The Yankees will conclude their series with the Mets tonight at Citi Field, but the matchup brings back memories of a different place that the Mets, and sometimes the Yankees, called home. The Mets played half their games at Shea Stadium, which was built to accommodate both football and baseball, but was ideal for neither over 44 of their first 46 years of existence. When Yankee Stadium underwent a facelift in the mid 1970's Shea housed the Yankees for the 1974 and 1975 seasons. Over 20 years later, the concrete cookie cutter pinch hit for Yankee Stadium one final time when a portion of the upper deck collapsed at the House that Ruth built.
In 1998 the Yankees were on their way to being one of the best teams Major League Baseball has ever seen, but they didn't know that during the season's first few weeks. They had lost four of their first five games of the season and were only 6-4 when their home stadium started falling apart. They weren't exactly riding high, although they still very much owned New York. The Mets were just starting to break out of a slump that lasted for most of the 90's up to that point. They were playing pretty well on their way to an 88-win year, but by mid-April they were still drawing well under 20,000 fans to Shea Stadium every day. Enter the Yankees, who were desperate to salvage at least one game with the Angels after canceling the first two games of their series when the city shut down Yankee Stadium. On April 15th the Mets agreed to let the Yankees call Shea Stadium home for an early noontime game which drew over 40,000 Yankee fans to Flushing. When the Mets took on the Cubs later that night, only 16,000 seats were filled.
As pointed out in this contemporary article from Buster Olney, the logistics for the game were full of quirks. Prior to the game, the Yankees dressed in their own lockers at Yankee Stadium then boarded an early morning bus that took them to Shea. There, they utilized the visitor's clubhouse while the Angels set up shop in the Jets' old locker room. Fans with tickets to the game scheduled at Yankee Stadium were allowed entry for what was described as comparable seating. Even those with tickets for the two previous games that were canceled were permitted if the seating was available. In order to keep loose, the Yankees actually played a few exhibition innings at Shea the day before with their then double-A affiliate Norwich. Hideki Irabu dominated as Willie Banks got tattooed in what must have been a real treat.
The game itself was one that would become more typical as the season wore on. The Yankees scored early and often and held on for an easy win. David Wells had a strong start despite surrendering three solo shots, Paul O'Neill doubled, tripled and stole a base, but the climax of the afternoon came when Darryl Strawberry stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the fifth. The man who took baseball by storm more than a decade earlier with the Mets had another trick up his sleeve at his old stomping grounds. He deposited a 2-2 hanger over the left centerfield wall to give the Yankees a 5-0 lead and complete control of the game. His wearing a different set of pinstripes notwithstanding, the staff at Shea must have been excited too as the Home Run Apple made an appearance in honor of the stadium home run record holder.
The Yankees were scheduled to play the Tigers at home that weekend but played the games in Detroit instead as they swapped a home and home series. Repairs were made at the Stadium in time for the second leg of that series nine days later. Still, the Yankee home game at Shea was great for New York baseball and a precursor for even better things that would come as the teams met in the World Series just two years later. With both teams now in prime playoff position, we could be in store for something similar in the near future.