By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Ever since the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants fought over it, New York has been the nation's baseball town. Growing up there in the 1960s and '70s, I lived for summer home-game nights: the Yanks' Graig Nettles launching a space shot of a homer, the Mets' Tom Seaver whiffing the side.
We are the home of the Subway Series, manhole-cover bases for stickball, Mantle vs. Mays. We've got more pennants than you do. More than we can fly.
Truth is, I live in New England now. But I can't stop obsessing over my Mets via TV and beating my Big Apple baseball drum.
I keep telling friends that this summer is the last for both of New York's big-league stadiums. Yankee Stadium, the cavernous "House That Ruth Built" and a baseball icon since 1923, will give way to a new park with a retro facade. But retro or not, it never saw the likes of Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. The Mets' new Ebbets Field-style Citi Field may be sweet, but the team's best times (including its miracle 1969 and 1986 World Series wins) were set inside circular concrete Shea.
There was only one thing to do: Buy a ticket for a farewell game in each park. And head for home.
One logistical glitch. The Yanks and Mets aren't normally in town the same day. Interleague games between the teams didn't help since I wanted to see both stadiums, and these matchups are priced through the roof.
I scoured schedules online and got the next-best thing: late-April seats for the Yanks vs. Tigers under the lights and for the Mets vs. Pirates across town on consecutive days. I was set. All I needed were scorecards. Cash for stadium souvenirs. And maybe a travel pack of Kleenex.
* * *
The No. 7 train to Flushing rattles along at rooftop height. From up here, Queens looks artificially clean. Sidewalks are like beaches, reflecting sun. I squint to sharpen the view: Ahead are two Shea stadiums where there should be one.
The subway doors slide open to show not only Shea, but yards away, the elegant arches and curving walls of Citi Field. It isn't beams and scaffolding. From here it looks ready to be served to fans, like a hot dog that's brown and done.
As I hunt for my seats along the left field line, two ushers talk and point seat-wiping mitts at the upstart park behind Shea's colossal scoreboard. "Last year," says one, "someone hit a shot that went over everything. Landed in the new construction. That's your first home run in the history of Citi Field."
The Mets trot out to their positions, then retreat to the dugout. No one is sure what's going on. Turns out the game is on hold due to a water main break next door. Forty minutes go by. Citi Field doesn't want anyone to play at Shea.
As soon as the first pitch from the Mets' Oliver Perez finally heads toward the plate, things start going downhill for the home team. Perez is wild, and the last-place Pirates construct a quick 7-0 lead.
A fly ball to right field lands foul. This reminds me: Shea Stadium is the only park in baseball with orange foul poles. What does this mean? Only Mr. Met can tell me. An enormous mascot, a baseball with legs, he doesn't say much. But I have a sense he's wise. Sad and wise.
Mr. Met will miss the prairie-wide outfield here as much as I will. You could grow corn at Shea. Or winter wheat in the offseason. With distant fences, flapping banners and roaring airplanes overhead, Shea is a stadium that mocks batters. The Mets are popping out and slicing foul after foul. One flies past a billboard that plugs the "New York City Union of Carpenters and Contractors."
There is one positive about the Mets' bad afternoon: The home run apple stays quiet in its giant top hat. Whenever a Mets player hits one out, it's not enough that fans are happy and stomping their feet. No, this big red piece of stadium fruit has to pop up beyond center field and horn in on the fun. The apple wasn't there in the 1960s, and I pray it doesn't make the trip to Citi Field.
I decide that I'm going to keep to tradition and do what I've always done during laugher games here. Move down. Zero in on empty seats up close and, if someone shows up with tickets, move on. When I was 15, I had a nosebleed seat to a game during the 1973 World Series: Mets vs. Oakland A's. Even then, with the stadium sold out, I sneaked down and saw my Mets in swirling snow from behind home plate.
Today it's almost too easy. The ushers are still busy talking, and in minutes I'm in Box 103B, only rows from the field. According to the placards, "Harry Garber" and "The Zinder Family" should be here. I'm delighted they're not.
Down here I can see that Shea's banner heritage lives on. Jack Connelly of Brooklyn waits until the inning is finished (it's the end of the fifth, still 7-0) and holds up the Mets team logo stenciled on a bedsheet. It might be part of a sheet. It could be a pillowcase. Mustard's coloring a corner. Maybe some beer.
"Once I got this on TV," he tells me. "Channel 9. Remember when Bob Murphy was the play-by-play guy for the Mets? Ralph Kiner?" I have to admit I do.
Now it's 12-0 and the JumboTron TV in center field shows smiling mugs. "Congratulations to these lucky fans!" it barks. "They just received an ice cream Funstick courtesy of Nestle!" People in my section are not among the winners. This is New York. They boo.
It's 13-1 at the end, and since it's my last day at Shea, I head for the Mets Dugout Shop to look for a T-shirt. There's the "Shea Final Season Patch Hooded Fleece" for $54.99. The "Shea Water Color Ringer T-Shirt" for $24.99. Even a "New York Yankees Authentic Jersey With All-Star and Stadium Patches" at -- ouch -- $209.99.
I choose a simple, light-blue T that says "NY" on its front. On its back, it has a view of my favorite park -- the one with orange foul poles. Mr. Met would be proud.
* * *
Hunting for a Yankees ticket online, I'd noticed that sellers were making opera out of the stadium's last year. "The Swan Song for the Cathedral" yelled the Yankees' Web site. If I wanted to hear this song from a Field Level Championship Seat, it was going to cost me 325 bucks.
Instead I found a ticket on StubHub, an online exchange, that sounded like a deal. "Seventh row from the field," bragged the seller. "And it's an aisle seat." Not counting shipping and handling, it was $47 for the Yanks against Detroit, a team with some talent and buzz. I snapped it up. Feeling flush, I ordered a $22 berth on the "Yankee Clipper" ferry to float me to the park from a Hudson River pier not far from my hotel.
Web page hyperbole aside, I'm psyched for my final Yankee Stadium game. Big and dominant as New York, it's a skyscraper ballpark -- the game's third-oldest (after Fenway and Wrigley) and the first in baseball to build three decks for fans. The Yanks have used its short right field "porch" and its distant left and center fields to win a record 26 World Series.
The ferry demands that I board at 4:45 p.m. for the 7:05 game. We've got places to go, things to see -- and clusters of fans to collect at piers in New Jersey and around Manhattan. The trip seems as slow as a rain delay. The ferry finally drops me off a couple of minutes before game time, and I get a view of the new Yankee Stadium, but part of it is still under wraps. A steel-and-stucco mystery. It doesn't peer over the walls and glare at you like Citi Field does when you sit at Shea.
Checking my ticket, following the signs, I'm being squeezed down the stadium's tight concession walkways, crunching on popcorn, getting farther and farther from home plate. My ticket says BX126. Row K. Seat 2. I stare at the cardboard clutched in my hand. I look down. The letters and numbers are there. But something is wrong.
I don't have a seat. I have a concrete space marked off in an aisle. I feel privileged: It would be excellent if I'd brought my car. When a passing usher sees me standing in my StubHub area, fumbling a Nathan's hot dog, she finds me a plastic folding chair. "It ain't standing room," she explains. "It's sometimes used for wheelchairs. Only you don't have a wheelchair."
I've got a few minutes to explore. I poke around and pay my respects to Monument Park beyond the outfield wall -- the famous knot of retired Yankee numbers, memorials and plaques. The sun is low and slanting, and a ray decorates the stadium's white facade.
I am in the cathedral. The organ swells. Time for the anthem, then the loudspeaker sermon about tossing things onto the field. The public is addressed. Play ball.
The Tigers leap out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first off the Yanks' much-touted but not-yet-effective Phil Hughes. The scoreboard looms large way out here in left. I've got a good view of an Utz potato chip billboard. Next to it is an electric Met Life sign that shows the "regular season countdown" to the stadium's last game. 72 to go.
My section enjoys the flight of an occasional line drive to left. And though it's hard to see what's happening in the infield, we are flooded with information. Yankee Stadium gets to host the 2008 All-Star Game on July 15, so there are ads for that. Bank of America reminds me that it's the official bank of the New York Yankees. And French's mustard maintains that nothing can compare.
The cotton candy man sings like Louis Armstrong. "Cot-ton Cay-yan-daay!" he croaks. "Can-daay-to-Cotton!" With the Tigers ahead 6-2, I decide against any of the pink stuff. It's time for another Nathan's, maybe some French's and a beer.
A large Bud Light is $9.50 at the nearest snack bar, so I see what else I can find. I try to enter the stadium's Johnnie Walker Pinstripe Pub, but a cop at the door says no. "Gotta have a pass," he says with a smirk. I buy the Bud Light, swill it and visit the stadium men's room. There are beer bottles everywhere.
When I get back to my space, the Yanks have blown a rally and are still behind. And someone is in my plastic folding chair. It's a woman with a retractable cane. She's got a pushcart with a radio propped up that's tuned to hockey, an Eddie Bauer knapsack and a Tiparillo cigar.
"Rooting for the Rangers?" she asks before I can speak up about my seat. "Well, like the Yanks, they're losing."
I can see when she laughs that she has braces. And though hockey is on, she is following this Yankees loss and carefully, minutely, between delicate puffs of the cigar, keeping score.
There is only one thing to do. Say goodbye to the Utz and Met Life billboards. Forget about BX126. Row K. Seat 2. Zero in on an empty box as close to the plate as possible and go.
Harry Garber, the Mets fan, may also have a Field Level Championship Seat here in Yankee Stadium. The Zinder Family may have the whole first row.
But this is my final game here. Ushers, stand back. Cotton candy guy, give way.
It's time for me to make my move.
Peter Mandel -- an author of books for kids, including "Say Hey!" (Hyperion) about Willie Mays -- last wrote for Travel about New Hampshire's Mount Washington.