The City of New York and the New York Mets have unveiled plans for the new stadium that will replace Shea Stadium on Opening Day in 2009. One major question is this: what should be the name of this new park? Shea Stadium was named for lawyer William Shea, whom Mayor Lindsay at the time noted was the most instrumental person in getting the place built, thus the appellation for the place that the Mets have called home for 42 years was odd but understandable; however, they will have to give the new stadium a different name, and I believe it should be Jackie Robinson Field.
The connections between the New York Mets and the Brooklyn Dodgers are quite tangible and most vivid for Mets fans, especially those persons who are 55 years old and older. Just like our Mets, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the underdog team in a city dominated by the damn Yankees across the river. They were a blue-collar team to be sure (as Newsday sportswriter Jon Heyman has noted, the Yankees are “about as blue-collar as Monte Carlo”), having a deep fan base in the poor and working classes in Brooklyn, Queens, and later Long Island. While they had some amazing players over the years (Duke Snider no doubt being their best all-around player, eventually rivaling Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle as the top centerfielder in baseball), none had such a visceral and long-lasting impact as Jackie Robinson.
Whatever the motivation was for Branch Rickey to sign Robinson (and I have heard many varying stories over the years), the fact that the first black player in the Major Leagues was on the Dodgers changed baseball and American society forever. World War Two had ended only two years before and the armed forces were still segregated during that time; when the Korean conflict started a few years later, our forces would be integrated and there would be a move across the country to do the same thing in schools, the workforce, and in communities.
Jackie Robinson opened the door and behind him hundreds of other black players were waiting. Robinson was an exemplary person, an extraordinary ballplayer, and his success and good will were felt by players of all colors. Because of Robinson, the Major Leagues slowly became diversified and play rose to an infinitely better level. My grand uncle, who played in the minor leagues in the 1920s, said, “Our white team was always beaten when we played against the black teams in pick-up games because the blacks were better players,” so this influx of talent certainly pushed all players to be better athletes out of necessity.
Another reason the new stadium should be named for Jackie Robinson can be found along a snaking road that connects Brooklyn to Queens and Long Island that used to be called The Interboro Parkway. It is a terrible road with sharp curves and narrow lanes, and I know because I’ve driven along it many times in my life. The traffic is always backed up along this route; it has only two lanes going in either direction, and the precipitous turns and short exit and entrance ramps make drivers slow down for safety. Back in 1972, my 18-year-old cousin was killed in an accident while riding his motorcycle along its most dangerous stretch through Cypress Hills, where quite fittingly there are cemeteries on either side of the road.
I guess you can understand why I’ve never felt fondly about The Interboro Parkway, that is until a few years ago when the name was changed to The Jackie Robinson Parkway to honor the groundbreaking ballplayer from the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was along this curving thoroughfare that winds its way through Brooklyn cemeteries and Queens parklands that Mets manager Willie Randolph’s father used to drive him from Brooklyn into Queens to see Mets games. Little did young Willie know that the parkway would one day be renamed for the great Jackie Robinson whom he so admired or that he would be the skipper (and first black manager) of the team that he so loved.
As I watched the presentation about the new stadium (I saw it here in New York City on the new Mets Channel SNY), I knew many people would be excited by this development, but I felt it was bittersweet for I have so many memories connected to that place. Shea is hallowed ground for Mets fans: most notably left field, where Cleon Jones genuflected as he squeezed the fly ball for out number three and the Mets first World Series victory in 1969, and the mound, where Jesse Orosco threw that last strike of the 1986 World Series.
It has also been a site for rock concerts, visits by the Pope, and a venue for other conventions and convocations. Most hallowed of all ground is the area around second base that should be preserved forever to mark the place where the stage stood for the legendary Beatles’ appearance in 1965. Before the Beatles, no rock and roll act could have sold out a 57,000-seat stadium, but they were like no other band before or since. I recall reading once that John always said that the concert at Shea Stadium was not only his most exciting performance as a Beatle, but also was the defining moment for the band in terms of popularity and their legacy.
Despite these things, Shea Stadium has no doubt outlived its viability as a sports arena. If you’ve ever attended a game there, you know that there is a strange alignment of seats to the field. No matter where you sit, it seems you’re pointed toward the outfield wall. My theory on this is that the stadium was built with the thought of also accommodating a football team, which it eventually did (New York Jets). The trouble was that the seats were no better suited for football than they were for baseball, but that was always part of the fun at Shea. There were also the horribly slow escalators, the horrendous odor in the bathrooms, and the tedious wait at the vendor counters in long lines with no way to see the action on the field.
I’ve provided the following information and believe you will find it interesting when comparing and contrasting the new ballpark with old Shea:
Opening Day: 2009
Total Capacity: 45,000 (approximately)
Seating Categories: Concourse Level: 18,000
Club Level: 7,800
Promenade Level: 15,500
Seat Width: 19” to 24” (21” average)
Legroom Between Rows: 33” to 39”
Wheelchair Seating: 830
Luxury Suites: 58
Restaurants (capacity): Ebbets Lounge: 734
Sterling Lounge: 1,600
Left Field Club: 500
Promenade Grill: 500
Field Dimensions: Left Field: 335
Left Center: 379
Right Center: 391
Right Field: 330
Opening Day: 1964
Total Capacity: 57,333
Seating Categories: Loge: 8,852
Field Level: 11,149
Upper Deck: 20,420
Seat Width: 19” to 20” (19” average)
Legroom Between Rows: 32”
Wheelchair Seating: 174
Luxury Suites: 45
Restaurants (capacity): Diamond Club: 309
Grill Room: 219
Field Dimensions: Left Field: 338
Left Center: 371
Right Center: 371
Right Field: 338
*Statistics taken from New York Newsday
Fortunately, all the many things that have plagued fans at Shea have been considered in the planning for the construction of the new ballpark. It seems the first and foremost priority was aesthetics, and that is very pleasing to this fan. Reminiscent of the old home of the Dodgers in Brooklyn, the new structure will have striking brick arches along the façade with limestone and granite flourishes; the arches will contain semicircle windows in the top of each arch just like the ones in Ebbets Field. There will be space made for commemorative bronze plaques along the top of the building, and any exposed steel will be painted in rich Mets blue. This kind of return to a traditional-styled park will please most Mets fans, for Shea has always been a clash of 60s modernism and practicality with the harsh reality of its obviously unpleasant structural incongruities.
Also, looking at the statistics above, one can see that the goal was to make the amenities available to a smaller and more comfortable crowd. The Upper Deck at Shea has always been nosebleed land, and the wind whipping off Flushing Bay swooshed around those seats unmercifully. Now there will only be two major seating decks and a Club Level for the lounges and restaurants. All the facilities will have easy viewing of the action on the field, and the Promenade Grill sounds most promising as a restaurant that will be hanging down from that level and almost over the action on the field.
Listening to Jeff Wilpon, son of team owner and former Brooklyn Dodger fan Fred Wilpon, talking about the project convinced me that this was a labor of love. There were original plans for a domed stadium prior to 9/11, but Mr. Wilpon indicated that event changed everything, including the vision for this new park. Now the park is being designed to be more intimate, with a good deal less ground in foul territory because of seats that will be extremely close to the field. And, speaking of seats, there has been obvious attention to the fact that watching games at Shea used to be uncomfortable. The seats will be wider and legroom has been increased significantly.
Besides all the technical information that is impressive, most of all I think the city and the Mets organization have done justice to baseball history. The New York Met fans of today would not exist without the Dodger fans of yesterday. Dodger fans lived for their team, even when it was losing, and they went to games in a small ballpark where there was significant opportunity for exchange with each other and the players too. This has been recognized in the planning of this new park, and in my mind it takes a great deal of love to say we will design a park with ten thousand less seats in order that each fan who does attend a game will feel right at home. That’s a design that doesn’t have making money as a top priority (for more seats = more tickets = more money).
The Dodger fans of the past gave birth to the Met fans of the present. It has been a sometimes difficult process, but all the love, sweat, blood, and tears that were transferred meant more than just the change of a borough (Brooklyn to Queens) or change in name (Dodgers to Mets). For in the end, the quintessence of passion, spirit, and love of team has been passed on to Mets fans. Anyone who has ever been at Shea when it’s a full house and has heard the fans screaming “Let’s Go Mets” will know exactly what I mean.
The Mets are recognizing their connection to the past with the new stadium taking on the ghost of Ebbets Field and giving shape to a new and lasting presence in brick and steel. Now that the city and the Mets organization have done so much right in the planning of this new park, it is time to make the right call and name the park after the greatest Dodger of all: Jackie Robinson. In that way we will be honoring his memory, his team’s legacy, and the hope for the future of Mets baseball will be very bright indeed.