On Sept. 25, 2008, in the top of the 7th inning, I ducked out of the Shea Stadium press box, found a private spot on a less-trafficked ramp, sat down against a cement barrier, and cried.
I rarely cry, and I'm still not sure why I did that night. It might have been because I was working on this column, a difficult one to write. It might have been because there was some chance it was the last I'd ever see of one of my favorites, Pedro Martinez, and I knew he deserved better than to have Ricardo Rincon and the Mets' miserable bullpen blow what could have been the swansong of a brilliant career. And the setting probably had something to do with it, too.
Most of the tears I've shed in the past 22 years have fallen on Shea Stadium's concrete concourses. I have no idea why I meet the real, meaningful events in my life with a straight face and sarcastic comment and weep like a widow at baseball games. All I know is that Shea Stadium is to making me cry what Babe Ruth once was to hitting home runs.
(One notable outlier is the movie Finding Neverland starring Johnny Depp, which is very, very sad. Leave me alone.)
So knowing Shea's unique ability to move me, and with no particular professional interest in mind, I headed out to pay my last respects to the stadium at the fan-organized gathering near what used to be Gate A on Saturday in Flushing.
I estimated that there were about 200 people there, though some said there were twice as many. It was hard to say. There was no formal agenda, no proper funeral service, no final tour of the grounds and no divvying up of the remaining scraps of salvageable keepsakes. It was just a swirling mass of bundled-up Mets fans, some reporters and cameramen covering the phenomenon, and cops on megaphones ushering traffic away from the construction site.
Somehow no one thought to capitalize on the event. Families gathered around breaks in the blue-sheathed chain-link fence and climbed up piles of dirt to take last looks and snap photos of the crumbling behemoth. A young man and an old man played catch with mitts and a tennis ball. Fans who knew each other from Internet message boards exchanged awkward comments about meeting each other in person and rued the blistering cold.
It was nice, but it was not particularly emotional. Only when prompted by camera crews did a group of fans sing a verse of "Meet the Mets." The icy wind blowing off the Flushing Bay brought more tears than did any sense of mourning for the Mets' old home.
"It's bittersweet," one woman said. "I'm sad to see it go, but Citi Field looks so much nicer."
That seemed to be the order of the day -- deflecting any attachment one might have felt for Shea toward the new, sterile ballpark that now appears ready for action out beyond what used to be center field. In fact, nearly everyone with whom I spoke echoed that sentiment.
That's not how it went for me, although I wasn't that sad. It was more like denial. I spent a while staring at the last remnants of Shea Stadium, and I could only think one thing:
This is so f@!#ing weird.
Make all the jokes you want: Shea is now inarguably a giant pile of trash. Only a section of upper deck still stands, with parts of the façade tagged by graffiti artists to add to the sense of urban decay. The rest is rubble, a mess of royal blue and grey being cleared by bulldozers that chugged along even as the fans huddled in memoriam.
In my 28 years, I've been lucky enough to see the Colosseum and Chichen Itza and the Great Wall of China, and after my visit to Flushing on Saturday, I couldn't help but wonder why those relics got to stand the test of time and mine will be made into a parking lot.
I know that's irrational. I know Shea Stadium is not a great architectural achievement or a lasting cultural landmark. Heck, it can only boast two world championships. But I've spent some 2,000 of the best hours of my life at Shea, watching, working, cheering, booing, praising, heckling, eating, drinking, dodging the old-man security detail, and of course, crying like a toddler. And I'm not sure I'm ready to let that all go.
I don't know which memories I will amplify and exaggerate and which will fade, just like I don't know if the tears I shed in September were for Pedro or my brother or the stadium or my youth, all of which felt very fleeting that evening. I don't even know if I'll ever cry again without Shea Stadium to bring it out of me.
I do know that it is fitting that city laws would not permit an implosion. That would have been too cathartic, too clean an ending for a stadium where too often, your heart was torn out one tiny piece at a time, where nearly every year you were left looking at a heaping pile of garbage and wondering what the hell happened.
So maybe it's best that they're getting a fresh start. Maybe a lot of Shea Stadium memories are better paved over. I don't know.
Before I got back on the 7 Train to head home on Saturday, I noticed that a group of fans had climbed over a torn-down piece of fence and into the construction site for one closer, final look at the stadium. The men with the baseball gloves and tennis ball were among them.
As I considered joining their crew, a wind-whipped cop walked over, ordered them up against the fence along Roosevelt Avenue and reprimanded them.
"Now get out of here," he said. "And don't give me any more trouble."
And so they did. And so did I. And so will Shea Stadium.
But as the train pulled out of the station and I stole one final glance at what used to be my favorite place in the world, I became overwhelmed with a feeling difficult to mask with sarcasm. It was a feeling that said the 22 years since my first baseball game, Opening Day at Shea in 1987, have passed way, way too quickly, and a feeling that knew that buried somewhere in that rubble, there is a whole lot of me.