Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: The Walrus Game

Two years ago, as Shea Stadium counted down its last days, I wrote a few posts on some of the best games I attended there. However, I never quite got around to writing about my absolute most favorite game ever at Shea. Let me remedy that error now.

The year is 1991. The Mets are in the midst of their first losing, uncompetitive season in many a year (and the first of many, until Bobby Valentine righted the ship). They would end the year 77-84, which, in a few years, would seem like Shangri-la in comparison. They’re on their last homestand of the year, playing a series against the Pirates, who have already clinched the division (yes, 1991 was indeed a long, long time ago). Manager Buddy Harrelson would be fired with seven games left in the season. The outcome of these games mean virtually nothing to anyone.

My older cousin was going to college near where I lived in upstate New York. Said college had a big block of tickets for the last game in this series. Would I be interested in attending with him, even though it was on raw, rainy September night? Yes, I would be, because I hadn’t been to a baseball game in a very long time. Also, I was 14 years old and hating junior high with a deathly dread, and I hoped that I would get home so late from Queens that my mom would take pity on me and let me stay home from school the next day (though I knew she probably wouldn’t).

We traveled down to the city in a school bus, no lights or anything. I brought a book or two to read on the trip, but that quickly proved pointless. I also finagled some dough from my mom to buy a scorebook, which was no small feat, because we had no money for such frivolities. But my mom knew that I scored every game I went to and indulged me this one luxury.

However, I didn’t have any money for food or drink. Mom plied me with a sandwich and probably a Capri Sun (shut up) in a paper bag. Only in retrospect does this seem vaguely sad to me. At the time, it was a state of affairs I was used to–i.e., being dirt poor and just happy to be doing anything out of the house, even if it meant I had to bring my own food and drink.

91mets_cover.jpgThe state of the Mets at the time should be apparent by the cover story on the aforementioned scorebook: Rick Cerone, a pudgy Newark native and ex-Yankee catcher who was just keeping the dish warm for up-and-coming prospect Todd Hundley (a September callup that year who himself was profiled briefly in the same scorebook).

I’ve scanned a few other gems from this scorebook for your viewing pleasure. Here’s a page dedicated to the Mets Radio Network, with a pic of a young Gary Cohen possessing a full head of hair. Here’s a page on the Mets’ minor leaguers of note, led by Jeromy Burnitz, Butch Huskey, and Fernando Vina; the Rookie League Sarasota Mets were paced in batting average and RBIs by a young’un reffered to as “Ed Alfonzo”. And here’s a saucy ad for WFAN, featuring a painting by Mad Magazine artiste Mort Drucker. Mr. Drucker rendered Don Imus a bit like John C. Reilly, and was a bit too flattering to Mike Francesa (ie, didn’t make him look like a house), though he nailed Chris “Mad Dog” Russo’s cockeyed stupidity.

Our seats were in the upper deck, which at Shea was a steep, intimidating place. You could look down the stairways toward the field and feel as if the whole deck was getting more and more vertical every second, like the steps would collapse into a ramp a la some James Bond villain trap. You were always one wind gust away from plunging to your death.

You especially felt this way if the upper deck was not well populated, which it was not this evening. In fact, other than the group from the college (which couldn’t have been more than 25 people), there was nobody in the upper deck. I don’t mean there were very few people there. I mean there was literally nobody there. If you were looking at it from field level, it would have seemed even odder, since this one populated patch was halfway between home and left field.

The rest of the stadium was not exactly jam packed, either, nor should it have been. The two teams didn’t exactly trot out their A squads for this game, as my scorecard will attest. (It will also attest to my insane desire to chronicle every bit of the game. I know if you read this site, it’s hard to believe I can be obsessive, but it’s true.)

Then again, the game I attended was actually the second half of a day-night doubleheader. The first game–a rainout makeup from the previous day–was a four hour and twenty minute, 15-inning slog that must have exhausted and angered every single person involved in it. The Mets rallied in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game at 2, then, after the Pirates took a brief lead in the top of the 14th, tied the game again in the bottom half thanks to Todd Hundley’s first major league home run (which I also made note of on my scorecard). But the Pirates scored again in the top of the 15th. The Mets couldn’t rally a third time, and lost 4-3.

In other words, nobody wanted to be on the field, and anyone in attendance would have been some stripe of insane.

Slowly, the other folks who’d come down on the trip (who I don’t think my cousin knew well, if at all) drifted away from their seats, either to get beer or hot dogs or relocate. By the time the second inning ended, my cousin and I were the only people in the upper deck. We didn’t notice it happening, but all of sudden we realized we’d been abandoned. We had an entire tier of Shea to ourselves. It was awesome and terrifying, as if we’d been made captains of a ship that was just about to go careening over a waterfall.

My cousin suggested we travel downstairs. There were clearly plenty of seats to be had. I reluctantly agreed. I was totally happy to be one of two people in the upper deck, as scary as it felt. Because at this time in my life, I was as play-by-the-rules as Hank Hill. I would not break rules under any circumstances, and felt extremely guilty even contemplating doing so, even for a victimless crime such as this.

We snaked our way down Shea’s endless concrete ramps. My cousin went past the mezzanine and kept on going. He went past the loge and kept on going. Surely we weren’t going to try to sit on the field level, were we? Yes, that’s exactly what we were going to do. The thought was, to me, more terrifying than sitting in an empty upper deck. I’d never sat on the field level. I’d never known anyone who’d sat at field level, anywhere, ever. The closest I’d ever gotten to field level was passing through the gates on my way to the highest reaches of the upper deck. You might as well have offered me a golden rocket to the moon.

When we got to the field level, we saw the entrance right behind home plate manned by a stern-looking usher (who must have been Shea’s only usher younger than 75). So we wandered along the concourse, back towards Gate A/left field, and there we found a completely unattended ramp with field level access. As we walked up, we saw a gateway to the visiting bullpen, filled with cops. One sergeant barked out orders to his charges about where they needed to patrol. With such low attendance, the ratio of cops to fans was staggering.

I actually had to stop and stare when we got into the field level. The players were so close! The field was so green! It was a meaningless game on a shitty, crummy night, but I was feet away from an actual baseball game. I could scarcely believe it.

We walked into the seating area right by the entrance where we snuck in, happy to sit way out toward left field. But then we saw there was virtually no one sitting behind the Mets dugout, either. Dare we? Yes, we dare. We’d already gone this far. Not going all the way would be pointless.

So yes, we did settle in behind the Mets on-deck circle, only four or five rows from the field. It’s probably safe to say I will never sit in better seats for any live event.

Who else was in the section? Clearly, other folks who made a break for it like we did. A large, loud, and rowdy bunch unused to such luxury. I wouldn’t see anything like it again until I attended the first Mets game at CitiField, and saw fans gawking at all the amenities like hillbillies marveling at skyscrapers.

Just in front of us, a father and son tried to get pictures of players as they came out to the on-deck circle. The son would call out to the player in an adorable, little kid way, and the father would snap the pic as the player turned to wave, if he dared do so. A clever gambit–who could say no to a little kid?

Plenty, as it turns out. Most players don’t like being bugged while they’re in the on-deck circle, and the folks who usually sit in those seats are dignified big-wigs not so impressed by the sight of big leaguers close by that they have to scream at them. But as I said, this was not the usual field level crowd.

So most players did not respond to this ploy. And it wasn’t just grizzled veterans or superstars (although I seem to recall Howard Johnson did turn and wave). Even no-name rookies ignored the plea for a pic. Eventually, our little section of miscreants decided–nay, DEMANDED–that every player taking his hacks turn around and pay respect. If it was a vet like Gary Templeton, we screamed HEY, WE PAY YER SALARY! If it was a kid just up from the minors like Mark Carreon, we screamed LET HIM TAKE YER PICTURE! YOU AIN’T GONNA BE HERE NEXT YEAR!

After a few innings of this tomfoolery, the players must have complained to security, because a cop was dispatched to the section to try and keep the peace. But the officers on hand mustn’t have taken the complaint too seriously, because they sent over an overweight, waddling cop with an enormous gut hanging over his belt and a David Crosby-esque mustache. He even had beady little Crosby-esque eyes. Uniform or no, he did not look like a cop. At the very least, he didn’t look like a cop who was too passionate about his work.

The cop asked the dad and kid to cut it out, in the same harrassed manner your mom might tell you to stop running in the house. Camera Dad protested that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, which he really wasn’t. It was everyone else in the section who were verbally harassing the players.

But the section soon found another target for its rage: the fat cop. Despite possessing a gun and badge, he was not considered an authority figure. Several epithets were hurled his way. Then, someone from the loge level just above us screamed out FUCK OFF, WALRUS! The entire field level erupted into hysterical laughter. Then we all began chanting WALLLLLLL-RUSSSS! WALLLLLLL-RUSSSS!

This was more than the offended cop could take, so he asked the father/son team to vacate their seats. Camera Dad protested yet again, but since he didn’t have tickets for those seats, he had no leg to stand on, Relunctantly, he allowed Walrus to escort him out of the section. Of course, this just intensified the chanting of WALLLLLLL-RUSSSS, and prompted some tossing of beer bottles and popcorn.

It was like the climax of a slobs vs. snobs movies, where The Slobs take over the country club/rich camp/White House, and there’s nothing the blue bloods can do. We’d found our way into the promise land, and we were gonna party there, and there was nothing they could do to stop us. It was dumb and juvenile and sociopathic. And awesome.

The fact that no other cops came to his rescue makes me think Walrus was either reviled or ridiculed (or both) by his fellow officers, and was sent on such a shitty detail because they knew the fans would shit all over him. So I not only got to witness a baseball game right up close, but I also saw a cop get abused by a crowd of dozens and his fellow officers.

Oh, and the Mets won 2-1, thanks to a HoJo sac fly in the bottom of the eighth and a typically heart-wrenching John Franco save (one-out triple, runner stranded at third).

Field level seats, righteous indignation expressed in the worst way possible, and cop harrassment. A trifecta. September 26, 1991 remains the best game I ever saw at Shea.