Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Shea's last day, in California

Before the series begins tonight. this, for the record:

I was not at Shea Stadium, or even near it, when the final curtain fell a couple Sundays ago. I was three-thousand miles away, my family having moved out to California a year ago in July. But I watched, as I had watched most games this season, thanks to cable TV and MLB Packages.

For most of the season, I confined myself to the wee-hours, waiting until the kids were asleep before taking to the couch and firing up the day’s game on my DVR. My son is four, my daughter two, and therefore both a little young to subject to the intensity of my interest. But the private viewings are my way of checking in with the place I still in my heart call home, and that includes Shea Stadium. Or it did.

Rooting for the Mets is as ingrained a part of me as there is. My parents weren’t particularly big sports fans back then, so I was only mildly aware of miracle of ’69 – I was four – but by 1973 and the next dash of magic, I was well on-board. That team -- the “You Gotta Believe” team of Seaver and McGraw and Yogi, I knew top-to-bottom, front-to-back, and biblically, stats and batting stances and pitching motions, every one of which I could imitate, and still can. For the thrill of that one late-season stretch-run, ending in a game seven loss at Shea to the Mighty Oakland A’s, I would put in another decade of penance with the Dave Kingmans, the Doug Flynns, the Nino Espinozas, and Lee Mazzillis. It never occurred to me to switch over to the Yankees, even when they got good again in the late 70s. I understood, you’ve got to wear the hair shirt, and that loyalty made it all the more sweet when the Mets revived again in the mid 80s with Strawberry, Gooden, Carter and Hernandez. I was there for the lull that ensued, and the dramatic Piazza vintage that followed that, just as I’ve been there, if in abstentia, for the early part of the Wright/Reyes era.

So I know what it means to follow this team, what it means to “believe,” to accept that disappointment -- and by that token, hope -- are the natural state of things. I know what it means to have to put up with the Yankees and Yankee fans and all the false notions that traffic about the back pages of the local tabloids, where the Mets and their fans are so often portrayed as hapless stragglers. Nonsense peddled by know-nothings. The truest blue in New York has an orange border around it, I know because I’ve been there. The Mets are, and always have been, as beloved as the Yankees, owing in no small part to a core of devotees who, weaned on futility of the early years, understands something about loyalty that Yankees and their fans simply never will.

And I know that much of this wisdom also derives from the stadium the Mets have called home for the last forty-four years, our dear departed Shea, whose manifest ugliness – whether in its early placard-guise or the snazzy neon look of her more recent years -- instilled in all its patrons a tacit understanding that the true measure of a theater isn’t its fa├žade, or the quality of its press box or corporate seats or hot dogs. The true and only measure of a theater is the amount of good theater it provides, and in that regard, Shea needs apologize to no house or cathedral in the business. Her fallow periods only made for more suspense, contributing to the impact and the downright surreality of almost all her finest moment, which aptly testified: a rocking Shea (and those who’ve been there know, I mean that word literally) was as exciting a place as existed in all of sports, and she rocked her fair share, and for a good month longer (I note with no small satisfaction) than her overbearing sister in the Bronx, whose whimper resounded all the way out here.

Still and so, for all of that devotion, and my helplessness to resist the forthcoming chapters at Citifield, I’ve never been sure that my allegiance to the Mets is something I necessarily wanted to pass down to my children. Much like the Catholicism in which both my wife and I were raised (and make no mistake, there is a very real connection between being a Mets fan and being Catholic) there are a lot of good reasons not to burden them with that particular cross – for their sake, to break the chain, spare them the pain, the “trip,” and all those wasted hours.

There is also the fact that my son, Theo, born ten weeks ahead of schedule, still has some tight muscles that may well compromise his enjoyment of organized sports like baseball. It’s a little early to tell, but I remain open to his interest, whatever they may be, and that’s another reason why there has been no indoctrination in the home. He and his sister know I wear the cap. They know I like the game, and that I watch it after they have gone to bed, but even there, their understanding has been vague.

Theo must have heard the phrase “I’m recording a game” a hundred times, but to judge by his usage, he understands it to mean “I am thinking up a game.” When he says to me, “Dad, I just recorded a game,” he will usually follow with the rules of the game, or how it will play out, such as: ‘I will be Batman. You will be the Joker. You will chase me into the Batcave and try to steal the Batmobile . . .”

To his way of thinking, that’s “recording” a game, and I never saw fit to correct him. And that’s the way it worked until this last Sunday, when for the first time since we moved here, I decided to watch the Mets game live – partly because it was do-or-die and I wanted to provide some real-time mojo, but mostly out of respect to the stadium, because I knew this might be the last game she would ever see, or who knew? Maybe she had one last handful of magic dust in her pocket.

So I turned on the game right out there in the open, in the middle the living room, with the kids playing Legos and dragons while I watched. I didn’t mind. It leavened the tension. About four innings in, they went off for their naps and rest time.

I watched the remainder with the sound down low, subdued by common sense and experience. I like this team. It has a lot of virtues and exciting players, but also an Achilles heal that made it impossible to imagine them succeeding in the long run, admonitions to ‘believe ‘ notwithstanding. I watched them fall behind in the seventh. I watched the Brewers pull ahead in Milwaukee in the eighth. I watched another season end in failure, and though I was prepared, I was also sad – for myself, for the fans, for all the old ballplayers who’d come back for maybe one more miracle, and most of all for the stadium.

Moments after the final out fell harmlessly into a spoiler’s glove, my son came in, summoned by the glum silence of the room. I made no spectacle of my disappointment, but I didn’t hide it, either. My wife explained to him that I was sad because the Mets had lost, which he could see. He came over and offered a little consolation. Maybe they would win the next time.

I didn’t explain to him that that wasn’t really going to be a next time, that there were things called ‘seasons’ and that this one was over, and that what I was really most sad about was that a very dear place had just gone out of my life.

I decided to take him to the beach, just the two of us since his sister was still asleep. It isn’t far from where we live, but when we got there, the sky was foggy and raw. The water was cold. We took a quick swim and dug some holes, and the my wife and daughter came and found us. We didn’t stay long.

No mention was made of the game, but I guess I hadn’t completely shaken off the blues, because after we got home Theo started bringing up the Mets again, which up to then was a word I honestly wasn’t even sure he knew. He seemed to have figured it out, though, and he also seemed to have a slightly better idea of what “recording a game” meant. He kept saying that he’d recorded a game and that everyone had won. My wife said that was the sort of game she would like to see, and I agreed that was a nice idea.

He wanted to show me. He went and got a little calculator we have that looks like a robot. He sat in my lap and he did a pretty good imitation of me with the remote control, or at my computer trying to find him something good to watch on YouTube (I’ve taken to showing him old Bugs Bunnies and the Adam West Batmans). He kept punching the keypads and mumbling, “No, that’s not the one. There’s a better one.”

Finally he said, “Here it is. I’ll press these buttons, and that will be the game I recorded.”

I said, “Okay, I can’t wait to see.”

So he went ahead and pressed the numbers, and the first was a six, and the next was a nine, believe it or not. The number that came up on the little screen was actually 69999999999, but that was close enough. I looked at it, and told him he was right. That had been an excellent game and I thanked him for showing it to me. . .

. . . So there is hope, I guess.

Or there will have to be.

Pitchers and catchers report February 19.