Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rating the Local Stadium and Arena Finales

This is an update of a piece I did after the Giants and Jets (and the Red Bulls, who won't be mentioned further here) left Giants Stadium in January 2010.

Stadium and arena farewells listed here begin with the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the baseball version of the New York Giants in 1957. While I could have mentioned the football Giants’ last game at the Polo Grounds in 1955, nobody really cared. Except maybe baseball Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who sure missed Tim Mara’s rent checks.

Dodgers’ last game at Ebbets Field: September 24, 1957, beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-0. Did not seriously contend for the National League Pennant. Team owner Walter O’Malley may have been the least sentimental person ever involved with New York Tri-State Area sports, and so no closing ceremonies were held. The game was on a Tuesday night, and only 6,702 fans turned out. No Dodger legends were invited, although several of the “Boys of Summer” were still on the squad.

Organist Gladys Gooding, “the only person to ‘play’ for the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Knicks and New York Rangers,” must have ignored any memos she got from Lord Waltermort, because she played several farewell-type songs, such as “Am I Blue.” At the game’s conclusion, somebody cued up the record of the team’s theme song, “Follow the Dodgers,” which Gooding wrote. This was in terrible taste, and she knew it, and took it off, and played “Auld Lang Syne.” But at least they won, with Danny McDevitt pitching a shutout. Performance: 9. Ceremony: 1 (and even that 1 is credited to Gooding). Total: 10.

Baseball Giants’ last game at the Polo Grounds: September 29, 1957, lost to the Pirates 9-1. Did not seriously contend for the National League Pennant. The same Pirate team that couldn’t hit McDevitt pounded the Jints. But at least Stoneham – who infamously said, “I feel sorry for the kids, but I haven’t seen too many of their fathers lately” – understood the weight of the moment, and invited back several Giant legends, including Carl Hubbell, Bill Terry and Larry Doyle. Also invited was Blanche McGraw, who said of her husband, “If John were here, this would break his heart.” Although he wasn’t a retired Giants great, Bobby Thomson had recently been reacquired, and posed for photographers, pointing to the spot where his 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” landed.

Still, only 11,606 came out, many of them singing, to “Good Night Ladies,” “We want Stoneham, we want Stoneham, we want Stoneham, with a rope around his neck!” Performance: 2. Ceremony: 6. Total: 8.

Mets’ last game at Polo Grounds: September 18, 1963, lost to the Philadelphia Phillies 5-1. Lost 111 games. Only 1,752 came out to see the last baseball game at 155th Street and 8th Avenue, on the site where professional baseball had been played since 1890, and in that particular stadium since 1911. One Met fan was quoted as saying, “Not many really cared, did they?” Even the Met organization, including former Giant board members Joan Payson and M. Donald Grant, didn’t make an effort to include any New York baseball legends, although Casey Stengel was the manager, and Gil Hodges and Duke Snider were now on the Met roster. Performance: 2. Ceremony: 0. Total: 2.

Jets’ last game at Polo Grounds: December 14, 1963, lost to the Buffalo Bills 19-10. Missed AFL Playoffs. In their first year as the Jets, after 3 seasons as the New York Titans, it was the city’s AFL outfit that played the last event at the old Harlem Horseshoe. But they were awful, and the game was nothing to write home about, and there was no ceremony. Why would there be? This was a team in its 4th season, so who were they supposed to bring back, Al Dorow? Performance: 4. Ceremony: 0. Total: 4.

Knicks’ last game at the old Madison Square Garden: February 10, 1968, beat the Philadelphia 76ers 115-97. Lost in East Semis, also to 76ers. This was mere months after Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer & Co. won the NBA Title with a then-record 68 wins, so even in the Knicks’ own building, beating the Sixers by 18 points was no mean feat. But as far as my research can reveal, there was no ceremony. Performance: 10. Ceremony: 0. Total: 10.

Rangers’ last game at the Old Garden: February 11, 1968, tied the Detroit Red Wings 3-3. Lost in Stanley Cup Quarterfinals to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wings weren’t an especially good team at the time, but they did still have Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio. And, this time, there was a ceremony. Following the game, there was a “final skate,” featuring NHL legends, and not just from the Rangers: There was the still-active Howe, Montreal god Maurice Richard, even Boston old-timer Eddie Shore.

I can’t find any word as to whether any New York Americans were invited. Some should have been, as the Old Garden was their house – and it was theirs first, in 1925-26, and it was their success that season (at the box office, anyway) that led to the creation of Garden owner/promoter George “Tex” Rickard’s team, “Tex’s Rangers.” Performance: 5. Ceremony: 9. Total: 14. In this instance, the Rangers most certainly did not suck.

Giants’ last game at Yankee Stadium: September 23, 1973, tied the Philadelphia Eagles 23-23. Missed NFC Playoffs. With all the recriminations between Giants owner Wellington Mara and New York Mayor John Lindsay – leading to Lindsay not allowing the Giants to use City-owned Shea Stadium until the Meadowlands could be ready, forcing them to spend the remainder of ’73 and all of ’74 at the Yale Bowl in New Haven – it was probably for the best that there was no ceremony.

There was, however, a ceremony with Giant greats at the Giants Stadium opener in 1976. Lindsay’s successor, Mayor Abe Beame, let the Giants play at Shea in ’75, along with the Mets, Jets and temporarily exiled Yankees, but I’m not including the Yanks’ and Giants’ Shea farewells, especially since both later played regular-season games at Shea. As for the Giants’ Yankee Stadium farewell: Performance: 5. Ceremony: 0. Total: 5.

Yankees’ last game at pre-renovation Yankee Stadium: September 30, 1973, lost to the Detroit Tigers 7-5. Were in Playoff contention until August. Not much of a game, and not much of a ceremony. About all the Yankees did was pull up home plate, to give to Claire Ruth, and first base, to give to Eleanor Gehrig. They did, however, invite a lot of big names to that season’s Opening Day, as it was The Stadium’s 50th Anniversary; and to the Stadium’s reopening in 1976. Both times, the first ball was thrown out by Bob Shawkey, who started and won the first game at The Stadium in 1923.

At the ’76 opener, guests included Mrs. Gehrig (Mrs. Ruth was dying and unable to attend), Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, football Giants star Frank Gifford, and Joe Louis, who defended the heavyweight title at The Stadium several times, most notably against Max Schmeling. But if The Stadium in 1923 opened with a bang (from the bat of the Babe), in ’73 it closed with a whimper. Performance: 3. Ceremony: 0. Total: 3.

Nets’ last game at the Nassau Coliseum: April 1, 1977, lost to the Indiana Pacers 89-88. Missed Playoffs, and at 22-60 went from being the final ABA Champions to having the worst record in the NBA in just one season – which is what happens when you have to sell the ABA’s best player, Julius Erving, to pay the Knicks a $4.8 million territorial indemnity fee, on top of the $3.2 million they had to pay to get into the NBA in the first place. That’s $8 million, or over $30 million in 2009 dollars.)

There was little point in saying goodbye to the squat little building on the Hempstead Turnpike, although they almost won the game, and it was appropriate that their last game as the New York Nets was against the other team that could have been called the pride of the ABA: Between the two of them, the Nets and Pacers played in 6 of the 9 ABA Finals, including the 1972 Finals against each other (the Pacers won). Performance: 4. Ceremony: 0. Total: 4.

Nets’ last game at the Rutgers Athletic Center: March 28, 1981, lost to the New York Knicks 90-88. Missed the NBA Playoffs, with a horrible 24-58. They did come close to winning the game and beating the team that should have been their arch-rivals, and they did get better the next season, starting their Meadowlands tenure with 5 straight Playoff seasons. But they didn’t really show it here, and there was no ceremony to mark their leaving of the building now known as the Louis Brown Athletic Center (but still usually called “The RAC,” pronounced “rack”), on RU’s Livingston Campus in Piscataway. Performance: 4. Ceremony: 0. Total: 4.

Jets’ last game at Shea Stadium: December 10, 1983, lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-7. Missed AFC Playoffs. The Jets did hold a ceremony with former greats, including Joe Namath, but this frigid finale was more notable as the last NFL game for Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Performance: 1. Ceremony: 6. Total: 7.

Devils’ last game at Meadowlands/Brendan Byrne/Continental Airlines Arena: Regular Season, April 8, 2007, lost to the New York Islanders 3-2; Playoffs, May 5, 2007, Game 5 of NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals, lost to the Ottawa Senators 3-2. The Devils are the only Tri-State Area team ever to have an official farewell knowing they were going to play at least one home Playoff game in the building. After 25 years in the arena soon to be renamed the Izod Center, the Devils didn’t have a whole lot of “greats,” but the 3 Stanley Cup teams did give them plenty of names to bring back, including Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and John MacLean. A few other big Devils names couldn’t make it, as they were still playing, such as Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski, and, ugh, Scott Gomez. (Did I mention that the Rangers suck? Well, they do.)

The Devils opened their history with a home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it was somewhat appropriate that the regular-season finale was against the NHL’s superteam of the early 1980s, the Isles, who stunk in the late 2000s, but, for whatever reason, usually managed to beat the Devils. It didn’t matter that much, since there were still Playoffs to be held, and while the Devils did beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Playoffs, those pesky Senators filibustered their season to death. Performance (actual finale): 3. Ceremony (official finale): 6. Total: 9.

Yankees’ last game at the old Yankee Stadium: September 21, 2008, beat the Baltimore Orioles 7-3. Stayed in contention for the Playoffs until just before then, and officially eliminated in their next game.

The ceremony brought back Yankees dating back to 1947 with Yogi Berra. Although the actors portraying Babe Ruth and the rest of the 1923 Stadium-openers was a tacky touch, the guy playing Casey Stengel, complete with mismatched socks, was a hoot. It was the first time I’d ever seen all three Stadium perfect game pitchers (Don Larsen, David Wells and David Cone) together. Whitey, Reggie, Guidry, O’Neill, and the huge ovation for the last announced former star, Bernie. It was very nice to bring back the widows of Phil Rizzuto, Thurman Munson and Catfish Hunter, the daughter of Elston Howard, the sons of Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and Roger Maris, and the family of Bobby Murcer. Especially the Murcers: Bobby had died shortly before that season’s Old-Timers’ Day, and it was too soon for them to come back, the wound still too fresh, so this was the right way for the fans to say goodbye and thank you. Anybody who wasn’t touched by David Mantle hugging Kay Murcer in center field, and by Mariano Rivera escorting Cora Rizzuto out to shortstop, has no heart. The Babe’s 91-year-old daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, throwing out the first pitch to the injured Jorge Posada (had to work him into the ceremony somehow) was a nice touch. The Yankees won the game, although it was touch-and-go for a while. Derek Jeter’s short speech after the final game was a proper sendoff.

I was actually glad that the Yanks hadn’t made the Playoffs, to take the suspense away – see the next entry. Performance: 9. Ceremony: 10. Total: 19.

Mets’ last game at Shea Stadium: September 28, 2008, lost to the Florida Marlins 4-2. As a result, for the second straight season, they missed Playoffs due to losing a season finale. Had the Mets won that day, or the Milwaukee Brewers lost, there would have been a 163rd game, and it would have been at Shea the next day. Instead, well, what did you expect: They’re the Mets!

The postgame ceremony was nice, with most of the living ’69 Mets, and most of the ’86 Mets, on hand, though it’s still hard to think of Yogi and Willie Mays as Mets. And what about who wasn’t there? Rest in peace Mrs. Payson, Casey, Gil, Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, Tommie Agee and Tug McGraw; but Davey Johnson, the only living human to lead the Mets to a World Series win; and Mookie Wilson, one of the most popular Mets ever and the man who make the Game 6 win happen. Compared to that, Dave Kingman was a poor substitute. Tom Seaver couldn’t reach the plate to get the last pitch to Mike Piazza. I realize he was 64, but Julia Stevens wasn’t that much further off the plate a week earlier, and she was 91! (Seaver did throw a perfect strike to Piazza for the Citi Field opener, though.)

And what was with that walk out to the center field fence? I understand that Seaver represents the 1969 and 1973 memories, and Piazza 1999 and 2000. But there was no representative of 1986. The right way to do it would have been to have Seaver, the team’s first Hall-of-Famer, flanked by Gary Carter, the team’s second HOFer, and Piazza, who will likely be the team’s third HOFer (unless it ends up being proven that he was yet another steroid freak). You would have had the ’69 and ’73 postseasons, with the ’86 and ’88 postseasons on one side and the ’99 and ’00 postseasons on the other. What about 2006? I guess the wound from Yadier Molina, and the fact that the ’06 Mets were roughly the same teams that shredded their fans’ hearts in ’07 and ’08, were still too fresh to have anyone represent them at the end. Performance: 2. Ceremony: 6. Total: 8.

Giants’ last game at Giants Stadium: December 27, 2009, lost to the Carolina Panthers 41-9. As a result, missed the NFC Playoffs. (They still would’ve needed to win the next week, which they didn’t.) Despite having brought back several greats from the 1976 to 2009 era, the current G-Men dropped a major league stink bomb – as if the Meadowlands area needed any more bad smells. Performance: 0. Ceremony: 5. Total: 5.

Jets’ last game at Giants Stadium: January 3, 2010, beat the Cincinnati Bengals 37-0. As a result, made the AFC Playoffs, and advanced to the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Indianapolis Colts. Granted, the Bengals didn’t exactly put up much of a fight, but, still, thirty-seven to nothing. This was the kind of game the Giants should have put up.

Now, the Jets’ years at Giants Stadium, 1984 to 2009, contained some great memories (Jets 51, Dolphins 46 in ‘86; Parcells’ ’98 masterwork; the Monday Night Miracle in 2000; Herman Edwards bringing them back from the brink with “You play to win the game!” for the ’02 Division Title; the beginning of the Mark Sanchez era). But they also contained some disasters (Dan Marino’s fake spike comes to mind), and, let’s face it, Giants Stadium was never the Jets’ home – not even when they were the official home team in games against the Big Blue Wrecking Crew. The new stadium that opens next door will officially be just as much Gang Green’s home, if for no other reason than it won’t have another team’s name on it. (Although that’s not why the Giants left Yankee Stadium).

The Jets brought back a few members of the New York Sack Exchange, plus Wesley Walker, Freeman McNeil, Al Toon, Wayne Chrebet and Curtis Martin. They even brought back some Shea guys like Namath. But the best thing the Jets ever did at Giants Stadium was get the hell out – and they went out in a blaze of glory. (They needed a blaze of something, because it was an icebox that night!) Performance: 10. Ceremony: 7. Total: 17.

Nets' last game at the Meadowlands: April 12, 2010, lost to the Charlotte Bobcats 105-95. Missed the Playoffs with the franchise's worst record ever, 12-70. No ceremony at all, in spite of the fact that the Nets played at the Meadowlands arena longer than anywhere else -- which will hold true unless and until the Nets open the 2041-42 season at the building currently named the Barclays Center. Performance: 2. Ceremony: 0. Total: 2.

Nets' last game in New Jersey, at the Prudential Center: April 23, 2012, lost to the Philadelphia 76ers 105-87. Missed the Playoffs. In spite of outscoring the Sixers in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, and being within 8 points halfway through the 4th, the Nets couldn't even "die with dignity." Most of the Nets' best players were either from their Long Island days or were still active and playing elsewhere. The most notable returnees were Derrick Coleman, Michael Ray Richardson, Darryl Dawkins, Albert King (not Bernard) -- not even Buck Williams. Performance: 5. Ceremony: 6. Total: 11.

*

1. 2008 Yankees 19
2. 2009 Jets 17
3. 1968 Rangers 14
4. 2012 Nets 11
5. 1968 Knicks 10
6. 1957 Dodgers 10
7. 2007 Devils 9
8. 2008 Mets 8
9. 1957 Giants (B) 8
10. 1983 Jets 7
11. 2009 Giants 5
12. 1973 Giants 5
13. 1977 Nets 4
14. 1981 Nets 4
15. 1963 Jets 4
16. 1973 Yankees 3
17. 1963 Mets 2
18. 2010 Nets 2
The Islanders are the only one of the Tri-State Area’s 9 major league teams still playing in their original building, but their least at the Nassau Coliseum runs out at the end of the 2014-15 season, and Nassau County voters -- mainly the Tea Party morons, since they were the only ones who seemed to care enough to show up at the polls -- voted down a bond issue to fund a new arena. The “Lighthouse Project” is dead. In just 3 years, barring a significant change, the Islanders could be as well.

"Could be," not necessarily "will be," since there is a chance they’ll move into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and once again share a building with the Nets. But, for the moment, it's looking like the Islanders could have a death worse than that of the New Jersey edition of the Nets: Even if they move into the Barclays Center, they could still, geographically and geologically if not politically, call themselves "the New York Islanders" and market themselves as a "Long Island team." After all, the Battle of Long Island, in the War of the American Revolution, was fought in present-day Brooklyn Heights; and Long Island University (LIU) has its main campus in Downtown Brooklyn (where their basketball team's home court is the converted stage of the old Brooklyn Paramount Theater).

The New Jersey Nets couldn't die with dignity. Then again, neither did Shea Stadium. At least Gladys Gooding tried to host a proper funeral for Ebbets Field.

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