this city. For me, remembering where I was when I realized I was a Mets fan is the physical equivalent of remembering my father. By the time I was born in 1969, the transition was complete. A full-fledged Brooklyn Dodger fan was a complete New York Mets fan. His son was born into that without doubt, introspection or review. It was just a matter-of-fact.
When the early-mid 1960's Mets were trotted out yesterday, the solidification of how long this association went on was evident. I remember my dad talking about those early days. The night Duke Snider hit a home-run to win a game in the Polo-Grounds in '62. How every game was on free-TV. Then the uniforms changed and the Mets of the awful mid-late 1970's teams paraded out. Craig Swan, John Stearns, Lee Mazzilli, Dave Kingman, Doug Flynn. Yes, Doug Flynn. They all immediately triggered the dormant brain cell image of me sitting in my parent's living room watching my father take off his necktie after getting home from work. My mother to my father: "Joe, if you and Joseph are going to the ballgame tomorrow you better remember to...." All the words after, "...you and Joseph are going to the ballgame tomorrow..." are filed somewhere else. Instead I remember that instant feeling of uninhibited seven-year-old joy that I was going to see the Mets play an actual game at Shea Stadium. So on July 1, 1976 I saw John Matlack beat the Cardinals 13-0. John Milner hit a grand slam. I was hooked instantly. For the next seven years the Mets began a streak of finishing in last or next-to-last place. I am sure it is not true, but I think I watched every game.
The first trickling of 1980's Mets instantly brought back memories of another rainy day. July 27, 1984. Mets vs. Cubs. 1984 was the year that seven year losing streak ended. The Mets had Darryl, Davey and Doc and it was July and they were in first place. I went to Shea with my Dad; for the first time Shea was like my Dad said it used to be when the Mets were good: loud and electric. Shea was full. Full! The rain ended and the Mets beat the Cubs 2-1. George Foster broke a 1-1 tie with a SAC fly. Gooden got the win. I floated home and canceled a fishing trip in Sheepshead Bay with my cousin the next day because the Mets were on the 'Game of the Week' for the first time I could remember. They lost and wound up losing to the Cubs by a couple of games at the end of the season.
Next Strawman, Keith, Kid, Ron walked through the outfield. You remember running home from school to pick up Mets-Astros, Game 6 on a weekday afternoon in October 1986. You remember 1985 and that fr$#dks Whitey Herzog. I remember that other Game 6 vs. the Red-Sox in '86. I had my pillow in my mouth and bit down hard the entire 10th inning, until the ball got by Buckner. You remember being so supremely confident that Keith was going to get that hit in the sixth inning of Game 7, when the Mets trailed by 3. You remember turning to your father and asking where he was when the Dodgers finally won it in '55. "I came home from school and turned the game on. My father wasn't into baseball that much so I didn't think to ask him what the score was. But he knew I was into it and said, '2-0, Dodgers'. So I was at home watching when they won." What about in '69, Dad? "I was at work and a lot of people took a late lunch. There was a restaurant downtown called Joseph's. They had the game on. A bunch of us watched it from there. The celebration they had right after the Mets won was better than the official ticker-tape parade a few days later."
If you then stopped to realize the horror of September 2007 and 2008 had receded, at least until tomorrow morning, you were glad. When Mike Piazza made his appearance, you remember that Shea, both literally and figuratively, helped heal the realization of true horror in September 2001. And you remembered where you were that day. If you then allowed yourself to be reflective, you realized that, for a Mets fan, the closing ceremonies of Shea Stadium were of more consequence than you anticipated or cared to admit. They were of more consequence not because of any need to bend a knee to a "citadel" of baseball, or speak in hushed tones of demi-gods memorialized in stone tablets in the outfield. It is precisely because of the imperfect ordinariness of the place that you realized a meaningful connection. Like the garage or closet you keep promising to clean out, Shea was always there. Shea was there, so says your Dad, when you watched Jimmy Qualls break up Tom Seaver's perfect game from your infant crib. It was there when you were in grade school when Ron Hodges hit Craig Swan in the back trying to throw a runner out at second base. It was there when you were in High School, working part time at the local supermarket, listening to two housewives shopping for groceries recount how, the night before, Eric Davis slid hard into Ray Knight at third base and Knight punched him in the face. Shea was there when you skipped English 103 and Intro to Global Political Economy one day as a college freshman to go to opening day. Shea was there when there was no cable TV in Brooklyn and you listened to Bob Murphy happily recap El-Sid's domination of the Pirates on a random August night. Shea was there the first time you went to a game after your Dad passed away.
Shea was there for all the Mets fans who sat through the leaky pipes, out-of-order washrooms, bad food, traffic and 747's. Shea was there because that is where the Mets played. You were there because you were a Mets fan. You are a Mets fan because New York City, for all the success of the other team, has always been a National League city -- at least that is what my Dad always told me.
That is why you watched the closing ceremonies. So tear the old place down. There won't be any playoffs this year. Maybe it is better off. We have a clean break. Next year, we move into a beautiful new stadium. We will have to get used to being in a beautiful new stadium. Maybe we will get some relief pitching, finally. Then you watch Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza, Mets Hall-of-Fame royalty, walk out the open wall of center field at Shea. You watch them close the door. You know everything there is to know about the place and it is over.
Then you think it is time to remember this year again. It is time to get serious about the required teeth-gnashing deserving of this year's collapse. Then my mother, no sports fan but conditioned after a lifetime of Little League, CYO baseball and endless broadcasts, sits on the sofa while the closing ceremonies are on TV. Content that her grown-up son came in from the city to spend a Sunday afternoon with her at home in Brooklyn, she knits while the ceremonies unfold. Realizing that this is all about the last game at Shea, she looks up briefly and says, "You know your father proposed to me at Shea Stadium." No, I didn't know that. He never told me.