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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 / September 26, 2008

SCOTT WALLACE/STAFF

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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.

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.

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