By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
It's impolite to speak ill of the dead, so let's make this quick: Shea Stadium—smothered in something between a blue and purple semi-gloss and set down in a remote Queens parking lot—is the most innocuous, insipid, and uninspiring ballpark in the National League (yes, we have come to bury Shea, not to praise it).
Sometime in early winter, the walls of both Shea and Yankee stadiums will come down. The dates are as yet unannounced, holding out the prospect of playoff baseball (realistic in the east, a pipe dream further north) or possibly an appearance by the Boss (Springsteen, not Steinbrenner) in the Bronx. And so a comparison of the two home fields is natural, if inherently unfair.
Yankee Stadium was constructed privately for just over $2 million. Alternatively, Shea Stadium (working title: Flushing Meadows Park) stands as a testament to the immutable will of Robert Moses, the most notorious public planner in history, who exercised a control over the city similar to J. Edgar Hoover's over the FBI.
On April 18, 1923, over 74,000 fans turned out for Yankee Stadium's opening. Babe Ruth hit the first home run in a Yankee win, and, at season's end, the team brought home the first of their 26 world titles.
After two seasons in the Polo Grounds (also the Yankees' last home before their stadium was built), the Mets opened Shea on April 17, 1964, in front of more than 50,000 fans with a 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh (the Pirates' Willie Stargell hit the first home run). A three-year-old expansion team manned by well-past-prime-time players and managers (Casey Stengel was 71 when he took the job and 74 when he left, a mere 20 years senior to the next-oldest manager in the NL, St. Louis's Johnny Keane), the Mets managed to lose more than 100 games for their third consecutive season, finishing dead last in a 10-team league (also for the third consecutive season) and instantly shaping Shea Stadium as New York's very own Island of Misfit Ballplayers.
Even worse, those lovable losers—blessed with more character than wins—performed in a facility that possessed no redeeming qualities of its own.
"It was," says former Met and Yankee Doc Medich, "one of those '60s-'70s parks that got thrown up that were convertible for football. It just didn't really capture anybody's imagination. The most unique thing about it was the noise from the airplanes."
Even Ron Swoboda, an integral member of the '69 Miracle Mets, remains unsentimental about the place: "It was designed to hold seats up," he says of Shea. "I mean, it was utilitarian, you know—it never was glorious."
Consider, in contrast, the House That Ruth Built. Even as a skeleton of its former self (its insides ripped apart, reconfigured, and somewhat replaced during a two-year John Lindsay initiative in 1974 and 1975), Yankee Stadium is majestic, an edifice elevated to the status of legend by the strengths of baseball's best-known and longest-lasting working-class hero. Even now, in its second incarnation, the place is a cathedral with an almost sacred history.
Think surroundings don't matter? Watch a young ball club like Pittsburgh, fugitives from the National League, visit the stadium for interleague play and walk the field like Midwestern tourists entering St. Pat's. They are caught in a moment—rare for professional ballplayers schooled in the ways of competition—of unabashed and undisguised awe.
But not for much longer. In 2009, both teams will start afresh in facilities valued at $2 billion (or 1,000 times the cost of the original Yankee Stadium).
With the Yankees' late-July acquisition of Xavier Nady from the Pirates, 104 men have now played for both teams. We asked 11 of them about their first day as a major-leaguer in the city, the importance of a uniform, if there was anything—anything at all—better about Shea, and what they'd take from either site before the deconstruction begins.
"The most memorable thing about the first day at Yankee Stadium was, we were in the outfield shagging and, you know, just taking it all in. Me and Mike Buddie were the only two rookies on the team, and nobody's saying your name. They probably didn't even know who I was. And I see Mike Buddie coming across the field, and he's smiling, and he was like: 'Hey, man, you won't believe this—some people knew my name.' And I'm like: 'Really? That's so cool.' He goes: 'Yeah, they're like, "Mike! Mike! Mike Buddie!" ' So he turns around, and they like wave to him, and he goes, 'Hey!' And they go: 'Go back to f'ing Columbus, you bum!' " —Shane Spencer (Yankees, 1998-2002; Mets, 2004)
"It was pretty unbelievable. You know, you hear everything about Yankee Stadium, but . . . just from the stories you hear, you think, 'You know, it can't be that much different from anywhere else.' Until you actually get out there on the mound, and you realize: It really is a special place." —Jason Anderson (Yankees, 2003 and 2005; Mets, 2003)
"When you're a Yankee, and you're going down your first day into that clubhouse, and you enter the stadium—man, I don't know how to explain this, but you just get goose bumps and chills and stuff all over your body. You can feel the history." —Lance Johnson (Mets, 1996-97; Yankees, 2000)