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Thursday, September 25, 2008
Updated: September 26, 4:51 PM ET
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like Shea

By Paul Lukas
Page 2

My second home has a date with the wrecking ball, but not before its bones are picked clean, and I'm feeling kind of emotional about the whole thing.

No, not that place up in the Bronx. I'm referring to Shea Stadium. With the old girl's days dwindling to a precious few, the Mets basically are holding a giant yard sale -- everything must go. In August, they started selling off the seats, and earlier this month, they announced they'll be unloading just about everything else, from Omar Minaya's desk ($2,500) to the entire Mets dugout ($100,000). You want a napkin dispenser from one of the concession stands? That'll be $35. Maybe one of the letters from this sign (except for the first S, which the Mets are keeping)? Five grand apiece. (Note that if you buy several letters, you could spell out METS. Also DEATH, TEDIUM, SHAM, ASHAMED, THUD, MUSHED, HUMID, ADIEU and MEDIA HUT, among several other terms that periodically have characterized the goings-on at Shea over the years.)

Many of you no doubt are thinking, "Who would want a piece of that pit?" True, the party lines on Shea in recent years have boiled down to either "Sure, it's a dump, but it's our dump" (Mets fans) or "Yeah, but it's still a dump" (everyone else). But it wasn't always viewed that way. And while Shea might not have the pedigree of Yankee Stadium, whose imminent demise is understandably getting a lot more attention, the seasoned sports aesthete still can find plenty of story lines lurking in Shea's visual details.

Case in point: the blue and orange ridged panels that adorned Shea's exterior from 1964 through 1980. They looked festive, sort of like confetti, and they were utterly unique -- nothing else like them in the history of stadium design. To me, they'll always say "Shea Stadium" more effectively than any seat or gimmicky mechanical fruit (an assessment apparently shared by a fan who has gotten a facsimile of the panels tattooed on his arm), and I'd give anything to have a pair of them.

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Unfortunately, the panels no longer are available (more on that in a sec), but they underscore two points: First, Shea is a lot more visually interesting than most people give it credit for. And second, if you spend enough time at a stadium, you can form an emotional bond with virtually any aspect of the place. That's why I'm not particulalry interested in owning a Shea seat -- c'mon, every stadium has seats. As a lifelong Mets fan who was born a few weeks before Shea opened and has attended hundreds of games there since my first visit in 1971, I'm more interested in some of Shea's unique details.

Another man interested in those details is Barry Meisel, president of the MeiGray Group, the company the Mets have retained to sell off the parts of the stadium. He also is a Mets fanatic who attended his first game at Shea in 1964, so he has mixed feelings about presiding over the ballpark's deaccessioning. Last week, he allowed me to tag along for a behind-the-scenes tour he was conducting for big-ticket buyers of stadium memorabilia (you can see video from that tour at the top of this page). As we explored the stadium's nooks and crannies, I was wishing I could take some Shea elements home with me. Here are some of those elements and the stories behind them.

1. The Metal Panels
The industrial confetti I love so much was removed after Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday bought the team in 1980, because they wanted to put their own visual stamp on the stadium. The original plan was to replace the panels with huge canvas sheets that would feature alternating images of the Mets' logo and the American flag, but that turned out to be too expensive. So they removed the panels and didn't do anything to replace them (but they left behind the panels' vertical mounting cables, which are still there today).

Shea's exterior has been a total snooze-o-rama ever since. Compare this to this, or this to this, or the two sides of this season's sleeve patch -- it's no contest. Hey, you wanna use an ocean of blue paint and add those embarrassing neon figures (sooooooo '80s)? Be my guest, but you still could have kept the metal panels. Here's a Photoshop vision of what might have been.

What I'd do with them: Mount them on the wall, of course. A few years ago, I mentioned this little fantasy to longtime Mets employee Bob Mandt, who replied, "Oh, I don't think you'd really want one if you knew how big and heavy they were." Speak for yourself, buddy! If they wouldn't fit on my wall, I'd just buy a bigger house.

Availability: Nil. "We asked about them," Meisel says. "We were told that when the stadium was refurbished in the early '80s, the panels were all destroyed. Whether they were sold for scrap metal or just put in dumpsters, it's gone." Talk about your tragically short-sighted moves. What a waste.

2. The Curse of the Outfield Umpire Listings
Shea's scoreboard always has listed the umpires working the game by their uniform numbers (not that any fan can name a single ump by number, but that's another issue for another day). If you look just above the RC Cola ads in this photo, you'll see they allowed room for four umpires -- fine for most games, but not for the postseason, when additional umps patrol the outfield foul lines. At first that wasn't much of a problem, since the Mets made the playoffs only twice in their first 25 years. But after the team went to the October dance in 1986 and again in '88, management added "LF" and "RF" ump designations in 1989, a move many other teams viewed as arrogant, since it presupposed the Mets would make the playoffs. Whether owing to coincidence or poetic justice, the Mets didn't qualify for the postseason again for another decade.

What I'd do with them: Arrogant, shmarrogant. We're New Yorkers -- we're supposed to be arrogant. And we don't worry about curses, either, so gimme that LF listing and I'll put it on my wall, no problem.

Availability: "That would be available, yes," Meisel says. "I'm not sure how much that will cost, but it's available."

Tommie Agee
Tommie Agee is the only player to have launched
a fair ball into the top deck at Shea Stadium.
3. The Agee Marker
Almost all of Shea's seating is in foul territory, so home runs rarely land in the stands. It's even rarer for any ball, fair or foul, to land in the stratospheric upper deck and damn near impossible for a ball to land in the tiny sliver of the upper deck that's in fair territory. This feat has been accomplished exactly once: On April 10, 1969, Tommie Agee launched a moonshot that landed here (here's an additional view). Today, the spot is designated by this marker -- not quite as cool as the red seat at Fenway that marks Teddy Ballgame's monster shot, but still pretty nice.

What I'd do with it: Personally, I wish they'd excavate that hunk of concrete with the Agee marker and put it in the new stadium's lobby or something like that. But if they're planning to chuck it, I'll totally take it off their hands. It'd look swell in my backyard.

Availability: "The sad truth is, we don't know if we'll be able to save it," Meisel says. "To get it out in its entirety, to make sure it doesn't crumble, you have to pull out such a thick piece of concrete that you'd need a 50-ton crane just to get it down. If you told me you'd give me $100,000 for it, I'd go rent a crane and get it out, but otherwise, it's not a practical item to remove, so it'll probably be broken up into pieces. It's a shame."

4. The Pole Positions
Next time you hear the Mets had a sellout, ask yourself whether they actually sold this seat and this seat. These two spots, directly behind the foul poles, offer a lovely view for two lucky souls each game. (Bonus fact: Shea's foul poles originally were painted yellow, as in most other ballparks. But at some point during the 1970s, they were repainted orange, and that's how they remain today. They're the only orange foul poles in the bigs.)

What I'd do with them: Give me one of those seats and, say, a 6-foot section of the foul pole directly in front of it (with accompanying foul screen, natch), and I'll be happy. Should provide just the view I'll want if Aaron Heilman comes into a game.

Availability: The poles are for sale at $25,000 a pop. If nobody wants them, they'll be cut up and sold in sections. But what about pairing them with a seat, to replicate the obstructed view? "I hadn't thought of that -- it's a great idea," Meisel says. "The Mets are selling the seats themselves, through MLB.com. But frankly, they're not gonna sell every single seat, so yeah, maybe we could do that."

5. History's Saddest Foul Pole Segments
As long as we're talking foul poles, check this out: Shea's outfield wall originally was 341 feet down the foul lines, with orange home run lines in the corners, but this led to lots of disputed calls. So in 1978, at then-manager Joe Torre's suggestion, they eliminated the orange line, and the fences in the corners were moved in by 3 feet to their current 338 measurements. But then a partial section of foul pole was needed to bridge the gap between the new fence and where the old orange line had been. The result: Each corner has a makeshift "pole" made of wood and chicken wire. The endearingly rinky-dink contraptions sit on little platforms and look like third-rate junior high shop projects (grade: C-plus), but they are official Major League Baseball foul poles, fella, and don't you forget it.

What I'd do with them: Can you say "Wiffle Ball tournament"?

Availability: "Believe it or not, somebody has already asked for one of them," Meisel says. "We're charging $2,500 for it, but that's subject to whether we end up selling the entire foul poles."

6. Piggy's Gardening Tools
If you were known primarily for having hit into a triple play in your final big league at-bat, it's understandable that you might want to do something unusual and get known for that instead. So while serving as the Mets' bullpen coach during the 1970s, Joe Pignatano got in the habit of growing tomatoes, cabbage and other vegetables in Shea's home bullpen. Face it, people, you're just not going to get a quality horticultural experience like that at any other major league ballpark.

What I'd do with them: Hey, I grow tomatoes in my own backyard, and what could be cooler than using Piggy's hoe, trowel and other implements when planting next year's crop? They have to be stashed in a closet or shed somewhere.

Availability: "There are a bunch of tools and things scattered around the stadium," Meisel says. "But even if we found a bunch of gardening tools, there's no way to know if those were his, unless 'Piggy' was scratched into the wood or something like that." Heck, I'll dust for Piggy's fingerprints if that's what it takes. Lead on to the tool shed!

7. The "Now Batting" Red Lights
For years, if you were following an out-of-town game on the Shea scoreboard and wanted to know which team was batting, it was easy: You looked for the red light. The red bulbs (which also were used to indicate which team was batting at Shea and the active hitter in the batting order) always were clearly visible, day or night. But two or three years ago, the red lights were changed to yellow, making them blend in with all the other bulbs on the board. A minor tragedy.

What I'd do with them: There have to be a few surplus cases of red scoreboard bulbs stowed in a supply cabinet, so put me down for a box of them. I'll use them to create the proper mood lighting when Scott Schoeneweis is pitching.

Availability: Meisel cracks up when I ask about the red lights. "It's unbelievable that you would mention that!" he says. "I thought I was the only one on the planet who noticed that, and I was too embarrassed to even bring it up. If they're there, we can talk, but I suspect they just chucked them."

8. The Manny Hanny Official Scoring Sign
Shea's scoreboard originally had the customary "Official Scoring" indicator so fans could know whether a questionable play had been scored as a hit or an error. But in the late 1970s and early '80s, Manufacturers Hanover (a bank that since has been mergered out of existence) bought an ad at the bottom of the scoreboard, and the H and E in Hanover were equipped with light bulbs to signal hit or error. Not sure how they indicated wild pitches and passed balls, however. (As an aside, check out the coming attraction just above the Manny Hanny sign. And people say Shea is boring.)

What I'd do with it: OK, so I don't really want to own this, but I'd happily donate it to a local Little League field.

Availability: "That's long gone," Meisel says. "Probably went straight into the Dumpster."

9. The Phantom Dome
Most people don't realize this, but the original plan was for Shea to be converted into a domed stadium with a much larger capacity (between 14,000 and 30,000 additional seats, depending on which article you read). Ironically, stadium namesake William Shea opposed the idea, which never came about due to a variety of practical and financial considerations.

What I'd do with it: Although the dome itself never materialized, there were lots of scale Shea models and Shea-shaped tchotchkes floating around in the early '60s, and I figure a couple of them must have included a dome. Sign me up for one of those, thanks. Failing that, I'll take the original artwork from this rendering and have it framed.

Availability: "I'm not aware of any models or drawings like that," Meisel says. "There might be something in the original architectural files, but those files are all going to the new stadium. We're getting the empty file cabinets, but we're not getting any of the paperwork." Rats.

Shea Stadium
Here's an aerial view of Shea during a Jets game
in 1969. The Jets called Shea home from 1964-83.
10. The Movable Seating Sections
People forget the Jets played at Shea for 20 years. Plenty of older ballparks had hosted football games, but Shea was the first stadium specifically designed for dual-sport use. It looked completely different in its football configuration, because the two field-level seating areas, which diverged outward from home plate in the baseball setup, were parallel in the football setup (here's a side-by-side comparison). Those sections were rotated into position on two sets of underground tracks (additional views here, here and here). If you look at this baseball shot and compare it to this football shot, it's easy to see how the field-level section on the first-base side has been rotated into its football alignment.

This all was so revolutionary at the time that Shea is literally patented (you can download the patent application, which is full of cool drawings and diagrams, here). But the movable stands and underground tracks wreaked havoc on the field, so late-season Mets games often featured unsightly strips of dead grass where the seats had moved, providing a unique September tattoo on the Shea grass. Most other multi-use stadiums (Busch, Three Rivers, Riverfront, Veterans, etc.) used artificial turf, so they didn't have this problem.

What I'd do with them: The seating sections were moved on the underground tracks by a series of motors. Gimme one of those, and I'll use it to power my weed whacker or something.

Availability: "I don't know if the motors even exist anymore or if they're available for sale," Meisel says. "But I'll check."

Honorable Mention: The Wooden Seats
OK, maybe I do want a pair of seats after all, but not the current seats. Shea's seats initially were wooden, and their colors ran, from the upper deck down, green, blue, burnt orange and yellow (additional views here, here and here), which created a more muted effect than the red, green, blue, orange sequence of the plastic seats that were installed in the early '80s.

What I'd do with them: I probably would never get to sit in them, because Caitlin and Tucker no doubt would annex them, pronto. But it still would be nice to have a pair of wooden seats in the living room.

Availability: So are any of the wooden seats left? "Not a one," Meisel says. "I don't even have one in my own collection. I know of about five collectors who do. They're among the rarest collectibles, because they were destroyed when the stadium was refurbished in the early 1980s. I don't know if they burned them or what, but they got rid of them." Dang.

Additional Shea Miscellany:
In 1967, management got the inspired idea of signaling each Mets win or loss to the outside world via a blue or orange flag (a concept borrowed from a similar system used at Wrigley Field). That brainstorm soon was abandoned, no doubt because the blue flag was demanding overtime pay, but how cool would it be to have those flags? Frankly, I'd settle for a photo, since I've never seen one. … In 1973, Shea became the first ballpark to have distances from home plate marked beyond the field of play: 428 feet to the rear bullpen walls, 442 to the base of the light tower in left-center, 405 at the base of the right end of the scoreboard and 420 at the base of the left end. The signs were removed after the 1979 season (in part because opposing hitters were launching a lot more tape-measure shots than the Mets were). "There's always a chance that we could open a closet underneath a closet underneath a closet and find them," Meisel says, "but I think they're long gone." … Also long gone: the little ticket booths in this photo. In 1980, I got in the habit of approaching the same booth for each game I attended and asking for "Loge, Section 3, please" (an impossible walk-up ticket nowadays, but attendance in 1980 was, shall we say, less than overwhelming). The clerk ended up putting me in almost exactly the same seat for four separate games. … Two changes were made to the outfield wall in 1967. It originally had been solid all the way around, which made it impossible to see into the bullpens. After fans complained that they couldn't see who was warming up, management responded by changing the fence in front of the bullpens to transparent Plexiglass, providing a clear sightline into the bullpens (this later was changed to half solid, half Plexiglass). … Also in 1967: The wall got a new color scheme. Instead of Shea's familiar dark green with white distance numbers, it was very light green with black numbers (you can just make out the numbers in the background of this shot). But this proved so unpopular that the original colors were restored after only seven home games. … Shea's scoreboard initially was hailed as "a near-million dollars' worth of sophistication" (by The Sporting News) and "the fanciest scoreboard in sports" (by Popular Mechanics). But it had an embarrassing typo on its very first day. … More recently, the scoreboard has had a New York City skyline added across the top. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the World Trade Center depiction on the skyline was adorned with a memorial ribbon, and that portion of the skyline has been left unlit. Although most of the scoreboard will be dismantled and sold, the skyline will be brought over to the new stadium. … At the beginning of this season, the Mets took the unusual step of "retiring" William Shea's name, adding it to the retired numbers gallery. It's unclear what this will mean if the Mets ever sign a player named Shea. … The entire field surface was overhauled in 2002. … It always has been customary for Bill Shea (or, after his 1991 death, someone from his family) to present the Mets' manager with a horseshoe-shaped floral arrangement on Opening Day. Will this tradition be maintained when Citi Field opens next year? … For more than 20 years, Shea had dirt cutouts for the outfield foul lines, but not anymore. … In recent years, however, two dirt cutout notches have been added behind first base and third base. Why? For the umpires to stand in, although they usually position themselves a bit closer. … Shea's grounds include the ashes of Bernice Gera, professional baseball's first female umpire, which were scattered there after her death in 1992. … One thing the Mets are keeping: the stadium's original dedication plaque, which was removed at the beginning of this season so nobody would steal it.

One final thought: The "Shea Stadium" sign shown in this photo is no longer there, but the letters used to be illuminated at night. Sometime around 1979 or so, when the team was in its darkest days, your humble reporter and his father exited a game and noticed that the S, H and E were unlit, leaving "A STADIUM." At the time, it seemed like a fitting bit of self-mockery for a franchise in serious disrepair. Two decades later, I see it as a bit of characteristically low-key humility for an underappreciated place I'll sorely miss, rust and all.

(Special thanks to Matt Silverman, Dan Carubia, Jon Springer, Nicholas Schiavo and Howie Rose for their research assistance, and to all the contributors to this amazing discussion thread, which is an invaluable source of Shea arcana.)

Paul Lukas has never sat in this Shea Stadium box (but hey, the season isn't quite over yet). Those who can't get enough of this stuff should check out his Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.