Thursday, October 16, 2008

Memories of Ballparks Past

With the two New York ballparks closing their doors this week, many fans are reminiscing about games they saw at Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium, so I'm going to take a turn as well. I should say first that even though I'm a Mets fan, and even though my new book, This BAD Day in Yankees History, has an image of Yankee Stadium crumbling to the ground on the front cover, I will miss the ballpark in the Bronx more than the one in Flushing Meadow. It seems almost sacrilegious to tear down what I call "The House That John Lindsey Renovated" and what a recent correspondent calls "The House That Booze Built" (referring to the fact that the park was constructed in the middle of Prohibition by Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees owner who built his fortune--before, during, and after Prohibition--as a brewery owner). I spent my youth within 10 miles of New York City and went to at least 50 games at Yankee Stadium, as many games as I attended at Shea Stadium. I also went to a couple of dozen games at the Polo Grounds, and I have vivid memories of those games as well.

As other writers are doing, I have made a list of my most memorable games at those three venues which will very soon all be extinct. The list covers a dozen days. Only a few of my most memorable games were important in the standings, and in some cases I remember them for odd events or single images. Here they are, in chronological order:

1. late 1950s, Yankee Stadium: It was probably in 1958 or 1959, after the National League moved out of New York, that my parents took me to an Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium. I was too young to appreciate everyone who was there that day, but I can still hear the mammoth roar that filled the stadium when Joe DiMaggio was introduced. It was matched during the brief contest by the roar when the "Yankee Clipper" belted a ball into the left-field stands. We were sitting behind third base, and I remember how quickly the ball jumped off DiMaggio's bat, and the eruption of cheers around me. I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

2. April 27, 1962, Polo Grounds: The brand-new Mets were already a dismal 1-11 when they met the Phillies in an afternoon game. I went with my mother, her best friend, and her friend's son Gary. He and I are still friends. We sat in box seats not far from the first-base dugout, and when a pop fly headed in our direction, both mothers cowered, covering their heads and screaming their sons' names. The ball landed harmlessly a few rows behind us. When I've told the story of this game over the years, I've had the Phillies taking a 10-3 lead to the bottom of the 9th inning, when the Mets scored six runs and had the bases loaded with two outs when Don Zimmer took a called strike to end a 10-9 heartbreaker. Thanks to, I now know exactly how that disheartening loss unfolded, and it wasn't quite that bad. The Phillies did lead 11-1 by the 6th inning, and the Mets did fight back, making it 11-8 in the 8th on an Ed Bouchee pinch-hit three-run homer. They scored again in the 9th, but only had a runner on first base when Zimmer had a close look at strike three zipping past him to end the game. I remember that sense of deflation -- perhaps the fans were reacting only to the momentary disappointment of the tantalizing comeback, or maybe they realized that, with a 1-12 record, it was going to be a long season at the Polo Grounds. It certainly didn't bode well for Zimmer, who was an atrocious 4-for-52 during his fling with the Mets, for a batting average of .077. Ouch!

3. June 17, 1962, Polo Grounds: Two legendary events--incredibly, both in the first inning of a doubleheader--stand out from that day, two ultra-rare baseball events. In the top half, after Ron Santo tripled in two runs for the visiting Cubs, rookie centerfielder Lou Brock drilled a long, high fly ball. From our perch in the second deck behind third base, we watched the ball climb higher than our seats, keep going, and seemingly never come down. It kept on carrying, over a 2o-foot-high screen and into the right-centerfield bleachers, an estimated 470 feet from home plate. Brock was the first batter to slug one into that section; Babe Ruth and Joe Adcock had reached the stands in left-center. Perhaps it was at this moment that the people running the Cubs at the time (who knows who, since they were operating under their "college of coaches" system) decided, "nice hit -- okay, we'll give him a couple of years, and if he doesn't turn out to be Babe Ruth we'll unload him." In the home half, with the Mets trailing 4-1 and two runners on base, Marv Throneberry (already famous for his initials: MET) drilled a shot into the gap which rolled to the wall, easily scoring both runners and allowing Marvelous Marv to lumber all the way around to third base. Maybe you've heard of this one. Throneberry was called out for failing to touch first base. Casey Stengel started to argue, but was informed that he had no case, since Throneberry had also missed second. It went into the books as an out at first and two RBI. Yes, it made a difference, as the next batter homered and the Mets lost 8-7. That's the way it was on the way to a 40-120 record in their inaugural season. You never knew what you'd see when you went to see the Mets, except that it would probably cost them the game.

4. July 15, 1963, Polo Grounds: You don't see too many pitchers hit grand slams, except in Little League. There were two in 2008 at Shea Stadium, both hit by the visiting team--Felix Hernandez of the Mariners during interleague play, and Jason Marquis of the Cubs in the fatal final week of the season. I can see right now the flight of the ball hit by Carlton Willey of the Mets on this date in 1963, in the first game of a twilight-night doubleheader. Willey wasn't much of a hitter, with a career batting average of .099 and exactly two home runs in the majors. This was one of them. It was in the 2nd inning when, trailing 2-1 with runners at second and third, Willey watched with amazement as the visiting Houston Colt '45s elected to walk lifetime .205 hitter Larry Burright, loading the bases in the faint hope that Willey would hit the ball (he struck out in more than half his major league at-bats) and they could turn a double play. They must have been more shocked than we were to see the right-handed Willey loft a twisting fly ball toward the right-field corner. In most ballparks it would have faded foul, but the foul pole in the Polo Grounds was 75 feet closer to home plate than the average park's. Willey's curving clout reached the stands a few feet in fair territory, and the Mets suddenly had a 5-2 lead, en route to a 14-5 drubbing of the dummies who walked a .205 hitter to load the bases for Carlton "The Hulk" Willey.

5. September 2, 1963, Polo Grounds: This was another doubleheader with a pair of memorable occurrences. In the top of the 1st inning of the opener, Frank Robinson took a half-swing at a two-strike pitch. From where we sat between the plate and third base, it looked like he held up (I should note that in 1963, home plate umpires did not consult with the third-base umpire on check swings, and a swing had to be almost a full cut to be called a strike) in time. "Strike three!" yelled the umpire, Mel Steiner. Robinson went ballistic. It didn't matter whether Steiner thought he swung or thought the ball was in the strike zone, Robinson was out and irate about it. He wouldn't stop arguing, and Steiner tossed him out of the game. For Reds fans who had fought the traffic coming in from New Jersey, seeing the Reds' best player kicked out so soon made us as upset as Robinson. Without him, the Reds lost the opener to Al Jackson and the Mets, 5-3. The nightcap saw my favorite Reds pitcher, Jim Maloney, trying for his 20th win of the season. Rookie Pete Rose led off the game with a blast that sailed into the second deck in right-center, and Maloney made that lone run stand up, beating Jay Hook 1-0. It was vintage Maloney, a 3-hitter with 13 strikeouts and 6 walks. So the Reds went from a disastrous 1st-inning ejection to a game-winning first-batter home run. What a difference a game made!

6. July 7, 1964, Shea Stadium: All-Star Game: I've attended two All-Star Games, but this one was far more historical and memorable than the one in 1998 (at which Jim Thome won the home run contest by repeatedly launching rockets into the upper-deck at Coors Field). It was a great game from start to finish, which my father and I witnessed from the narrow fair-territory section of the loge just inside the left-field foul pole. Don Drysdale and Dean Chance sparkled at the start, allowing only an unearned one in the first three innings. The NL went ahead in the 4th innings on home runs by Ken Boyer and Billy Williams, and the AL tied it 3-3 in the 6th on a two-run triple by Brooks Robinson. Jim Fregosi's sacrifice fly gave the AL a 4-3 lead in the 7th, and in came Dick Radatz, poised to pitch his usual three innings and wrap up the victory. Radatz was and is my favorite all-time relief pitcher [see my "Closer Look" article on him], which made me deeply conflicted that day at Shea. I wanted the NL to win, but I didn't want them to beat "The Monster". I hoped he'd pitch a couple of great innings and then leave so someone else could blow the lead and let the NL win, and my plan almost worked. Radatz steamrolled the NL in the 7th and 8th innings, striking out four of the six batters he faced. The AL still led 4-3 to the bottom of the 9th, when Willie Mays led off by drawing a walk. I can hear the chant--"Steal! Steal!"--which filled Shea, as everyone in the park knew that Mays, the hero of New York fans and the NL's best hope, would swipe second (he was 33 years old and en route to 19 stolen bases on the season to complement his league-leading 47 homers). Sure enough, he stole on the first or second pitch to Orlando Cepeda, who followed with a bloop fly to short right field. Joe Pepitone drifted out from first base as Rocky Colavito charged in from right, but the ball dropped between them. I remember my shock when Pepitone, facing away from the infield, grabbed the ball instead of letting Colavito (who had the strongest outfield arm in the league) field it. Mays had just rounded third when Pepitone spun and tossed the ball home. It landed in front of the catcher, Elston Howard, took a goofy hop over his head, and Mays dashed home with the tying run. That was the key gaffe in the game. If Colavito had fielded the ball, his throw home would have held Mays at third. As it was, Cepeda advanced to second on Pepitone's error. After an intentional walk, pinch-hitter Hank Aaron struck out against the still-humming Radatz. Without the error, Aaron might have been the third out of the inning. Instead, Johnny Callison came up. I can see that last pitch right now--the 6'7" monster, Radatz, with that sweeping submarine motion, seeming to stride halfway to the plate before releasing the wicked low fastball that had already notched five strikeouts in seven outs--Callison starting his swing almost before the ball left Radatz's hand, somehow divining where the pitch would wind up, a nasty knee-knocker, swinging his bat in the low arc necessary to meet it solidly. The wicked low line drive hooked a little toward the right-field foul pole but was traveling too fast to go foul, smacking off the second-deck facing for the game-winning three-run home run. That swing was one of two baseball moments which I've always felt were totally psychic--that could not be accounted for by skill or even reflexes, but by deciding before the play even began that some magical spot had to be reached. The other was Ron Swoboda's miracle catch of Brooks Robinson's line drive in the 1969 World Series.

7. May 16, 1965, Shea Stadium: My parents and I were in almost the same seats this day as we had for the All-Star Game, hoping to watch our Reds take a doubleheader from the Mets. But no. The opener belonged to Jack Fisher, who pitched shutout ball into the 9th inning and beat the Reds 6-2. Not to worry, we told ourselves between games. In the nightcap, the Reds starter would be Sammy Ellis, a rookie relief-pitching phenom in 1964. He had been converted into a starter in 1965 and sported a 5-0 record, en route to a standout 22-10 season. We had no reason to think he'd have any problem with the Mets. We were very, very wrong. After a leadoff walk and a ground out, the Mets went single-double-single-walk-single to go ahead 3-0. Ron Swoboda capped the startling deluge with a three-run homer, a lofty drive which headed right at us before landing just two rows behind us. That made it 6-0 Mets: game, set, and match. The final score was 8-5, career victory #359 for Warren Spahn, the beneficiary of that 1st-inning explosion.

8. June 13, 1967, Shea Stadium: We have a recurring theme here, folks--the Schechter family going to see the Mets and Reds play doubleheaders. This one was the best, with both games living up to their billing as showcases for a pair of much-heralded rookie pitchers. We were hoping they'd face each other, but had to settle for separate gems rather than a single duel. Game 1 of the twi-nighter belonged to the Reds' Gary Nolan, a baby-faced 19-year-old with a blazing fastball who had struck out 12 and 15 in his previous two starts and who sported a 4-1 record and 2.60 ERA when he arrived at Shea. After the Reds rocked Bill Denehy for four runs in the top of the 1st inning, Nolan had smooth sailing. He gave the Mets only one hit in the first five innings and finished with a 5-hitter and 9 strikeouts, a 6-0 exercise in pitching domination. In Game 2, the Mets countered with their own phenom, 22-year-old Tom Seaver who was 4-3 with a 2.43 ERA in his first dozen major-league starts. Like Nolan, his burden was eased by four 1st-inning runs. Like Nolan, he didn't give up a run through eight innings, but he faltered in the 9th, allowing a 3-run homer by future Mets favorite Art Shamsky. Seaver went the distance to win 7-3, one of 16 wins (compared to 14 for Nolan) he notched as the NL Rookie of the Year. Those two performances had the crowd at Shea buzzing all night.

9. May 30, 1968, Yankee Stadium: This Memorial Day doubleheader was noteworthy for one of the best games of Mickey Mantle's career. He was embarrassingly over the hill, midway through a final season during which he batted a puny .237, dropping his career average from .302 to .298, a plunge below .300 which he regretted forever. One more game like this one and he would have wound up right at .300. Mantle, currently saddled with a .223 average, began Game 1 against the Senators by slugging a Joe Coleman fastball into the right-field bleachers for a two-run homer. In the 3rd inning, he singled and scored a run to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead. He led off the 5th with another homer, this one a rocket into the bullpen off Bob Humphreys, making the score 5-1. He faced Humphreys again in the 6th inning and ripped a shot just past the first-base bag that went for an RBI double. He capped his glorious day against Jim Hannan in the 8th inning with an RBI single, giving him 5 RBI for the game. The Stadium crowd, long accustomed to Mantle's fading glory, was ecstatic at this outburst. As New York Times writer Leonard Koppett put it, "a fading star flared up to peak luminosity for one game and made Memorial Day memorable." I know I'll never forget it.

10. May 29, 1970, Shea Stadium: Maybe this shouldn't be on the list since it wasn't a great day at the park, but it was definitely memorable. It was a week after I finished my freshman year of college, and I needed a summer job. My mother knew someone who knew someone who knew the guy who ran the concessions, so I showed up a couple of hours before this Friday night game to get in the lineup of potential vendors. With the Astros in town, I guess they didn't expect a huge crowd (the attendance wound up around 35,000), because a lot of people weren't chosen for several hours of hustling hard labor, including me. Spared from the illusion that I might show up again, I figured that if I couldn't sell the crowd, I'd join them, especially since Tom Seaver was going to pitch. I got a seat way up in the upper deck, behind the plate, where I could the proceedings with proper aloofness. Seaver was great for four innings, allowing only 2 hits and fanning 6 Astros, but they broke through in the 5th. Doug Rader homered, Jimmy Wynn doubled in a couple of runs, and that was all it took for Seaver to lose. He never did have a lot of luck against Houston (he was 2-5 against them in 1969-70), and on this night his teammates failed to score a run against Tom Griffin and Jack Billingham. The 5-0 defeat was one of my least satisfying visits to Shea, but I vividly recall having driven in with a notion of being so actively and intimately involved with the crowd at a big-league ballgame, and winding up feeling so immensely detached from the whole scene. There's an old New York saying that goes "I shoulda stood in bed." This was one time when I definitely shoulda stood in New Jersey.

11. July 25, 1978, Shea Stadium: This, on the other hand, was a splendid day to be at Shea. I headed west after college and lived in the Pacific time zone for most of the next 30 years, which is why my post-1970 ballpark memories are few. In 1978, I spent the summer with my parents in the Poconos, and made the nearly three-hour drive to Flushing Meadows to see Pete Rose try to set a new NL batting-streak record. The day before, he tied Tommy Holmes at 37 straight games with a 7th-inning single off Pat Zachry, the doomed pitcher who had come to the Mets in the infamous Tom Seaver trade. Zachry was so pissed at letting Rose tie the record that he later kicked the dugout steps, breaking a toe and missing the rest of the season. I was rather surprised when I entered Shea Stadium and was handed a pennant that said "Go Pete!!" No opposing player was more reviled at Shea than Rose, mainly because he pummeled undersized shortstop Bud Harrelson in the 1973 playoffs. Mets fans had hurled debris and curses at him ever since, so it perked me up to see and hear the crowd supporting his quest just a few years later. He flied out in his first at-bat against Mets ace Craig Swan, but in his second trip he smacked a sharp single between short and third for the record-setting hit. The crowd went nuts and gave him an extended ovation as he stood at first base. Tommy Holmes himself, a Mets employee, ran out to first to congratulate the man who had erased his record which had stood for 30 years. That was probably the first and last time that Rose was cheered at Shea. He added another single and a double to his day's work, and the Shea fans were rewarded for their generosity of spirit as the Mets trounced the Reds 9-2. In the early days of the franchise, it was said that the ideal home game would have Willie Mays hitting 5 home runs and the Mets winning 6-5. This wasn't exactly that ideal, but it was the same principle. The fans came to see history being made and to see the Mets win, and they got both treats, in spades.

12. September 28, 2008: Yes, I was there for the Shea finale. The special program on sale that day said "final game," and they weren't kidding. Would things have gone better if the program had read "final regular-season game"? I have never been to a sporting event where a crowd was more psyched up before the game (and that includes a Rose Bowl and two NCAA Final Fours). Even a one-hour rain delay didn't diminish the excitement, and every pitch raised the fever pitch of the crowd. Oliver Perez responded with a solid performance that piggy-backed on Johan Santana's all-time clutch shutout the day before. But the Mets, for the third straight game, couldn't put a dent in the starting pitching of the third-place Marlins. Once the Mets bullpen took over in the 6th inning, however, it seemed like an implosion was inevitable. Carlos Beltran's game-tying homer in the 6th electrified the crowd even further, and Endy Chavez's latest miracle catch in the 7th was the last magical game-related moment in the history of the stadium. Once the 8th inning struck, or should I say once the Marlins struck for back-to-back homers in the 8th, the party was over, and soon the news arrived from Milwaukee that the Brewers had come through when the Mets hadn't. The Shea elation turned quickly to desolation, and the folks I was with didn't have the heart to stick around for the post-game farewell to Shea, which I watched the next day at home on TiVo.

It was a sad ending to an era, and we could only hope that the ghosts of September failures won't follow the Mets on that 100-yard journey to their new home. Ballparks fade, new ballparks arrive with the opportunity for a new raft of memories. I just hope I have the chance to match some of the ones I've detailed above, days and nights at the ballparks I'll never forget.

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