The (Not So) Long Farewell

Monday, April 27, 2009 |

I got my first up-close look at New Shea last Sunday.

With an assist from the Bluenachick, I arranged for two seats in section 521 of the Promenade for the occasion of the Old Man's sixty-fifth birthday.

We met at the park two hours before first pitch, and after passing through the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, we walked every square inch of the ballpark that we were permitted to walk with our Promenade Level tickets.

We walked the Field Level concourse twice, investigating every nook, cranny and food vendor we could.

The Old Man had been at the first game ever played at Original Shea
forty-five years and two days prior, April 17, 1964. And as he bit into his succulent pulled pork sandwich from New Shea's outpost of Blue Smoke and drew from his healthy portion of box frites with creamy bacon sauce (I opted for the "Mama's Special" from Original Shea holdover, Mama's of Corona), I couldn't resist asking him if he remembered what his food options were like that first afternoon at Original Shea. Hot dog, he said. Beer, probably. Peanuts. Hell if he remembered, he was there to see a ballgame.
So were we, I said. The first Sunday afternoon game in the history of New Shea.

Eventually we found our way to our seats and gathered our bearings. Or at least we tried to. I located the out-of-town scoreboard, the starting line-ups (now with names!). But we had barely warmed our seats before we were approached by another father and son tandem, who kindly informed us that we were sitting in the wrong ones. Theirs, to be exact. And while this was something that never would have happened to us at Original Shea, we chalked up the minor embarrassment (we were sitting one section over from where we should have been) to our general unfamiliarity with the new park.

Five hours later, the park didn't feel any more familiar. Though the Old Man and I both appreciated the increased leg room, less treacherous staircases and wider seats at New Shea, none of those things made us comfortable. Instead, we felt like we were watching a game in an opponent's park, certainly not our home. With the exception of the inebriated woman seated a few rows behind us who insisted on yelling "I got it!" anytime a batted ball arced skyward, there wasn't anything about the experience that made it feel like Original Shea.
I don't think I saw (or heard) Cow-Bell Man even once, come to think of it. But I did see several people sipping wine. New Shea's got quite the selection, from what I understand. It was all a rather disorienting experience.

As the Old Man and I struggled to find our footing in the promenade and as I resigned myself to an understanding that the wine and corporate sponsorship was here to stay, it occurred to me that we only had about sixteen months before we'd be experiencing a similar bewildering feeling at New Giants Stadium, whatever it's eventually called.

Fans, for whatever reason, don't seem to make the same sort of emotional connection to football stadiums that they do with baseball stadiums, and there is little, I'll concede, about Giants Stadium itself that invites nostalgia. The place is, in essence, an endless slab of cold concrete. It's a soulless structure, devoid of all the things that make a ballpark feel like home. The concessions are horrendous, the bathrooms are almost as bad as those at Original Shea, and it can take you two hours to get out of the parking lot after the game if you don't know what you're doing.

And though the sign out front says Giants Stadium and the seats inside are blue and red, the Giants have never been the building's sole tenant. Rock concerts are held there. And papal visits. And soccer matches. Hell, the Jets have played there for more than twenty years now, albeit without distinction.

But despite all of that, Giants Stadium has always been a magical place to me. When I said that it's one of three locations on earth where I believe I'd feel at peace to die, I wasn't exaggerating. Ever since the September Sunday in my seventh year (1982) when the Old Man finally convinced my mother that I was old enough to go, it's held a special place in my heart.

Spend 200-plus Sunday afternoons pretty much anywhere, and it'll be sure to leave a lasting impression on you. But spend 200-plus Sunday afternoons (and the occasional Monday night) in the same seat braving rain, snow and bitterly cold, swirling winds screaming your head off in support of fifty-three occasionally spectacular strangers dressed in blue, and the place is bound to become a part of you.

That said, I'm going to resist the temptation of dwelling endlessly on the death of Giants Stadium this season. Though I admired the yeoman's work done by the folks over at Loge13 last year,
I really don't want to become their Big Blue counterpart. I don't want to be "Last Year of Giants Stadium Guy." While I concede that it would provide a nice framework for my writings this upcoming season, and a rudder with which I could conceivably navigate my way through to its final days, that's not my mission here. I've had some of the best and some of the worst days of my life in Giants Stadium, but as much as I love the place, it's not a museum to me. My memories aren't so much tied to the building as they are to the people who inhabit it, the Old Man and my knucklehead homies every bit as much as Harry and Rodney and Eli.

So even though The Fumble happened here. And Flipper Anderson. And even though Jimmy Hoffa may or may not be buried here, I'm not going to allow the 2009 season to become a funeral. Instead, I'm looking at 2009 as an opportunity to celebrate Giants Stadium. Because once the Giants move next door, gamedays in the Meadowlands will never be the same again.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Old Man and I have been encountering an increasing number of unfamiliar faces in Section 127 in recent years. Part of that is no doubt the result of the aging season-ticket-holding fanbase attending less games, especially in cold weather. Part of it is also due to the economic opportunism of those season-ticket holders who choose to take advantage of the lucrative re-seller's market, easily doubling or tripling their investments through sites like StubHub and Craigslist. But part of it is the sad truth that attending a pro football game is no longer possible for many of the working class folks who inhabited the stands in the days before ticket prices became outrageous.

The Old Man doesn't remember how much his tickets set him back in 1964, but considering how he was a twenty-year-old college student with a part-time job as an errand boy at the time, I doubt they were all that expensive. In 2009, though--his forty-sixth season as a season ticket holder--they'll cost him $85 a pop. Times ten times four, plus parking. From what we've been told, they'll be $120 a pop once the new building opens in 2010. And those will be on the relative low side, as
tickets in the new stadium will range from $85 to $700 per game. And this is all on top of the cost of the Personal Seat Licenses (or PSLs).

Ah, yes. PSLs. Those will run Giants fans anywhere from $1,000 (Terrace 1 & 2) to $20,000 (Field 1 and Coach's Club) per seat for the right to purchase those exorbitant tickets in the first place.

The Giants, like the Yankees, are learning the hard way that in this troubled economy there is a limit to what fans are willing to pay to see their home team compete. For years there was believed to be a thirty-year waiting list for Giants season tickets. But with thousands of unsold PSLs in the Mezzanine Club levels still available at $7,500 and $12,500, the waiting list has all but evaporated. People as far down as number 50,000 on the list have been recently offered the opportunity to buy these PSLs, some of whom placed their names on the list only a year or so ago.

Eventually, one would imagine, the Giants will be able to unload these PSLs (and the $400 and $700 game tickets that come with them) to some corporate interest or worse, ticket brokerage agencies. This will ensure the Giants a handsome return on their investment, which is sizeable. It will also ensure, rather unfortunately, that the club level of New Giants Stadium will be full of suits and wealthy visiting fans of opposing teams. Awesome.

Back in the 80s, things were decidedly different. Section 127 was like a community, every week the same faces in the seats around us. The Old Man and I knew many of them by name. Others, we referred to by humorous nicknames. Friendships formed, to the point where some fans exchanged Christmas gifts. And many of those familiar faces were the old timers--holdovers from Yankee Stadium and The Polo Grounds--fans who had come of age during the Golden Age of Giants football (1956-1963), when the club appeared in six championship games in eight years. Loyally, they had stuck with the team through their fallow period, the seventeen year playoff drought from 1964-1980. And one of the most wonderful things about the 1986 championship season was seeing those old timers enjoy a sweet measure of redemption. Thirty years is a long time to wait for a winner.

Now, most of those old timers are gone. If they still hold tickets, we don't see them anymore. If they don't, there's a good chance it's because they got priced out. The few that still remain likely won't be able to make the move to the new building, which means the Giants will be losing what was once the heart of their fanbase. The folks who bridged Conerly and Simms, Huff and Carson, Robustelli and Marshall.

Brick by brick, fan by fan, the Giants history is disappearing. Their first home, the majestic Polo Grounds of Harlem (1925-1955), was demolished in 1964. Their second home, Yankee Stadium (1956-1973) will be torn down later this year. The Yale Bowl still stands and was declared a national historical landmark in 1987, but considering how the Giants compiled a 4-23-1 record in their two seasons there
(1973-74), I'm not sure that's the part of the franchise's rich history they'd want preserved. The Giants also played one season (1975, the year of my birth) in Original Shea, before establishing residence at Giants Stadium the following year. Original Shea has already been reduced to a pile of rubble in New Shea's parking lot and Giants Stadium awaits a similar fate. It's progress, I guess, but at what cost?

I'll be out at New Shea again tonight, and I'm hopeful that it'll feel more like home. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. But one thing I'm sure of is that it won't feel like Original Shea. I've got sixteen months to prepare myself for the eventuality that New Giants Stadium will feel the same way. That's a long time, I guess, but after twenty-eight years in Section 127 it's really not a long time at all.

At least I'll have eight more looks at that
cold slab of concrete, perhaps more if the Giants earn a home playoff game. And maybe the nine new players the Giants brought into their fold this weekend can help contribute towards a grand send-off for the Stadium. Hopefully, in doing so, some of its magic will rub off on them. Another Super Bowl championship, and maybe I won't begrudge the folks in the club level their wine and cheese. After all, I'll just be there to see a ballgame.


Slimbo said...

I have endlessly warm memories of Shea, but one must concede that as a facility it needed to go. But Giants Stadium...I'm REALLY bothered by this. It's still a fine facility. This rush to replace it just feels like the further alienation of the working-class football fan.