1968. I was ten years old and in mad love with the game of baseball. I watched it on TV, I read about it in the baseball magazines, I watched neighborhood pick-up games as well as Little League games, and once, just once, my Dad took me to see the Mets at Shea Stadium.
For a Mets fanatic like me that was the equivalent of dying and receiving an extra dozen virgins on the house.
Mets, Mets, Mets
I wore out my Mets jacket; my Mets T-shirt was faded withing the first summer of wear. I had an official Major League Baseball signed by Ed Kranepool, the Mets’ first baseman, that occupied a place of honor in my bedroom baseball museum. I even had a little baseball board game where you worked the batters and pitchers and hit a little felt baseball.
Yeah, I was a nut.
So it kind of made sense that soon after the new year of 1968 started I began planning my masterpiece: a baseball field that would be remembered among the greats. It would be spoken of in the same breath as Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium and Tiger Stadium. It would put my backyard on the world map as being a must-see destination. That I would become a millionaire from its operation was incidental; that I would be the owner of my own ball field, able to play the All-American pastime whenever I chose, was the important thing.
First order of business – securing permissions to build.
The Beginning of the Ballpark
January 1968:Asked Mom and Dad if I could build a ballpark in the backyard. They instantly gave the go-ahead, on the condition that I first clean the yard up. I was ecstatic until I took a look outside …
Well, many famous stadiums had had their starts under such conditions of poverty and neglect, so I felt myself lucky to begin my project the same way the Greats had.
I grabbed a shovel and a broom and began Phase I.
February 1968:Phase I continues. I fear I have underestimated the enormity of this task, and the weather has not been an ally, having snowed a record 27′ so far this month. Temporary shoring has been installed for the safety of the workers, and mandatory hot-chocolate breaks every hour are a union requirement.
After work every day (well, actually, after school on weekdays) I retire to my drafting table and continue to work on blueprints for the park. This has always been a thrill for me, to create something out of nothing, and the drafting sessions go on into the late-night hours. This is what I have so far:
There were several constraints due to the design and utilization of the backyard, which I believe I have conquered. The three major remaining problems are:
1. The shed just behind second base,
2. The complete lack of an outfield, and
3. The need to curve around the tomato garden from second to third base
The shed will probably serve as a ground-rule double; the outfield will have to be anything between the huge pine tree to the East and the raised concrete garden to the West, and on either side of the Shed; and the jog between second and third due to the placement of the tomato garden will just have to be dealt with at a later date.
Smaller problems exist, of course, but nothing on the scale of these three. Heidi, my dog, traditionally moves her bowels in an area roughly situated between third base and home plate; runs to first base will probably result in a collision with the hedges; and the perimeter fence, a 4′-high chain-link affair, is uncomfortably close to the playing area. I’m sure several solutions will present themselves before Spring.
March 1968: Phase II has begun. We (Dad, Mickey, David and I) have finally completed Phase I through the use of a massive bonfire in the backyard. Proposals for professional hauling were well beyond the stadium budget, and my suggestion that we “just move the stuff to the other side of the house” was immediately discarded by my Sponsors (Mom and Dad).
Phase II consists of preliminary layout of the field, bases, dug-out and spectator areas. The use of white spray-paint is evidently against EPA regulations because the single can I had disappeared after the first day’s usage. I’ve had to resort to using the bag of lime I found in the Shed.
March 1968: It has been strongly suggested that Phase II be considered finished and that I proceed on to Phase III, the actual construction of the ballpark. Periodic snow storms are still wreaking havoc on my schedule, and the following thaws create a lake of mud with a topping of powdered lime.
Lacking the cash reserves to purchase authentic bases we have had to make-do with pillowcases “borrowed” from the Laundry Department and filled with rags from our Sponsor’s shop in the basement. Home plate is a piece of 3/4” plywood nailed into the ground with 6” roofing nails.
I am optimistic and hope to hold our official opening next month.
April 1968:Opening Day! It’s the first Saturday of April, the park is complete and it’s a perfect day for our inaugural game. Michael, Kevin and Ritchie are the Yankees; Joey, Larry and me are the Mets. We hold a little ceremony before the start of the game, dedicating our new park to the highest ideals of baseball.
Then that yell that we’ve been waiting over 3 months to hear:
“PLAY BALL!”(Thanks, Mickey)
We had a sizable number of fans in the “bleachers” – actually, on the patio, the back porch and sprinkled around home plate. They were munching away at bowls of peanuts and popcorn and sucking down Cokes (we didn’t have any deals with Pepsi at that point). The Yankees, being the Visitors, were up first. I was pitching, Kevin was first- and third-baseman and Richie was the outfield.
Michael stepped up to the box (more lime), took his stance and tried to eyeball me. I fired the first pitch of the first game ever in Woodland Stadium. Michael swung and connected, the ball sailing far over the left-center field fence into the woods for an automatic home run.
What followed was 15 minutes of searching for the ball in the woods, as our budget only allowed for one baseball, one bat and two gloves, one being a nasty old catcher’s mitt and the other a fielder’s mitt with half of the webbing gone.
The game resumed. Kevin got up and cracked a line drive over the top of the Shed and into the woods. Home run. Another 15 minutes searching.
The game had started that bright, glorious day at 10am on the dot. By noon, we were well into the bottom of the first inning. The score was Yankees 23, Mets 18. The crowd had inexplicably thinned out so that only Crazy Eddie our scorekeeper and Heidi our Official Mascot remained as onlookers.
A time-out was called at the bottom of the second inning when Larry tried sliding home after an inside-the-park triple. Unfortunately, in the excitement of the moment he had forgotten that our mascot’s official “dumping ground” was right on the third-base line, and his head-first slide resulted in high-pitched screams and several members of both teams retching. A time-out was called as Larry ran home screaming to change clothes and take a quick shower.
He was back within a half-hour and play was resumed. Richie was stung by a yellow-jacket as he overran first base on a single and crashed into the hedges. Both team’s outfielders were sporting huge, bleeding gashes on their shins as a result of running into the concrete raised-bed garden in left field. As well, Richie had sap on both his hands from an earlier run-in with our huge pine tree, a condition that led to several dozen errant throws.
I hadn’t been immune from the peculiarities of the stadium either, having barreled through the chicken-wire fencing surrounding the tomato garden in a dash for third. I proudly wore the pasty red remains on my uniform throughout the rest of the game. Heidi took a fresh dump on the third-base line and we were careful to hop, skip and jump over the fly-spotted mound.
Sadly enough, the game was called on account of darkness at 8pm. We had only reached the bottom of the sixth inning and the score was Yankees 78, Mets 76. The game had lasted only 10 hours in total, and as we dragged our weary bodies back to the dugout (my basement) we eagerly looked forward to tomorrow’s doubleheader.