news 4 days ago

Opening Day memories: A weird night in Flushing in 1995

Sporting News — (Tom Gatto)

With Opening Day 2020 delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sporting News staffers look back at their most memorable Opening Days from the past.​

Baseball was back at Shea Stadium. The Mets were opening their home schedule against the Cardinals. 

Those were the only normal elements of April 28, 1995.

There was finally another game in Flushing after baseball had tried its damnedest to destroy itself with: 

— An eight-month players' strike over club owners' demands for a salary cap.
— The unprecedented cancellation of the 1994 World Series.
— The owners' union-busting move to use replacement players (aka "scabs") the following spring training.

I was a copy editor for a newspaper in my native New Jersey at the time, and I had that Friday night off. I wound up buying a seat high above the third-base line at Shea. The place was half-full — the first true sign of the fans' anger over what had happened.

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Then came a little bit of lashing out and a whole lot of idiocy by a handful of the 26,604 in attendance:

— Three guys ran onto the field midgame, threw money at Bobby Bonilla (something the Mets are still doing 25 years later) and other New York infielders, and then stood on second base to protest players' "greed."
— One individual ran to third base and then tried to take the bag back with him to his seat.
— Multiple adventure-seekers frolicked on Shea's outfield turf before high-tailing it toward center field to elude police. The 8-foot-high outfield wall proved to be their downfall.

(A scan of the box score reminded me that replacement umpires were on the field while all this was happening because the real umps were being locked out by the owners.)

The game itself was a sloppy slugfest. The Mets came back from a five-run deficit to win 10-8. It wasn't surprising that the game was ragged: The real big leaguers had had about three weeks of spring training after the end of the strike, so pitchers weren't ready. The Mets had opened their abbreviated 144-game season two nights earlier in Denver, where they suffered two bad losses to the Rockies at brand-new Coors Field. The temporary expanded rosters (28 players) weren't helping.

So, no, this was not your typical Friday night at Shea. It was so much weirder than that.

OPENING DAY MEMORIES
Chilly Atlanta in '96 | Tuffy Rhodes stuns Mets | Optimism and hope in 2001

A quick digression to close this piece:

If you want to make parallels between the 8 1/2-month layoff a quarter-century ago and the months-long delay the coronavirus pandemic is likely to create this year, well, there aren't any. The absence forced by a historic health crisis will only make fans' hearts grow fonder. Back in 1994 and '95, the absence forced upon fans by a dispute over money hardened hearts.

It took about took about three years for some of those hearts to soften — right as baseball was starting to write the next shameful chapter in its history.