My book, The Last Days of Shea, was the focus of a review essay by Michael Kimmelman
in The New York Review of Books. The New York Review of Books, referred to by Esquire
as "the foremost literary-intellectual journal in English," generally consists of essays by
distinguished writers (Kimmelman is the chief art critic for The New York Times) who
address a topic by discussing one or more recently published books. These essays are
not reviews in a standard sense. They are, as you can see below, essays that make use
of the books discussed. Unfortunately, copyright laws prevent me from reprinting
Kimmelman's entire essay here. If you wish to read the entire essay (which is excellent,
although I have problems with the final line), you must purchase it here or you can find
it in a library. I am only able to quote below the sections that most directly address my
book. I just want to mention that I am particularly proud of the attention I have received
from The New York Review of Books, because it has been my favorite publication since I
was 18 years old.
From The New York Review of Books
VOLUME 56, NUMBER 18 • NOVEMBER 19, 2009
At the Bad New Ballparks
By Michael Kimmelman
The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of a Mets Fan
by Dana Brand
Taylor Trade, 247 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Having won 103 games in the regular season, more than any other major league team,
the Yankees returned to the postseason after a year in purgatory...
...By contrast, the Mets ended yet another year in heartache, this time not making a
historic last-minute nosedive, as they did in 2007 and 2008, but wallowing in next-to-last
place in their division. Their fans, including their devoted bloggers, seemed as the
season progressed to sour on Citi Field, the team's own new digs, about which hopes
were high last winter. Many Mets fans were happy to say good riddance to Shea, which
it replaced. Citi Field promised fresh, smart surroundings. But all that changed, with the
It's worth recalling that in its day Shea represented a mid-century vision of the future:
when it opened in 1964 as part of the World's Fair in Queens, it was the sporting
equivalent to Helvetica type, or to the Gemini rockets, or to Sony color television sets—
a modern design symbolizing some bright, shiny postwar tomorrow. Over the years, as
it deteriorated, it became the reverse: an architectural piñata for detractors who
despised precisely its utilitarianism and bland enormity.
Replacing the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, as the Mets had replaced the New York
Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, the two National League teams that quit town for
California at the end of the 1950s, Shea abjured the quirks and irregularities that had
made each of the old fields, like the old Yankee Stadium, distinct, but that had also
included supporting beams that blocked views, creaky wood seats, cramped
passageways, few amenities, and fewer toilets. It was a metal and concrete shed for
55,000 spectators, adaptable to football, shaped like a doughnut with a bite taken out of
one end and providing a view onto, well, nothing in particular: an inchoate tangle of
expressways, a gray river, and a former U-Haul warehouse in a marshy nowhere lot off
the Grand Central Parkway.
When games turned dull, fans could watch the 7 train rumble by on the elevated tracks
beyond the scoreboard. Every few minutes a low-flying jet on its way to or from
LaGuardia Airport next door shook the seats and deafened spectators. The stands
were so big and broadly raked that even field-level seats felt distant from the action.
But Shea had its charms. At the beginning, panels in blue and orange (the team colors,
blending New York Giants orange with Brooklyn Dodgers blue) were suspended as
decorations, like confetti, on thin cables outside. Inside, multicolored seats gave the
place a festival quality, as did the streamlined scoreboard with electric lights that
seemed newfangled at the time. A black Longines clock and a Rheingold beer sign
("Rheingold is my beer, the dry beer" went the jingle that every Mets fan, no matter
how young, memorized) passed for commercialism. Jane Jarvis played the Thomas
organ. This was before canned music was pumped over loudspeakers, before
programmed cheering, prodding fans to rise from their seats, make noise, and chant.
Rallies were spontaneous back then. Fans lugged hand-painted banners on white
bedsheets to the stadium, hanging them, like drying laundry from Lower East Side
tenement windows, along the tiers or raising them overhead, in search of a television
It was all very homely, like the Mets, who from their first season in 1962 until they
became the most unlikely World Series victors in 1969, won sympathy for being so
spectacularly bad. On opening day in 1969, when the Mets lost to a new expansion
team, the Montreal Expos, a fan held up a neatly printed placard saying, "Wait 'Til Next
Year." Futility was the team's charm and cicerone.
The fan was Karl Ehrhardt, "the Sign Man," as Mets fans dubbed him, an ad designer
who from 1964 until 1981 toted to Shea his homemade signs (he had some 1,200 of them
by the end) and became, as Dana Brand writes in his touching memoir, The Last Days of
Shea, "the first Mets blogger." Brand goes on:
"Being a Mets fan in the 1960s was very interactive, although I'm not sure we had that
word back then. Or if we had it, we didn't use it. But we were all in the game, and we
had to make up our own ways of loving and cheering for the Mets. We didn't just sit
there and do what they told us. We talked back to the Mets. With signs.... I guess you
could say that Karl...spoke for us. And he spoke for himself."
A refurbishment of Shea in the 1980s included standard blue and green seats; the
colored panels outside gave way to appalling neon figures of ballplayers. A giant video
scoreboard called Diamond Vision arrived to doom Jane Jarvis and compel fans to act
excited by entreating them with rally music, although there also arrived a giant red
apple, made of wood, that would emerge from a top hat whenever the Mets hit a home
run—a clunky, makeshift contraption, like the old Camel cigarette sign in Times Square,
whose goofiness and mild desperation epitomized what still separated the Mets from
the Yankees and made them, depending on which team one rooted for, endearing or
Brand, an English professor at Hofstra University, a lifelong Mets fan, and the Proust of
Mets bloggers, recalls sitting in the forlorn, aging Shea Stadium during its final weeks
while crews assembled Citi Field next door. "As I watched the construction during the
game and saw how Shea was being boxed in," he writes, "I felt so bad for my dear,
sweet old friend. As its replacement was being built, it was trying its best to entertain
us. Maybe it was hoping for a reprieve. "Look," it said to us, "look, I can make this apple
go up and down!" It showed us all of its old, worn tricks."
But increasing numbers of fans, many not old enough ever to have gone to Ebbets
Field or the Polo Grounds, came to believe they missed the quirks of the old fields.
Shea aged badly, as did the modernist dream it represented. So, as it had wiped away
the past, Shea gave way to the smaller Citi Field, a latecomer among the retro stadiums
that cropped up in the wake of Camden Yards in Baltimore, which opened in 1992. Like
Camden Yards, the well-received ballpark of the Baltimore Orioles, and for that matter
Yankee Stadium, Citi does not so much return to the past as concoct a simulacrum of
it—a surprisingly flimsy one, it turns out, really just a shell for containing the luxury
boxes, semiprivate clubs, shopping malls, flashing monitors, food stalls, and clutter of
billboards for which major league baseball fields seem now to have become almost an
Both new stadiums are the work of the architectural firm HOK Sport (which also
designed Camden Yards). It does for ballfields what Disney does for amusement parks.
New York's stadiums come in the wake of the steroid scandals that have made many
fans say they are wistful for simpler times, a sentiment, however misguided, on which
these new stadiums, with their faux nostalgia, capitalize cynically.
…Major league baseball used to be a game of reverie. It was, and in amateur pickup
games and at minor league fields is still, experienced as long stretches of near silence,
interrupted by bursts of excitement. The soundtrack has long been the steady murmur
of the crowd and the burbling chatter of radio or television announcers free-
associating between plays. The new stadiums purposely subvert this reverie. They fill
the silence for a crowd that seems to number more and more multitaskers, who text or
chat on cell phones during the game, and gladly pass an hour dawdling in line at the
Shake Shack outlet at Citi Field rather than watch the action from their seats. As my
friend, the one who went as a boy in a suit to see the Yankees, put it, marveling at the
long lines, "They're buying tickets to a mall that happens to be at a baseball stadium."
That said, baseball doesn't take up all of your mental space as you watch it. It takes up a
degree of it, and you're free, the rest of the time, to experiment with thoughts you
might not ordinarily have. Brand writes well about this. He mentions in an earlier book
called Mets Fan the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who described how he
decided to become a novelist while sitting in the stands of a game between the Yakult
Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. Someone hit a double and Murakami thought, I
should be a writer. The non sequitur of that decision conveys the state of associative
openness—akin, as Brand notes, to what we may experience while traveling—that
But the goal of baseball stadiums today is to thwart our wandering minds. They try to
entertain us incessantly, as if ticket holders today demanded compensation for the
times when games fail to hold our attention, as they invariably do. This is partly
because the people who can now afford tickets to Yankee Stadium or Citi Field are not
necessarily true fans. They're often corporations who buy seats to seduce clients. The
game is part of a commercial transaction. Its return must be tangible.
Yet baseball, by its nature, is a game of intangibles. During the endless breaks in
action, we are meant to reflect on what might be, what the next pitch might be, whether
the outfielders should move in or out, shift toward left or right, whether a batter might
bunt or swing away. We do this because an entire season can come down to just one of
these decisions. Had the Mets, in 2007, won just one more game out of 162, had they,
as Brand laments, played even a third of a single inning differently during the year, they
might not have experienced the worst collapse in baseball history, but instead have
ended up winning the World Series. Other sports have a clock. Baseball unfolds at its
own pace, to which we succumb because we need the time to think.
One Sunday in July, I wandered over to Heckscher fields in Central Park. It was a sunny,
warm morning, and all four baseball diamonds were bustling with mostly middle-aged
men playing softball. I settled on some empty bleachers where the jangly sounds of
hurdy-gurdy music drifted from the park's carousel and accompanied a game involving
a curious mix of players. Some appeared to be in their late teens, others in their sixties,
the rest were in between. The game was intense and friendly.
I talked to a player, in polo shirt, jeans, and glasses, between innings.
"Who are you?" I asked.
He laughed. "We've been doing this for twenty-three years," he said, and paused to let
that information sink in. "Our group has changed over time, obviously. But there's a
core that's been around from the beginning. We come out here every Sunday.
Depending on who shows up, we divide into teams so we're evenly matched."
He smiled. "Want to join us?"
I declined, but lingered to watch as the game went into extra innings and wondered
what it was that caught me up in this but not in the Yankees game I attended the night
before. Brand, in his book, asks about spending his life rooting for the inconsistent
Mets: "Why value an experience like this? If something doesn't really matter, does the
fact that millions of people care about it make it matter?"
He answers his question. "I don't know," he writes, but "I love to be with people who
have the same memories I have.... People who share these things with me are not
entirely strangers, even if I have never seen them before, even if I will never meet
them.... You know," he continues,
in the end, I am convinced that the most amazing thing about the New York Mets is not
the inconsistent baseball franchise by that name. It is the millions of people who
continue to root for them, through years of frustration and disappointment, even
though they are geographically entitled to root for the most successful of all baseball
So maybe that was the answer to my question. Community. My interest in that game in
Central Park derived from the obvious pleasure I saw being shared by the players, who
may have had nothing in common and knew nothing about each other outside baseball.
It is this sense of community at the heart of the game that the new ballparks ultimately
fail to provide.
Why? Because the owners presume loyalty is a marketing device. Notwithstanding that
it occupies Shea's former parking lot rather than a former stretch of Flatbush Avenue,
Citi mimics Ebbets Field. Having been a Dodgers fan, the Mets' principal owner, Fred
Wilpon, contrived to evoke the old Brooklyn stadium with its Palladian arcade and
corner entrance, leading now to an escalator rotunda, where more than a few Mets
fans ascending have scratched their heads.
There Wilpon installed a tribute to Jackie Robinson, the former Dodgers star who never
played for the Mets. An unimpeachable object of respect, the display of Robinson
nonetheless embodies the cluelessness and historical amnesia (in this case I won't say
cynicism) of an owner and club officials who in effect are implying that the Mets have
no past of their own worth enshrining.
This is also the message, as Brand laments, behind the absence of a museum to honor
Mets stars like Tom Seaver and Keith Hernandez, but also to recall the Mets' crazy fans
and both the great and horrible moments the team has experienced. It suggests that
management believes fans care only about winning, not about the continuum of history,
notwithstanding that the sport is absorbed in the historical minutiae of its own records.
Loyalty and memory are what fill stadiums year in and year out, Brand reminds us, even
Yankee Stadium. Vague words like "teamwork," "determination," "persistence," and
"courage" are now emblazoned around the Citi Field rotunda like slogans from some
corporate retreat. These platitudes dovetail with the sense of business people,
however well-meaning, who are disconnected from the game and its true followers.
"In order to love something, it helps if it is not state-of-the-art and super cool," Brand
writes, "It helps if there's something pitiful, bedraggled, disappointing, and fallible
about it. You have to root for it to do well. You have to put it in first place yourself, in
your heart. It can't come into existence looking as if it deserves to be in first place."
Yes, and this is true of a stadium, no less than of a team or a player. It is part of the
beauty of baseball that we can't help but locate in it a metaphor of life. We notice, for
instance, in the decline of great ballplayers, who for years reached impossible heights
then inevitably fell back to earth, a sign of the passage of time, which speaks to our
own vulnerable hearts. The new stadiums, packaged, Disney-like palaces of
entertainment and commerce, subvert this deeper truth about why we love a game in
which even good batters fail more than 70 percent of the time, the best teams lose at
least one third of their games, and some teams haven't won a World Series in
generations. Baseball is a game of human frailty.
Of course new generations will find their own memories in Citi Field and Yankee
Stadium. Brand writes about the "millions of lost parents, siblings and friends" that
Shea held "in its big, blue embrace.... It held some of the most precious moments of
many vanished childhoods." True. It may have been failed architecture but it was home
to fans for nearly half a century.
We go to ballparks in the end not to experience some ersatz past or some great, big,
shiny World of Tomorrow, but just to live for a few hours with the smell of mown grass
and the sound of balls and bats in the here and now, from which new memories derive.
Nabokov wrote about the most cherished memories making "a mockery of the present."
Citi Field and Yankee Stadium make a mockery of the past. They cater to our restless
"If a bunch of guys play a game on a baseball field and nobody holds up signs or bangs
cowbells or paints their faces or gets to the park hours early to cook on a hibachi and
sit on a very old lawn chair, then nothing has really happened. If no one is around to
watch or care, then the Mets don't really exist. Okay, maybe they exist.
But it is because of us that they matter."
Yes, but we get the stadiums we deserve.
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