Shea sees its share of Amazin' openers
Seaver, Carter among those to shine in firsts of old ballpark
NEW YORK -- For now, it goes by a generic identification: The Mets' opening home game or the home opener. Or it can be identified as Phillies at Mets, or more simply as the Mets' first game at home, or more routinely as their seventh game or one of 162. Red Foley might have referred to it as the lid-lifter. And come April 8, the eve of the resumption of face-to-face hostilities between the Mets and Phillies, we might identify it as the first battle in Operation Payback.
For our purposes here, though, none of those titles is all that appropriate, because none reflects the broader view of the event that is to unfold just off Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing at 1:10 p.m. ET on April 9. Then, and only then, will the Beginning of The End occur. And it won't matter which team is in the third-base dugout.
On that day, at that hour, the Mets will begin to play the final opening home game ever at Shea Stadium. They will participate in the first of a series of lasts that will mark the 2008 season as distinctive, regardless of how the team fares. The last Sunday game, the last series, the last visit by the Dodgers, the last Interleague game, the last last of the ninth, the last mid-week matinée, the last Merengue Night, the last home run, perhaps the last postseason game and even the last laugh.
For certain, Mr. Joel is to present "The Last Play at Shea." Say goodbye, my baby.
Beginning that day, the first of the cookie cutter ballparks will receive last rights. An 81-part farewell awaits the arena the Mets have called home since 1964. And while the lasts are under way, Citi Field -- a futuristic link to Brooklyn baseball -- will be rising beyond Shea's left- and center-field walls. It will be the last time that will happen.
But before we move too far forward, we ought to take a last look at the firsts of Shea. What follows is a review of many of Shea's 45 season-opening games, the ones that made a difference or captured our imagination. From Willie Stargell going deep in the first one to Tom Seaver building a remarkable April resume, to Gary Carter's walk-off home run to Jeff Innis walking off someone else's home run ... the first games at Shea have had their moments.
April 17, 1964 -- Different surroundings, same results. The Mets had lost their first nine games -- six in the Polo Grounds -- in 1962, and their first eight -- two in their original home -- in 1963. So not much was expected of them when they started in '64, even if Shea Stadium was brand new. The Mets already had lost twice in Philadelphia when they arrived at Shea for the first time, to play the Pirates. Shea wasn't quite ready -- a coat of paint was applied to the outfield wall during batting practice -- and neither were the new tenants. What followed was a thin coat of taint. Stargell, who still has the most career home runs against the Mets -- 60 -- hit one against Jack Fisher in the second inning, a Shea first. The Mets went on to lose, 4-3, to Bob Friend, who pitched a complete game, before 50,312. And the Diamond Club elevator broke down.
April 15, 1966 -- Fisher had a 2-1 lead entering the ninth inning. A two-run rally -- one run was unearned -- initiated by a one-out double by Braves catcher Joe Torre, denied the Mets an Opening Day victory for the fifth time.
April 17, 1968 -- A crowd of 52,079 saw rookie Jerry Koosman pitch the first of his seven shutouts that year, in a 3-0 victory against the Giants that was the Mets' first victory in an opening home game. The shutout, the Mets' third in six games, directly followed a 24-inning, 1-0 loss in Houston the previous day. No question, it was the Year of the Pitcher right from the beginning.
April 8, 1969 -- The Miracle Mets were slow in developing. They lost seven of their first 10 games, including their Opening Day game at Shea against the expansion Expos. Ken Boswell committed three errors, the first leading to two unearned runs against Tom Seaver in the first inning. The Mets scored four times in the ninth, offsetting the four Expos runs in the eighth, and lost, 11-10.
April 6, 1971 -- Having won on Opening Day for the first time the previous season, the Mets prevailed again in 1971, with Seaver winning on Opening Day for the first time. They beat the Expos, 4-2. Rain ended the game after five innings.
April 15, 1972 -- Seaver and Tug McGraw combined for a no-walk five-hitter against the Pirates in a 4-0 game, the Mets' third straight Opening Day victory.
April 6, 1973 -- Seaver and McGraw combined for another five-hit shutout, this one against the Phillies. Cleon Jones hit two home runs against Steve Carlton, who followed his 27-10 season with the first of 20 losses. The Mets, who had five hits, too -- three by Jones -- won, 3-0. Attendance was 27,326.
April 8, 1975 -- A single against Carlton by new Met Torre in the ninth inning delivered the decisive run in a 2-1 victory against the Phillies. Pitching in snow, Seaver won on Opening Day for the fourth time in five years. The Diamond Club elevator broke down.
April 12, 1977 -- In his final start in a Mets opening game for six years, Seaver won again, beating the Cubs in a five-hitter. John Stearns and John Milner hit home runs in the 4-0 victory.
April 5, 1983 -- Seaver's exile over, the Mets defeated the Phillies, 2-0. Doug Sisk relieved Seaver and won. The attendance was 46,687, or almost three-quarters of the total attendance for the previous five opening home games combined. The 12th and final hit of Mike Howard's career -- off Carlton, no less -- produced the first run. Howard never played in the big leagues after that day.
April 9, 1985 -- Shea became Carter Country on this day. In his Mets debut, Gary Carter hit a home run against Neil Allen in the 10th inning to end a 6-5 victory against the Cardinals. The Mets won their next four games.
April 7, 1987 -- With Dwight Gooden in rehab and Darryl Strawberry wearing his baseball pants, the Mets defeated the Pirates, 3-2, on the strength of Strawberry's three-run home run in the first inning.
April 12, 1988 -- Strawberry hit a home run in the second inning, and Ron Darling pitched a five-hitter in a 3-0 victory.
April 9, 1990 -- The Pirates crushed Gooden en route to a 12-2 victory. Jeff Innis allowed a mammoth home run to right field by Bobby Bonilla and, the following day, walked off the distance beyond the Mets' bullpen. The press elevator broke down.
April 8, 1991 -- With Vince Coleman making his debut with the team, the Mets beat the Phillies, 2-1. Hubie Brooks scored the second run on the front end of a double steal -- Tommie Herr was the runner on first base. Gooden was the winning pitcher.
April 5, 1993 -- The worst Mets season in 27 years began with a 3-0 victory in the first game in the history of the Rockies. Gooden pitched a four-hitter for the 22nd shutout of his career. His 23rd and last with the Mets came one month later against the expansion Marlins.
April 1, 1996 -- The focal point of the earliest Opening Day game in club history was a wondrous throw by rookie shortstop Rey Ordonez, already a master of improv, who relayed a ball to the plate on one knee from some 100 feet beyond third base and near the foul line. Ordonez delivered the ball as if taking a hook shot. The looping throw was designed to clear the runner, Royce Clayton, as he approached the plate and bounce to catcher Todd Hundley. It achieved the third out of the seventh inning. The Mets scored four times in the ensuing half-inning and defeated the Cardinals, 7-6, for their 23rd victory in 27 Opening Day games.
March 31, 1998 -- Playing 14 innings in their Opening Day game for the second time in four years, the Mets did nothing for 13 innings and made it look like something. Then they defeated the Phillies, 1-0, when pinch-hitter Alberto Castillo, the 19th Mets player used, singled against Ricky Bottalico with two out to drive in Brian McRae.
April 9, 2001 -- After raising the National League championship banner for the first time in 15 years, the Mets crushed the Braves, 9-4, before 53,640, with Mike Piazza hitting two home runs and driving in five runs. But the defending champions already were in third place and three games behind.
March 31, 2003 -- Tom Glavine's debut with the Mets was a dud. On a chilly, windy day, he allowed five runs in 3 2/3 innings in a 15-2 loss to the Cubs in the Mets' first home opener under manager Art Howe.
April 11, 2005 -- Using what new manager Willie Randolph called "smart aggression," the Mets ran away from the Astros and won, 8-4. The "Run, Run Randolph" offense included a successful squeeze play and even produced a stolen base by Ramon Castro.
April 9, 2007 -- The schedule -- and nothing else -- made the Phillies the team to beat for the Mets on this day, months after Jimmy Rollins had identified them as such. And though hardly offended by Rollins' winter chirping, the Mets did keep it in mind and took his words as a directive. They beat the Phillies, 11-5, scoring seven runs -- three unearned because of an error by Rollins -- in the eighth inning. The Mets didn't get the last laugh, though.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.