Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shea Quest '08: "Welcome Home Tom"

Shea Stadium Memory Countdown No. 4: April 5, 1983. Mets 2, Phillies 0

Opening Day of 1983 was the best game I almost saw.

I suppose I did get to watch part of it, the part of the field you can see from the train station that used to be just beyond rightfield.

But we could see the mound, and that’s all that mattered that afternoon. I needed visual confirmation that Tom Seaver was back where belonged and the world once again was turning on its proper axis.

My friends at Nassau Community College were well aware of my devotion to the Mets and to Seaver — it would be impossible for them to not be. We were a close group, all of us on the staff of the campus newspaper, and piled into the car to head to Shea to celebrate my birthday, which was two days prior.

Get tickets in advance? We were college kids! We didn’t plan things in advance. And besides, it’s not like the Mets attracted crowds. We even parked for free in our secret spots in Flushing Meadows Park. When you come from the park, you walk across a long, boardwalk-like bridge over the train tracks, and descend through the train stop.

We walked up to the ticket window and were stopped in our tracks by a hand-made sign reading, "SOLD OUT."

The Mets? Sold out? Are you kidding me?

I remember we slowly circled the stadium two or three times in a daze. I don’t know what we expected to find. But after all that driving and walking we needed to do something. And it’s not like we could go to some sports bar across the street to watch the game.

I guess I figured that somehow, some way we were going to get into that stadium. Tom Seaver was back, and we weren’t going to get to see it? Unthinkable.

Reality set in and we headed back, climbing the steps to go back across the bridge.

It was then we discovered that we could see a decent chunk of the field through the gap between the scoreboard and the right field stands.

My friends, none who whom were as fanatical as I was, knew how important it was for me to see Seaver, and humored my by sticking it out for a while.

From our vantage point, we could hear the crowd, and the introduction, "Warming up in the bullpen, No. 41...." with everything else famously drowned out by the cheers.

Eventually — and distantly — we could see Tom take the mound.

We close enough to see that there were new racing stripes on the uniforms. And even from that far away, Seaver’s’ motion was unmistakable. It didn’t make up for June 15, 1977, because nothing will. But that sight was special.

The game itself was probably the high point of the season for the Mets, the last year in the cellar before Davey and Doc restored respectability.

It was the final time Seaver and Steve Carlton would duel on Opening Day. And the Phillies — the eventual National League champs — boasted four Hall-of-Famers in their lineup, plus Pete Rose, who, well, you know. The others were Carlton, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez.

Seaver and Carlton matched zeros through the sixth, when Tom was lifted for pinch-hitter Wally Backman. Seaver had given up just three hits, replaced by Doug Sisk who was a couple years away from being renamed Doug "Bleeping" Sisk.

But in the seventh, Dave Kingman — also returning from exile — lead off with a single, followed by George Foster. Then Mike Howard, probably the least-heralded Mets Opening Day right-fielder since the 1960s, drove in the first — and winning — run. Foster scored a second run on a sac fly from Brian Giles, and that was enough for Sisk to close the door and earn the win.

Howard’s hit was the 12th and final of his career — he never played in the big leagues again.

Tom’s Opening Day was his 14th, tying him with Walter Johnson for the record. And as we know, it was his last with the Mets.

As we know, a front office goof allowed the White Sox to claim him — and the Nassau Community College voiced its displeasure on the editorial page.

At least the White Sox allowed him to break the record in 1985 and extend it by one in 1986, Seaver’s last year. The only years he didn’t take the ball on the first game of the year was 1967 — his rookie year — and 1984, when the Sox let Cy Young Award-winner LaMarr Hoyt do the honors.

We also learned why we couldn’t get a ticket: The attendance was 46,687, or almost three-quarters of the total attendance for the previous five opening home games combined.

So among the most important lessons I learned in college was to buy tickets in advance for games I really, really want to attend.

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