As a young boy, musician and filmmaker Paul Crowder decided that playing a show at Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows Park marked the pinnacle of musical achievement. Though he never got to have his own songs pumped through stadium amps, in 2008 he set out to make a film about the last person who did.
Set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, “The Last Play at Shea” is a documentary charting the life and career of musicican and Long Island native Billy Joel, and the ups and downs of the New York Mets.
While New Yorkers generally recognize Shea Stadium as the Mets’ former home base, its reputation as a concert venue precedes it abroad, according to Crowder. “For someone like myself from England, Shea Stadium only ever meant The Beatles for me, it didn’t mean baseball at all,” said Crowder, “The Beatles at Shea Stadium — it was a famous [recording] and there was footage and there were all these screaming people, it was amazing.”
For 44 years, Shea Stadium held cheering fans from all walks of life. Mets afficionados donned blue and orange to cheer for baseball’s underdog team and football fans came to see the Jets play until 1983. Concert goers watched Paul Simon, The Who and Jethro Tull grace the stage, along with other notable acts.
For music and sports fans alike, the experience of being part of the crowd at Shea was moving — literally. The stadium could accommodate more than 57,000 people and when they got excited, it shook. “When everything got really really really loud there was actually a bounce on the upper deck, and people have described this. It was like what Hemingway describes about the Earth moving, and you felt part of this enormous wave of sound,” said baseball historian and Mets fan Dana Brand.
For Brand, who is interviewed in the film, the experience of attending his first Mets game on his 10th birthday in 1964 is something he will never forget.
“I had my father’s binoculars and I was so excited. We had seats that were in the upper deck, very far away from the Mets dugout, but I was able to look in and there was the manager of the Mets, Casey Stengel, sound asleep. It was the first time I had glimpsed the hidden world of adulthood,” Brand said.
Still, Crowder insists it was music, not sports that put Shea on the map.”The Mets spent several years [after The Beatles 1965 concert] before they had any success and before anybody realized there was a baseball team there as well. They were known at that time as the worst team in baseball. They struggled and they were bad. I mean they were bad,” Crowder said.
Among famous moments in Shea’s musical history, Crowder cites The Police’s 1983 concert during which Sting decided on stage to quit the band because he felt he had finally made it to the top. That concert also featured R.E.M. and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and sold out in just five hours.
Like a sports fan, Crowder knows his stats, and in this way, all who have frequented Shea Stadium have something in common. In the space of the stadium, fans constructed an area of worship for all types of idols.
There was magic in Shea. Tales of black cats circling the dugouts, unlikely concerts and amazing comebacks are what the stadium’s legacy is made of.
Crowder tells an unbelieveable story of Paul McCartney leaving England just a few hours before Joel’s concert started, and arriving just in time to perform with him at the stadium. Brand says he doesn’t believe in miracles in any supernatural sense, “but if you’ve actually seen what happens with the 1969 Mets, you would believe,” referring to their unlikely World Series win at Shea.
Brand remembers cradling his baseball glove and listening to Mets games on the radio, and years later, taking his own children to watch the Mets play at Shea. He said attending games at the stadium had given continuity to his life.
As a professor at Hofstra University, Brand has spent much intellectual time and energy trying to understand what causes him, or anyone for that matter, to to be a baseball fan.
“Why am I paying so much attention to a game? Why am I paying such attention to something that doesn’t mean anything?” Brand asks.
“Does the fact that millions of people care about it make it mean something when it really doesn’t mean anything, and I guess the answer to a large extent is yes,” Brand said.
“It’s part religion, part grand opera and part ordinary family life,” Brand said.
In the last game the Mets played at Shea, they fell short of making it to the playoffs for the second consecutive year. At the end of that game, when fans were devastated, there was a ceremony in which the 50 greatest Mets players of all time came to make a formal farewell to home plate and to fans who would soon fill the Mets’ new venue, Citi Field. “Tom Seaver pitched a final pitch to Mike Piazza and these are the two greatest Mets ever, and then they walked behind the blue wall in the outfield and waved to the crowd, and it was literally the ceremonial death of the stadium.
And I remember everybody filtering out and realizing, as I looked at this brilliantly lit magnificent place that had meant so much to me since I was a child, that I would never see it again, and just walking out of it, and the way in which it brought together all sorts of thoughts about time and life and existance and death and you know, that was the most moving moment, and it really felt particularly sad because they had just been eliminated,” Brand said.
Crowder promises his film is not nearly as sad as the Mets’ last game at Shea or the beginning of their current season.
See page 00 for festival dates and ticket prices.
Tribeca Film Festival
When: April 21-May 5
Where: Visit tribecafilm.com for theater locations and screening information.
Tickets: $16 for evenings and weekends, $8 for weekday matinees.