By Mike Steffanos
You could put down the frying pan, Lisa. This isn't about you...
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Hamden, Connecticut. With its small single family homes and 2- and 3- family houses, we were a lot a closer to the bottom of the middle class than the top. Still, it was a nice place to grow up in the 60s and 70s and, for better or worse, I owe a large part of who I am today to where I came from.
The neighborhood has gone quite a ways downhill since the days of my youth, with most of the houses owned by people who live elsewhere and rent them out. My old house is still there, though -- a two-family house in the middle of a somewhat nondescript block. You probably wouldn't even take note of the place if you drove by. To you it's just a relatively unattractive building on a street that's seen better days. To me, even after almost 3 decades, it still feels a little like home.
I hate to admit this, but my old house is probably one of the few in that entire neighborhood that actually looks better now than back when I lived there. While it's clad in cheap white siding now, back then it was covered in badly peeling grey paint. The backyard is a little shabby, but not the virtual junkyard it was when my packrat grandfather was piling up his "treasures" there. Back in the day we stood out for many of the wrong reasons. It always made me feel a little ashamed, because as a kid you greatly prefer to blend in rather than stand out.
The years gone by have greatly modified my opinion of the old homestead. No longer obsessed with what was wrong with the place, I'm free to enjoy all of the good memories of what was right. I remember large family gatherings full of cousins and my grandmother's homemade Italian food. (She even made her Lasagna noodles and macaroni from scratch.) I don't think there is a greater sense of security and connectedness in the world than to be a kid at a huge family holiday celebration.
I remember being embarrassed by my grandmother screaming my name out to call me in for dinner. Some of the other kids would mimic her to taunt me. What I've come to remember better is her kindness, generosity and almost childlike sense of fun. As a kid, my friends used to love to come over and play card games that my grandmother either invented or bastardized and invariably tried to cheat at. When you caught her she'd laugh, and so would the rest of us.
To make a long story short, what I've come to realize over the years is that the people that make up your household are infinitely more important in the long run than the physical realities of the property. Maybe that's why I could love Shea Stadium so unabashedly despite all of the endless bashing of the old place by the media. They see an unattractive ballpark in an unattractive neighborhood that dares to exist in the same town as the venerated mausoleum in the Bronx. The same writers who never get tired of telling Mets fans how their team doesn't measure up to the Yankees also never tire of putting down Shea Stadium. Even beat writers for other teams take shots at her when they come to town.
My friend Greg Prince from Faith and Fear in Flushing and I were at Tom Glavine's 299th win versus the Pirates late last month, and we both agreed we were tired of the way Shea Stadium is always played up as something worse than the ninth circle of Dante's inferno in the media. They've actually done a decent job of keeping the place up, especially if you remember back to the late 70s when only the rust was holding the place together. The jet noise has been alleviated greatly over the years, and if they would just turn down the damned loudspeakers a little you'd be able to hear yourself think. Sometimes the wind comes off the water and chills the sportswriters, causing their nipples to chafe unpleasantly against their shirts. Mets fans, of course, are real men and women who are made of much sterner stuff. We endure those nights much better then the frail denizens of the fourth estate.
Tonight the Braves will be in town and the old ballpark will be rocking. While I sincerely hope the Mets come to play tonight, I have no doubt the Mets fans will be on top of their game.
Shea Stadium indeed has a lot of faults, and will never be accused of being a shrine to its sport. While there have been 2 championships won there, there has also been a relentless parade of bad teams full of bad players over the years. No matter what happens in 2007 and 2008, when Shea comes down she will have been home to many more dreadful seasons than great ones.
Still, for those of us who persevered and resisted going over to the dark side, there have been a number of great players and a slew of great moments in this ballpark. Whenever there was a cause to get excited, Mets fans have more than risen to the occasion. Plenty of fans in other places are singled out for being great baseball fans, but I can think of no greater fans than those who have bucked the trend and endured the abuse from all quarters to root for this team year after year. Shea Stadium is great because this is where the Mets play and, more importantly, this is where Mets fans gather to cheer them on. As always, it's the people that make the place great.