Monday, June 6, 2011

Parking Lot Pilgrimage

It is pavement with a past.

Shea Stadium was located just steps from where Citi Field is now

Whenever I attend a New York Mets' game at Citi Field, my first steps upon arrival are not toward the ballpark itself...but rather the adjacent parking lot. Like a magnet, I am instinctively drawn there. It is partly a routine; partly a nod to history.

The Flushing Meadows section of Queens has been home to the Mets since 1964

It is a couple hundred steps from the Mets-Willets Point subway platform to the former site of Shea Stadium. During that roughly four-minute journey, it serves as a trip back in time. Close your eyes, and the ghost of a massive, circular, blue concrete structure will appear.

Imagination can bring old ballparks back to life

What follows is a combination of imagination and reflection.

My walk toward the "playing field" unintentionally follows the path that many a reliever used when coming into a game from the Mets' bullpen. One can only wonder what was going through their mind, jogging across the grass and infield dirt to become the center of attention on the pitcher's mound.

When I reach home plate, I think about all of the great hitters who stood in the Shea Stadium batter's boxes...not just from the Mets, but visiting teams as well. A brass marker with the words "Site of Shea Stadium Home Plate - 1964-2008" is in the exact same spot as when the ballpark was in service.

Shea's home plate area is preserved in the Citi Field parking lot

Looking out at what used to be the field, my mind's eye can still see the ballpark's distinctive features. I can picture the large scoreboard in right-center field, offering a plethora of information from the game at hand, in addition to out-of-town games. I can see the picnic area bleachers and Diamond Vision scoreboard in left and left-center field. I can imagine the royal blue outfield fence, complete with the 410-feet marking in center field...and the batter's eye background that was considered one of the worst in Major League Baseball.

Looking out at the "field" from behind home plate

From there, I walk 60-feet-and-six-inches to my comfort zone, the pitcher's mound. It was long a dream to stand in front of nearly 56,000 blue-and-orange clad fans, pitching the Mets to glory. Now, instead of being surrounded by a field level, loge, mezzanine and upper deck filled with spectators...I am surrounded by asphalt, lines for parking spaces and the occasional car or SUV. Despite the dose of reality, there is still that rush of adrenaline as I stand on the marker for the pitcher's rubber, looking toward home plate.

Peaceful serenity at the Shea pitcher's mound

In another nod to Shea's history, the 1st base marker includes an engraving of a neon sign that adorned the building's exterior for roughly 20 years. The image depicts the smooth swing of Keith Hernandez, arguably the greatest 1st baseman in Mets' history.

Like all of the other base markers, this one features one of Shea's neon ballplayers

Mere steps away from this marker was where I first set foot on the field at Shea Stadium -- the actual field. I was 10-years-old, in complete awe as I attended an on-field clinic for the Junior Mets Club. It was the thrill of a lifetime...a Little Leaguer standing where Major Leaguers stood and played ball for a living. For that notable event, there is only a commemorative plaque in my mind.

Standing at 2nd base, my mind drifts to the many games I attended at Shea. I remember my very 1st game -- August 16th, 1986 -- a Mets' 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 11 innings. The electrifying Dwight Gooden was on the mound for the Mets. Lee Mazzilli hit the 1st home run I ever saw in-person. My favorite player at the time, Gary Carter, made a rare start at 1st base -- and broke his thumb. Between the Mets' defeat and the injury to my favorite player, I felt like a jinx.

Standing at 2nd base brought me back to 1986

Moving over to 3rd base, I think about my 65th and final game at the ballpark. It was the next-to-last game of Shea Stadium's existence -- a 2-0 victory over the Florida Marlins on September 27th, 2008. In that game, Johan Santana pitched a complete game, 3-hit shutout on three-days' rest to keep the Mets' slim playoff hopes alive. I can take pride in saying that my last game at Shea was a win -- the final triumph in the stadium's history.

The walk to 3rd base brought forth memories of my final game at Shea

It is the same routine for every game I attend -- start at home, walk to the pitcher's mound, then go to 1st, 2nd and 3rd base before making the short trip back to the Mets' current ballpark, Citi Field. It takes no more than 10 minutes...yet I will occasionally cycle through 22 years of my life during that time.

I am not the only one who makes this parking lot pilgrimage. A steady stream of Mets' fans make their way to the old Shea Stadium site prior to the ballgame. Some run the basepaths, some pose for pictures, and others look around while conjuring up their own memories of the ballpark.

A Mets' fan gives his young son a ballpark history lesson


After the trip down memory lane, there was an actual baseball game to watch. On this particular day -- May 29th, 2011, just over a week ago -- the Mets hosted the Philadelphia Phillies.

A beautiful day at Citi Field for the Mets-Phillies matchup

The Mets were a decided underdog entering this contest. The Phillies came into the game with a 33-19 record, good for 1st place in the National League East. The Mets countered with a record of 23-28, as they tried to avoid falling into last place in the division.

The Mets entered the game in 4th place in the NL East; the Phillies were in 1st

Despite the uneven records, the Mets pounced on Philadelphia early-and-often, unleashing a rare offensive attack that led to 8 runs and 10 hits in the first two innings. It was certainly a surprise as I looked on from my familiar spot in Section 514.

Over 30,000 watched as the Mets jumped out to an 8-0 lead

Shortstop Jose Reyes was a catalyst, going 4-for-5 with two triples, one run scored and an RBI. Every time the Mets' leadoff man reached base, the crowd of 30,791 -- most clad in blue-and-orange -- buzzed with excitement.

Jose Reyes dives into 3rd base during one of his two triples on the day

Mets' catcher Josh Thole -- who had been struggling at the plate -- played a big offensive role in this game as well, going 3-for-4 with a double and 3 RBI's. He raised his season batting average to .230.

Josh Thole strokes an RBI single to center field

On the mound, Jonathon Niese kept the Phillies' bats in-check. The left-hander went 6 1/3 innings, allowing 1 unearned run on 5 hits.

Jonathon Niese had a solid start for the Mets

While Philadelphia would rally against the Mets' bullpen in the 8th and 9th innings, the deficit was too great to overcome. When 1st baseman John Mayberry, Jr. struck out to end the game, the Mets popped out of their familiar 1st base dugout to celebrate a 9-5 victory.

This kid appeared to be satisfied with the Mets' performance

The final score served as yet another personal reminder of Shea Stadium, on this day of reminiscence. The first time I ever witnessed a Mets win was on September 20th, 1st-ever night game. The final score on that evening was 9-5. The opponent? The Philadelphia Phillies.

It's amazing -- or should I say, Amazin' -- how things can occasionally come full circle.

The final score at Citi Field reminded me of one of my first games at Shea

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