Shea Stadium leaves mark as a 'ballpark for the rest of us'

A raffish alternative to button-down Yankee Stadium, Shea, the home of the Mets, has always attracted a Kmart crowd, the kind of fan who has to go to the prom with a friend.

By , Correspondent

New York

A friend and I, rabid Mets fans both, have had a running joke over the last few years. There’s always some guy sitting in a corner of a subway car, or slouching low on a street bench, or just wandering aimlessly on a sidewalk. He usually has one of those muff-like earphones on his head and old dirty sneakers with holes. New York is full of such eccentrics – and they’re always wearing a Mets cap.

We laugh because they’re never – never – wearing a Yankees cap.

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We suspect there’s some kind of Yankee secret police that make sure no one unsuitable dons the most famous logo in baseball, if not all of sports.
Or, much more likely, we all just wear the caps that fit us.

Last week, with the last game ever at Yankee Stadium, that grand cathedral of baseball, the “house that Ruth built,” and home to 26 World Series championships, there was yet again the endless breathless adulation for the Bronx Bombers and their unsurpassed tradition of greatness since 1923. The hall-of-famers, the unforgettable moments, the rings.

But a subway ride away, looming high in Flushing, Queens, stands New York’s other, more eccentric ball park, Shea Stadium, which will host its final regular season game this weekend. And while its cavernous C-shape and vertigo-inducing upper reaches have never inspired like the elegant white frieze flanking the Yankee field, its flaws have become a source of pride over the past 45 years.

“Shea was the funky alternative to regimented, uptight Yankee Stadium,” says Jerald Podair, a Bronx native who is now a professor of history and American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc. “[It was] a place where ‘characters’ reigned and imperfection was tolerated as it never would have been at Yankee Stadium. It was a ballpark for the rest of us.”

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The Yankees have long kept a strict rein on players’ grooming – no long hair or beards, only neatly trimmed mustaches permitted – while the Mets’ defining characters have included Rusty Staub with his pot belly and burnt-orange mane, Keith Hernandez with his ’70s playboy moustache and supercilious smirk, and, of course, Mike Piazza with his Fu Manchu mustache and Trans Am mullet.

Yes, we’re a bit tacky. Shea is a circus in a way Yankee Stadium could never be. When a Met hits a home run, we all look to right center to see the big plastic home run apple rise up out of an inverted top hat, flashing and glowing. The circular stands make it impossible not to start a wave, even during a critical moment in a game. And the jets from La Guardia fill the stadium with steady, rhythmic, teeth-rattling vrooms.

And, of course, there’s the mascot, Mr. Met, an enormous fuzzy baseball with legs and bulging eyes and a goofball grin, an image that can make you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

It’s an aesthetic that goes beyond just facial hair and circuses, however, and it somehow bores into a deeper psychic divide among the millions who cheer for New York baseball teams. The Yankees represent success and power – the snappy-dressed guy with a fancy car who always gets the pretty girl. The Mets represent the hoi polloi, the Kmart-types who have to go to the prom with friends and hope to dance just once.

“The Mets and Shea are the second-class citizens of New York, where the Yankees are royalty,” says Bill Pavlou, a New Jersey native who works in Pennsylvania. “I am a Mets fan because of my father and grandfather, and they are two of the hardest working, down-to-earth people in the world. Shea reminds me of the two-bedroom apartment we used to live in growing up – my dad worked hard and regardless of the fact that it was an apartment, it was our home.”

Forgive us our hyperbole, for there are white-collar Mets fans and blue-collar Yankees fans, certainly. But there’s something to our grasping for gutter pride, for always striving from below, for never wanting a ready-made silver spoonful of championships just given to us.

“Growing up in New Jersey, my best friend was a Yankees fan,” says Andrew Simonelli, who now works in Washington, D.C. “He was a year older, a lot taller, and a better baseball player. Every day each summer we played baseball with a tennis ball and wiffle-ball bat in the backyard – I was the Met; he was the Yankee. I never won. I lost every day. Sometimes the games were close – even extra innings. But I lost every day until one day in September. After years of losing, I somehow managed to pull off a one-run win.”

• • •

For a team that has set the standard for losing – the ’62 Mets still own the worst record for any team in the modern era, and last year’s epic late-season collapse may never be surpassed – hordes of us Mets fans resist the temptation to make the effortless switch and join the popular kids.

“I grew up, ironically, in the Bronx, but the Yankees were never for me,” says Mr. Podair, the history professor. “How could a 10-year-old coming of age in the 1960s root for them? It would be like rooting for an investment bank. The Mets were the new team, the team for the kids, the team with the neat Mr. Met mascot, the team that hired Casey Stengel when the heartless Yankees fired him, the team that brought in Yogi Berra when the Yanks axed him, and the team with the state-of-the-art stadium in Queens across the street from the World’s Fair. How couldn’t you love them?”

A fair question, but Shea Stadium was built on an old ash dump in the early 1960s during the era of multi-purpose concrete donuts. The New York Jets football team called Shea home from 1964 to 1983, before they moved in with the Giants in New Jersey, and even the Yankees had to call it home for the ’74 and ’75 seasons, during the renovation of their historic stadium. Indeed, in 1975, while Giants Stadium was under construction, all four New York teams shared Shea.

But Shea’s charm was and is found in its eccentric, defiant fans. Like all the other concrete donuts – Three Rivers in Pittsburg, Veterans in Philly, and Busch Memorial in St. Louis, among others – Shea will be demolished and the Mets will move across the street to Citi Field, another retro ballpark reminiscent of Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers also toiled for decades in the shadow of Yankee success.

The Yankees are moving into a virtual replica of the old Yankee Stadium, with a new and improved white frieze. Our new digs, with its grasping for nostalgia and comfort and intimacy, may actually disorient us for a while. But don’t expect us to change our fundamental natures.

“We root for the underdog, we care about injustice, we suffer year after year after year with humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat,” says Brooklyn-born and New Jersey native Jon Pushkin. “We appreciate miracles, like 1969 and 1986 – we don’t take winning for granted.”

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