My path to Shea Stadium

by Paul West

First off, I’d like to give credit to another local blogger whose post, which you can read here, inspired me to tell the tale of how I came to love the Amazins.

I grew up in Harlem, and could step out of my apartment and find a sight-line to the lights above Yankee Stadium. As a kid in the late ’70s, I was actually a Yankee fan; there are old photos of me outside the stadium with a Yankees visor on, and I think I even have a picture with Reggie Jackson somewhere. Yes, really.

When I entered middle school, the Yankees and the Mets both stank. It was around then that I began to follow sports somewhat conscientiously, and developed a sense of what teams and sports I liked and why. I was, and remain, a fan of both (yes, both) the Jets and Giants, but during the early 1980s I fell in love with the record-breaking “Air Coryell” Chargers, led by Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow. It took a long time for my vaguely sentimental soft spot for the Chargers to disappear, but I remain a fan of skill-driven and pass-oriented football. Around this time, I became aware of George Steinbrenner‘s infamous megalomania and the perpetual revolving door that was the Yankees’ love-hate relationship with Billy Martin. I’ve never been particularly rebellious, but the Yankees’ edict banning facial hair and hair below the edges of the helmet also struck me as absurd and unfair.

The best mascot in professional sports.
The best mascot in professional sports.

Around that time, I also began to watch and talk sports more often with my grandmother, who had always been a National League fan (partly because of Jackie Robinson and the old Brooklyn Dodgers). I’d always watched sports with my mom and dad, and my dad lived on Long Island so I got my fair share of exposure to the Mets. The Mets and Yankees both stank anyway, so I began to follow the Mets, largely with my dad and grandma while my mom remained pretty neutral. I remember the big Don Mattingly vs. Keith Hernandez debate, as both were helping to reinvent the perception of the artistry, skill and high ceiling with which first base could be played (this was actually the distant ancestor of the Derek Jeter vs. Rey Ordonez debate that was actually a legitimate question when the latter was briefly the best defensive shortstop in baseball and part of the greatest defensive infield in history…but I digress).

In 1984, when neither team was much good and my allegiances had firmly switched to the Mets, an exciting crop of young talent began to present itself in the Mets’ system. Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden headlined a youth movement that had people talking about the Mets again. One of my most vivid memories from this time period is the famous 1985 July Fourth epic the Mets played in Atlanta, in which Hernandez hit for the cycle and the stadium still set off the fireworks after the game ended not too far from sunrise. I’m pretty sure I missed several innings of the game because I fell asleep and woke up in extra innings, thinking it was a replay at first. I’ll never forget watching on the old black & white TV in my bedroom, repositioning the rabbit ears for better reception, and watching left fielder Danny Heep put both hands on his head in disbelief as terrible-hitting relief pitcher Rick Camp hit a two-strike, two-out blast over the left field fence. In the 18th inning. My grandma didn’t make it through that entire game, but I do have fond memories of her calling me after ten or eleven at night to ask if I’d just seen a home run by Straw or Howard Johnson. By that point in 1985, my conversion was long-since complete and I proverbially lived and died according to the fate of the Amazins.

It was New York City's National League team that broke the 'color barrier' in baseball.
It was New York City’s National League team that broke the ‘color barrier’ in baseball.

Then 1986 happened, and for a while, the entire city seemed to be on the Mets bandwagon. Even Yankee fans got into the epic tale of the ’86 Mets (the fact that they took out the Boston Red Sox to do it didn’t hurt).

In the decades since the Mets’ last championship, my disdain for the Yankees has gradually waned to the point of a general feeling of competitiveneness. Part of this happened as a result of the early years of their “Core Four” era, in which I became a fan of Bernie Williams and Joe Torre (meanwhile, growing legions of frontrunner bandwagon fans occasionally threatened to renew the intensity of my disdain) and developed grudging respect for Derek Jeter and Andy Pettite. But the difference between what the teams did with their new ballparks, one might say, is instructive: the new Yankee Stadium, while impressive, strikes even many of its adherents as corporate and museumlike, while Citi Field feels like a fresh combination of old and new, with good views from most of the park and unobstructed thoroughfares and a festive, mingling sensibility that infuses its concourses. Many Yankee fans will even grudgingly admit that Citi (yes, it’s still named after a bank, and yes, the Wilpons are still both dumbfounding and infuriating, but the Mets fortunately never came to embody their ethos the way The Boss’ corporate bully-boy persona came to infuse his organization) is a better baseball experience. Right when you walk in the door, you’re greeted by an enormous number 42 as you enter Jackie Robinson Rotunda. And Shea Stadium, though it was a rickety old thing that you thought might fall apart when its fans all jumped in unison…that was a fun place to be. Oh yeah, did you know the Mets played their inaugural season at the Polo Grounds, in Harlem?

In their highs and lows, the Mets have embodied so much of what's to love about baseball and New York City.
In their highs and lows, the Mets have embodied so much of what’s to love about baseball and New York City.

If you look at the history of the Mets–how they wear the colors of New York City (blue and orange); how they were formed in homage to the dearly departed Dodgers and San Francisco Giants; how they represent our city’s National League Baseball heritage and teams that helped innovate and integrate (did you also know that Joan Whitney Payson was the Mets’ co-founder and majority owner, and the first woman ever to own a major league team without inheriting it?) the sport at large; how they have what’s probably hands-down the best mascot in professional sports…well, you might understand my choice. And why the ups and downs are more than worth it.

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