For one Mets die-hard, Shea went out in a blaze of glory.
"Is this seat taken?"
If you had to describe me in ten words or less, "Mets fan" would definitely be dropped in somewhere among those ten. And because it is Shea Stadium's final season, I've been asked by numerous friends and co-workers what my favorite memory is from the Mets' soon-to-be-abandoned home park. Before last night, I had an easy answer. Getty Images
In fact, I was even regaling some of my colleagues with that story during the fifth inning of Thursday's Mets-Cubs affair in what was a staff outing to say goodbye to the old park. Ryan Church had just tied the game at three with a two-run double and I, for some reason, was actually feeling pretty good about the Mets' chances, even with the agonizing loss of the previous night still lingering. For the most part, I was just glad that the Mets were at least putting up a fight in what could be my last ever game at the ballpark I grew up with, in a season I had mostly given up on.
As I began to detail the events of September 13, 1997 to those around me, I had no reason to think that day was about to get some competition for my favorite Shea memory, but then again, the unexpected is the best part of being a Mets fan.
Some background on that favorite Shea day: my father had scored a couple of front row seats just behind third base, and my friend Josh and I settled in to watch the Mets battle the Expos. Our team was still mathematically alive for the wild card, but a postseason berth was unlikely. It looked even unlikelier when the Mets came to bat in the bottom of the ninth trailing 6-0 after being on the wrong end of what had to be the greatest eight innings of Dustin Hermanson's career.
Somehow the murderer's row of Butch Huskey, Carlos Baerga, Roberto Petagine, Luis Lopez and Matt Franco managed to string together some hits and the legendary Carl Everett came to bat against Ugueth Urbina with the bases loaded and the Mets trailing 6-2. Everett hit the first pitch from the now-incarcerated Urbina about two miles down the right-field line and the 15,000 or so fans left in the park erupted.
Unfortunately, it hooked foul.
Not a problem for (legitimately) Crazy Carl. He battled Urbina for a few more pitches before lofting a moon shot to right center that landed just short of Shea's mammoth scoreboard. Grand Slam. Tie score. Bedlam. Never before had I felt Shea shake, but the fraction of capacity that had hung around were actually making the floor move. The Mets hadn't been to the postseason for a decade, and the faithful were relishing the fact that they were playing meaningful games in September. More recent converts to the Mets faith expect more than that, but 11 years ago it was about as much as we could ask for.
John Franco then came on for two innings of eventful relief, and Bernarn Gilkey, fresh off his cameo in Men In Black, came up with two men on and finally put on end to the afternoon when he deposited a pitch from some guy named Mike Thurman into the left-field mezzanine for a 9-6 Mets win. To put it in Mets' terms, amazin'.
I've seen some great games since then at Shea, but what made that day so special was that it was shared by only a handful of Mets fans. I can guarantee that anyone who was at that game and stayed until the end remembers it vividly.
After telling that story to my co-workers, I was feeling pretty good as I soaked in a bath of Shea memories. In fact, I thought I had recovered from the low of the night before, but it returned with a vengeance when Micah Hoffpauir put the Iowa, I mean Chicago, Cubs up 6-3 with a three-run bomb that landed roughly where Everett's had more than a decade ago.
I found myself questioning my fandom, wondering how I came to be a relatively well-adjusted adult who was somehow more upset about David Wright's inability to get a run home from third base with less than two outs than I was about the collapse of the economy.
But then Ramon Martinez and Robinson Cancel made their bids for Mets lore, and Ryan Church made a juke at home plate that would make Barry Sanders proud. From where we were sitting, he had to be out. But when the umpire didn't make a signal until Church tiptoed around Koyie Hill and dove to touch the plate with his outstretched arm, I thought, "holy #$%&, he is going to be safe." And he was. The score was tied, and the die-hards who had stayed in the rain after Hoffpauir's dinger were rewarded with a feeling I've rarely felt since September 13, 1997.
And though it looked like that feeling might only be fleeting as the Mets seemed content to tease their fans with some previously unseen method of how to disappoint them, we got to taste the euphoria again in the bottom of the ninth. Jose Reyes led off with single, but wasn't advanced by either of the next two hitters. Then Carlos Beltran's line drive deflected off Hoffpauir's glove and trickled into foul territory behind first base. Reyes cruised on in to score to give the Mets a 7-6 victory in a game they really had no business winning.
Just 24 hours earlier I was feeling as low as a fan could possibly feel. In fact, after the Mets squandered Wednesday's game against Chicago, I found myself questioning my fandom, wondering how I came to be a relatively well-adjusted adult who was somehow more upset about David Wright's inability to get a run home from third base with less than two outs than I was about the collapse of the economy.
And yet one night later, I was reminded why I allow myself to feel that way in the first place. I didn't care that the Cubs had fielded a Triple-A lineup. All I cared about was the fact that the Mets, a team seemingly founded on Tug McGraw's motto of "Ya Gotta Believe," actually had me believing again.
If the Mets don't make the postseason, Thursday night will certainly be my last memory of Shea. It will also be my best, because it did something I didn't think possible just a few hours earlier. It erased the agony of the night before. Well, almost.
Only a playoff berth will really do that.
Matt Meyers is an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine.
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