Despite the Mets’ startling implosion at the end of last season, more than 50,000 devoted fans were out in full force on Tuesday for Shea Stadium’s final home opener.
Some among the sold out crowd waved signs that read “Ya Gotta Believe!” Others painted faces.
One group shouted instructions to a small pack of Philadelphia Phillies fans for how to turn around and go back home on the New Jersey Turnpike.
If there’s one thing Mets fans have acquired over the years, it’s resiliency — necessary armor when facing the team who beat you out for the playoffs last year.
But if a bitter taste still clung to the lips of some, it hardly showed before the game, as fans buzzed with optimism about the new season and the twilight year of a stadium that has served up Mets tradition for 44 years.
What wound up a beautiful day started out overcast and a bit chilly, as in the hours before the game the smell of smoking hot dogs, burgers and cigars wafted between tailgate parties.
Bill and Kate Powell, who drove in from Wantagh, L.I., around 11 a.m, were among those hanging out in the parking lot before the first pitch. With the lots just about full, there was little traffic, an opportunity they seized to play a game of catch with their two boys, Michael, 8, a Little League pitcher and catcher, and Brian, 12, a first and third baseman.
“This is a special day,” Kate Powell said. Her husband like many others, was looking for some redemption (if not some comeuppance) after last year’s end-of-season collapse.
“Hopefully we’ll get back on track from last year,” he said. “We should have been in the playoffs, no doubt.”
Ýn the meantime, Michael said he had been coming to games at Shea since he was three or four. His little brother Brian, for whom only a few years had passed since he was that age, said he was excited to see David Wright.
“I’ve been a fan ever since he started for the Mets,” Brian said.
Despite the eventual 5-2 Mets loss later that afternoon, it was a sentimental morning for many, as fans greeted the stadium in its last season. From the view behind home plate, the impressive new brick stadium loomed over the outfield wall, portending memories yet to be made.
With his face painted blue and orange, carrying a Mets teddy bear with him wherever he walked, Karim Simmons, 40, from the Bronx, spent 10 years living in Bayside and was a die-hard Mets fan.
The bear — whose name was “Met Ted” — was a gift from his mother in 2001, who had recently passed away. Simmons and his mother had spent years coming to Shea together. Now Simmons brought along Met Ted as a reminder.
“She would have loved being here for the final season,” he said about his mother. “It would have been special for her.”
He was confident that the Mets would pull off a victory against the team that burned them so badly last year with eight straight defeats at the end of the season.
It was a wound so freshly felt he dared not speak the other team’s name, he said.
As for Shea, he said he was a bit sorry to see it go. But like many fans, he was excited to attend the Citi Field stadium once it is completed.
“I’m a little sad to see this go,” he said. “But I’m also looking forward to this new park that we’re going to play in next year.”
With the new stadium, and with dramatic rezoning plans threatening the ramshackle Willets Point neighborhood just adjacent, a few Shea staples have remained constant over the years, and don’t look to change any time soon.
Among them is Edward Venezia, who has been on the parking staff for 20 years. At 82-years-old, he seemed as spry as some half his age.
“I was here when they came” he said, referring to when the Mets came to Shea in 1964. Mostly what had changed since then, he said, was the ticket prices.
“They weren’t so expensive then,” he laughed. “But then again we didn’t have much money then either.”
After so many seasons, he couldn’t help feel bit attached to the big blue stadium, he said.
“I like the old stadium he said, smiling. “It’s reminiscent. But then again, modern times, you have to move, I guess.”
Buddies and fellow die-hards Dennis Alestra and Charlie Cannarella waved placards in the parking lot, shouting “you gotta believe!” Asked if he was feeling sentimental about the last home opener at Shea, Cannarella seemed to welcome some change after last year’s disappointment..
“You know, it’s a new year, out with the old, in with the new,” he said. “Hopefully we won’t repeat the kind of ending we had last year.”
Alestra was less sentimental still. “I’m looking forward to getting better facilities,” he said, joking that maybe now he wouldn’t have to wear galoshes into the restrooms after the seventh inning. For the same reason, he had long since given up wearing shoelaces to Mets games.
“My father taught me that a long time ago,” he added, along with some other bathroom wisdom that’s best not printed here.
Mets fans had suffered enough over the years, it seemed. But like thousands of phoenixes rising out of the ashes of a season that went down in flames, the fans jostled with optimism.
Despite all the memories, both cherished and heartbreaking, the new stadium was about “new life,” for a “new team,” said George Zafiris, 45, from Astoria.
Zafiris is perhaps best known as the heartbroken Mets fan who graced the cover of the New York Times after the Mets 8-1 loss to the Florida Marlins last October.
He had just come from Florida where the Mets took their revenge in the season opener. The new stadium, he said, was “awesome” and would be a “new beginning” for the Amazin’s and their fans.
“I think the fans deserve a modern-day stadium,” he said. “It’s a quality stadium for quality fans.”
Unfortunately for fans, the day’s promise wasn’t enough to carry them through for a victory, with more injuries plaguing the already ailing team.
Relief pitcher Matt Wise was placed on the 15-day disabled list after bruising his right forearm. It was the second pitching injury of the season already, on the heels of a hamstring injury for starting pitcher Pedro Martinez in the opening game of the season.
Adding insult to injury, it was the Mets’ ninth straight loss to the Phillies, with Philadelphia starter Jamie Moyer holding the Mets to just two runs.
Carlos Delgado smacked his first homer of the season, giving him a career total 432, passing Cal Ripken Jr. for 37th place on the all time home run list.
With the help of Delgado’s solo shot, the Mets held a lead over the Phillies for seven innings.
Delgado committed the costliest error in the game, however, when an errant throw of his hit runner Chase Utley, allowing two Phillies runs run across the plate in the top of the seventh to tie the ball game.
A one run RBI by Jorge Sosa put the Phillies in the lead before the close of the inning, adding two more in the eighth to put the Mets away for the day.