Shea Stadium

img_3790

When it comes to baseball stadiums, Shea Stadium doesn’t usually top the most charming ballpark list.

The so-called “cookie cutter” stadium opened in 1964 as the home of the hapless New York Mets and the New York Jets until 1983 when they left the city and started calling New Jersey home. The Mets moved into Shea Stadium in 1964 after playing their first two seasons at Manhattan’s The Polo Grounds. Starting in 2009, the Mets will move next door into the new Citi Field.

There have been dozens of great baseball moments at Shea Stadium, but if I had to choose one it would be Game Six of the 1986 World Series. The Mets trailed the Boston Red Sox 5-3 heading into the bottom of the tenth inning, and they were down to their final out. But, after three consecutive singles, a wild pitch and Mookie Wilson’s “trickling” ground ball that found its way past first baseman Bill Buckner, the Mets won the game 6-5.

Sure there were other famous non-baseball events that went into the history books. O.J. Simpson in 1973 became the NFL’s first running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season. In 1965, The Beatles opened a tour of North America at Shea. In 1979, Pope John Paul II visited the stadium on a rainy October day, but the rain stopped the minute the pontiff’s pope mobile entered the stadium.

There was so much that made Shea Stadium a stadium unlike all others. There was the stadium’s blue façade adorned with giant baseball players made up of neon lights. Then, there was “home run apple” behind the outfield wall that popped out of a top hat whenever a Mets player hit a home run. Of course, there were the fans. The rowdy and raucous fans made the Shea experience a truly unique one.

I’m glad I had the chance to experience Shea one last time in 2008.

Sure, the closing of Yankee Stadium garners most of the headlines. “The House That Ruth Built,” “The Cathedral of Baseball” has seen its last game. But for this Mets fan, the closing of Shea Stadium represents a more somber moment.

As the song “Meet the Mets” goes: “Hot dogs, green grass all out at Shea/Guaranteed to have a heck of a day.” “Hot dogs, green grass all out at Citi” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Wild pitch key to wild game in '86
It was a ground ball "trickling" down the first base line. It trickled past first baseman Bill Buckner and into the history books.

Minutes before, everyone knew the New York Mets' season was over. Down two runs in the bottom of the 10th inning with two outs, Gary Carter stood at the plate with no one on base. Even the crew at Shea Stadium knew the game was over, as a message of congratulations to the Boston Red Sox flashed on the scoreboard.

A single from Carter. Then, one from Kevin Mitchell. Next, Ray Knight followed with another - a hit that scored Carter and cut the lead to one. Mookie Wilson stepped into the box to square off against pitcher Bob Stanley.

"What happened next was compelled, created, by Mookie's cleverness and speed - a hitless at-bat that had wizardry in it," Carter wrote in his 1987 memoir, "A Dream Season."

Stanley threw a pitch inside.

Wilson "jackknifed out of the way," Carter recalled. The pitch escaped catcher Rich Gedman, Mitchell scored from third base. Somehow, the Mets had tied the game at 5 (In all fairness, the pitch could just as easily be considered a passed ball).

"When I get to home plate, we were down by a run and I'm up there to, for a lack of a better term, save face," Wilson was quoted as saying in Mike Sowell's 1995 book "One Pitch Away." "I just don't want to embarrass myself. I'm up there to make contact."

What happened next is seared into the memories of baseball fans. Wilson hit a slow ground ball toward the aging Buckner. The first baseman reached down to make a routine play that ended up anything but routine.

The next thing anyone knew, the ball was in right field and Knight was crossing home plate. The Mets had won, 6-5. They completed one of the most improbable comebacks in baseball history. It was a comeback of legendary proportions.

The comeback was made possible by Buckner's error.

Or was it?

Perhaps, the credit should go to Wilson, who avoided being hit by Stanley's pitch.

"Now think about it: If the pitch had hit Mookie, he would have gone to first, a meaningless runner, Ray being the winner," Carter wrote. "The pitch was sailing; Mookie had to know it might get away from Gedman. Dodging that ball was crucial."

If the pitch hit Wilson, it would have been Howard Johnson stepping up to the plate with the bases loaded, two outs and his team down a run. That never happened.

Think long and hard about Carter's point. Maybe we shouldn't instantly think, "Buckner's error" when someone says "1986 World Series." Maybe, we should think, "Stanley's wild pitch."

In the years since the 1986 World Series, Dave Stapleton often said he should have been sent in as a defensive sub for Buckner. Maybe he would have fielded Wilson's grounder cleanly and made the third out. Either way, Stapleton wouldn't have stopped Stanley's wild pitch.

Who knows what would have happened in the 11th inning?