Commentary

Shea Stadium: New York's other MLB home bids farewell, too

Updated: September 24, 2008, 5:05 PM ET
By Kristian Dyer | Special to ESPN SportsTravel


Also see: Stadium Guide for the New York Mets

It is hard to imagine missing Shea Stadium.

With no ivy on the walls or a green monster in left field, Shea is devoid of the kind of aura and charm of baseball's relics. Also missing are the plush amenities of today's grand venues.

A tribute to function over form, the Queens ballpark rises out of a diverse Flushing Meadows' neighborhood.

With the Mets' mainstay readying for its final regular-season homestand and its replacement next door being built up for the first pitch of next spring, the era of Shea Stadium will soon be over.

The new ballpark, Citi Field, which pays homage to the archetypal architecture of Brooklyn's late Ebbets Field, is expected to be a world-class facility.

That may not necessarily be a good thing, at least according to some fans who actually favor Shea's design.

"Who needs a pool? This stadium is so simplistic. It is a field and seats. That is it. It is beautiful," said Saul Cruz Jr. of Staten Island, a Mets fan who has traveled the country to see the blue and orange play and derides other, more modern stadiums. "The vibe is New York."

Indeed, Shea is a testament to a time when ballparks were just that. In an era that gave birth to the cookie-cutter designs of Veterans Stadium and Three Rivers Stadium, Shea was built as a multi-purpose venue designed to handle the varied sporting and entertainment needs of the greater New York area.

With two sets of moving stands along the foul lines, it has born witness to everyone from the Pope to Pele … and some might argue that both are divinely guided.

The incredible 1969 team that won over a generation of fans by capturing the World Series is etched into baseball lore. The "Amazins" who stole a World Series between the legs of Bill Buckner in 1986 used Shea as a backdrop for their improbable win.

The first Beatles concert on this side of the Atlantic was held here in 1965, a year after the facility opened. The Jets made their home at Shea for nearly two decades. And the football Giants even hosted opponents here for a season.

The Yankees played here for a spell, too, while the other house – you know, the one that Ruth built and, which, as if you didn't know, also is closing up shop – was undergoing renovations in the mid-1970s.

Despite its storied history, however, Shea Stadium certainly has its detractors, many of whom find little visible appeal to the old place.

Peter Gammons, a baseball writer and broadcast analyst for ESPN, determined early on the ballpark was underwhelming.

"It really didn't have a personality," the National Baseball Hall of Fame honoree said of his first impressions of Shea in 1964.

"There are a lot of great moments here, created by the team … I guess what I am trying to say is that I think it was outdated by its third or fourth year."

The simple truth of it boils down to this: Shea Stadium's swan song is seemingly as much about next year and Citi Field as it is about paying tribute to the old ballpark.

The reason being is that there is little that endears visitors to Shea.

With utilitarian box seats in Mets' orange flanking the infield, the tiers rise to Everest proportions with the last row of the upper deck seemingly hanging over home plate, a sharp and daunting feel that leaves even the most daring Sherpa uneasy.

With the exception of a thousand-plus bleacher spots in left field, the seating essentially stretches from foul pole to foul pole. There is no grand bleacher culture like at Wrigley Field and no towering sky boxes like at the Rogers Centre. In fact, for the most part the outfield is a giant scoreboard.

In the newly minted generation of stadiums built to provide the fans with an "experience," Shea lacks frills and has precious little glitz; you are here to root on the blue and orange and enjoy the unique nature of the New York sports fan. The faithful here can turn a jeer into a cheer in a split-second.

The fans make Shea unique, and they are a different breed than the cross-town counterparts.

Numerous World Series rings for the Bronx Bombers have brought incredible ticket prices and the cost has become too much for many Yankees' fan. Shea, however, offers a more reasonable array of ticket costs, with some seats for select games costing only $5. Therefore, some may argue, the Mets' fan is more representative of the heart and culture of New York.

Unlike his often loafer-and-polo-shirt-wearing brethren that support the pinstripes, a follower of the Mets is a separate creature altogether.

"The Mets fan is going to be different than the fan across town," said Jason Boulware, a resident of Queens who is also a medical resident at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx.

"The experience and the feel is more diverse than at Yankee Stadium, largely because the Mets have been very active in reaching out to a wide base of fans," said Boulware, who holds a partial season-ticket package at Shea and shares seats in the mezzanine with his attorney wife Christine. "It can't be compared; you can feel it inside the stadium. There is a real surge of energy when Shea gets excited."

No matter his job title, the Mets' devotee largely abides by the unofficial dress code of Shea, which appears to be a David Wright or Jose Reyes jersey – opened with a white shirt underneath – and a tattoo popping out under the sleeve. Jean shorts and white sneakers are protocol, too, and you must high-five at least a half-dozen fans en route to yet another trip to the concession stands.

It is a good time to be a fan at Shea, and the attitude and atmosphere here as the race for the playoffs intensifies shakes its foundation. Still, this does little to deter the fact that Shea largely is representative of a bygone era of ballparks.

The stadium is an intriguing mixture of several generations of attempted modernization that largely doesn't work. Along the blue and gray facade outside the stadium, neon-lit images of baseball players adorn the walls in action poses as the best of 1980s-themed art blends with the "inspired" architecture of the 1960s. It leaves you scratching your head.

In short, Shea is a peculiar place, a stadium that tried to stay modern despite its lack of amenities and comforts that have become associated with today's game. Stores and shops are built into holes in the wall in seemingly odd ways. It all seems so yesteryear, without that retro-chic feel of Camden Yards, for example. There is a distinctly Donruss-1989-hologram-baseball-card quality to the destination.

Baseball cards never smelled this good, however.

The scent of sausage and onions – the famous specialty served up at Shea – wafts through the entire complex, mixing with a sense of optimism in the concourse.

But fans are here to see their team, and that is really all that matters. The home cooking on the field is what they want to dine on.

Speaking of home cooking, the Shea "experience" isn't complete without a visit to one of the nearby culinary institutions.

Venture seven blocks outside the stadium toward 104th Street and into a neighborhood called Corona. Settled in among this working-class neighborhood is a joint loved by many who work for the ballclub. Leo's Latticini (46-02 104th St., Corona; 718-898-6069), known to many simply as Mama's, is a deli that specializes in sandwiches and baseball.

Mets general manager Omar Minaya is a regular and on a first-name basis with the staff. One Mets rep calls it "the best sandwich in New York, hands down." If you can't make it to the restaurant, worry not; Mama's of Corona also operates an in-stadium concession.

Whether you're inside the stadium or out, the aura is New York, through and through. The product on the field, one of the more diverse squads in baseball, is equally reflected in the stands, where a capacity crowd is 57,405.

The $850 million Citi Field, funding for which is being subsidized with $450 million in public monies, will hold approximately 45,000 fans. And while Mets management promises reasonable pricing for seats, there is a fear that average fans might be priced out of their new home or squeezed out due to the limited seating capacity.

All this speculation doesn't stop them from exhibiting enthusiasm for the new park, at least not on this night at Shea.

They are, by and large, excited about the new structure that is being built just feet away from the center-field wall of their old home.

But despite all the pomp and circumstance, and the advantages and amenities, and the accolades and applause that is certain to come with the opening of Citi Field, the closing of Shea Stadium will be an emotional endeavor for many.

"All the history that comes out of this stadium, like Dwight Gooden and the '86 team, all that stuff is what makes this a special place," said Robert Lorenzi, a Staten Island resident who was catching the game in the left field bleachers with his friend, Cruz. "I fell in love with baseball here."

Shea, simply put, is the only home that most Mets fans have ever known. (The expansion franchise did play its first two years at the Polo Grounds.) And however history treats Shea Stadium, it will remain special to them.

"I don't care what that sign says," an emphatic Cruz said from his bleacher seat as he pointed toward Citi Field behind him. "This is Shea, and that is Shea. This is home, and that will be home, too."

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer who got winded climbing the aisle of the upper deck of Shea Stadium. Contact Dyer, a writer for the New York City daily METRO, at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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