The last pillars of Shea Stadium dissolved into slag and dust yesterday and the mourning will be brief. Shea was not a well-loved place, except among those who take such pleasure in the masochistic exercise of Mets fandom that they could see beauty in a stadium that most everyone else dismissed as a charmless bowl.
Still, the end of a ballpark is a moment to pause and feel the inevitable nostalgic tugs of memories of afternoons spent in the company of loved ones and absent friends. Ballpark memories are first-game, first-date, first-genuine-ballpark-hot dog, first-foul-ball (mom, look what dad caught) memories -- sepia-tinged images of times long gone.
And yet there is another set of memories, too often hidden and so seldom appreciated, but which speak profoundly about what so many of us love about the game. They are memories not of those we knew and perhaps loved, but rather memories of afternoons and evenings spent in the company of strangers.
A quick digression: many years ago I lived in Japan, a baseball-mad society. I went to many games but one in particular stands out. I was alone in Tokyo's Aoyama Stadium. Or more precisely I was sitting in a crowded ballpark where I knew no one when something wonderful happened on the field. I do recall what it was, only that it moved me to turn to the fellow sitting next to me and say, in barely passable Japanese, "some play, huh?"
He turned and looked through me. I suspect he had taken a quick inventory: foreigner, no company lapel pin, no lapel for that matter, no formal introduction. And therefore no need to enter into a relationship with all its attendant obligations and responsibilities. He turned away as if he had heard a whisper in the wind. We spent the rest of the game like toddlers engaged in parallel play.
Two weeks later I was at Shea with my brother. We were sitting in the nose bleed seats when the fellows behind us -- people we had never before seen -- struck up a conversation. We chatted about this and that, and soon were offering to buy each other beers - "we'll get the next round."
We prattled on -- "can you believe that bum? --- until the seventh inning when they decided to head to the parking lot, the better to avoid the crush. We waved goodbye with the understanding that we would never see each other again. No tears. No, "call me."
We had sat together for a couple of hours and enjoyed the sensation of feeling a part of things. And that sufficed.
The Japanese regard us as people all too casual in our friendships; they do not understand, for instance, that when we say "I'll call" we don't necessarily mean it.
We come to the ballpark to be together, not because we are friends, but because there is something wonderfully American about the easy camaraderie of the fleeting ballpark friendship. This does not make us shallow. It just makes us, us.
But these ephemeral friendships matter -- they are, in fact, at the heart of how the game binds us together and why we have never contented ourselves merely watching baseball on television.
For all the talk of its rural roots -- "country hard ball" -- baseball has always been a city game. City people are adept at finding ways to avoid feeling alone, which is why they have perfected such skills as the chat-on-the-elevator-or-waiting-at-the-deli-counter without expecting or really wanting an invitation for coffee.
So it is that we come to the ballpark to find each other and ask nothing more than idle chatter before it is time to go home.
Shea Stadium was a great big place that could feel like a village. And that is something to miss, and mourn.