— Days Without Shea —

Good article in today's NY Daily News on the status of Shea Stadium's Home Run Apple. And good shout-outs to the good guys over at SaveTheApple.com. You are doing inspired work, fellas:

Darryl Strawberry is laughing on the other end of the phone when talk turns to the Home Run Apple at Shea. Some believe it's a hokey throwback to days when the Mets might do anything to distract fans from their dreadful team on the field, but others, like the ex-slugger, cling to it as a hammy symbol of nostalgia in the ballpark's final season.

"Love it," Strawberry says with a giggle. "It's the Big Apple, you know? I have a lot of fond memories of making that thing come up. That apple has always been special to me - it means you've done something good."

The apple is a nine-foot mass of fiberboard slathered in red paint that, whenever a Met blasts a homer at Shea, pops out of a 10-foot, upside-down black top hat made of plywood. The Mets logo on the apple lights up and blinks. The phrase "Home Run," which replaced the original "Mets Magic," an offshoot of the Mets' old "The Magic is Back" campaign, is visible on the top hat.

The apple, all 582 pounds of it, appeared behind the fence, to the right of the 410-foot mark in center field, during the 1980 season. No one can remember exactly when it made its debut, but Joe Donohue, one of those responsible for inventing it, guessed its debut was around late May.

The Joe Torre-led Mets were awful back then. Tom Seaver was gone, Strawberry and Dwight Gooden were a few years away and the 1980 Mets finished fifth in the NL East at 67-95.

"They were trying to put a positive marketing spin on the franchise," recalls Dave Howard, the Mets' current executive vice president of business operations. "There was some backlash - some people said, 'What Magic?' Or 'The Magic is Tragic.'

"But since then it has become an icon of the franchise. It has resonated with the young fan. I got a new appreciation of it going to games with my kids. Someone would hit a home run and they'd say, 'Dad, the apple's coming out.' They'd get so excited."

That feeling is why there will be some sort of apple at the Mets' new home, Citi Field, which opens next season, Howard says. "Planning the new park, we always felt there should be some kind of apple," Howard says. "Whether it's the same one or not, that's something we're still weighing. Either way, the apple will be represented."

That's good news to Mets fans Lonnie Klein and Andrew Perlgut, who've known each other since attending high school at Horace Mann. The pair had an epiphany at a 2006 game after watching Carlos Beltran coax the apple out of the hat with a homer.

"We looked at each other and said, 'What's going to happen to the apple?'" Klein says. "We decided to have some fun with it." They started a Web site, savetheapple.com, dedicated to encouraging the Mets to bring the old toy to their new home. As of yesterday afternoon, they had collected 7,115 signatures on their online petition.

"The apple represents the fun of the Mets," says Klein, a 26-year-old law student. "They are kind of the upstart kids and the fans really take that attitude to heart. The apple is part of that and it'd be a shame if it's not brought over to the new stadium."

Donohue was the Mets' director of promotions back when the apple was dreamed up. While some call him "The Applefather," Donohue also gives credit to his then-assistant, Jim Plummer, now the Mets' director of corporate services, and Met executives Al Harazin and Frank Cashen. Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, who had just bought the team, deserve acknowledgment, too, Donohue says.

New York City was being promoted as "The Big Apple" around that time, which meant the Home Run Apple is perhaps a perfect merger of that slogan and the Mets' 1980 motto of "The Magic is Back."

Newspapers mocked the Mets' slogan, considering how bad the team was. The Daily News even ran a "Mets v. Maris" contest, tracking the Met homers against the pace of former Yankees slugger Roger Maris, who had slugged 61 home runs in 1961. The '80 Mets finished with 61 homers, too.

While fans enjoyed it, the apple may not have been universally loved inside Mets offices. Howard recalled that he once sat next to Cashen at a game and, when the apple popped up, Cashen told Howard, "That's Harazin's folly."

"At the time, it was just another way to entertain," Donohue says. "It's funny, now we take a lot for granted, with computers and hydraulics. The hydraulics of the apple were pretty basic."

There is an elevator inside the hat that pushes up the apple. It is operated from the control booth, which is to the left of home plate on the press level. The scoreboard is operated from the same room. An electrician pushes buttons to raise or lower the apple and the apple can be stopped, too, as a stunned Strawberry learned when he was a member of the Yankees.

The Yankees had to play a home game at Shea against the Angels on April 15, 1998 because a beam had collapsed at Yankee Stadium two days earlier, crushing several rows of seats. In the bottom of the fifth inning of the Yankees' Shea "home game," Strawberry smacked a solo homer off the Angels' Omar Olivares.

Though Strawberry no longer wore Met colors, the apple shot up - halfway - delighting the crowd of 40,743, an homage to a former Met superstar.

"I was like, 'Bring it up the whole way!'" Strawberry says now. "It was different, seeing that, after the times I was there, my eight years playing at Shea. There was an excitement, because of my history playing there with the Mets."

The apple can be a maintenance headache. Bob Mandt, who was the stadium operations manager from 1983 until his retirement in 2004 and is now a Met consultant, recalls that if it was left uncovered, the top hat could fill with rain. "Sometimes," Mandt says, "it would get stuck up or down and you had to wait it out and send the electrician out there."

Mostly, though, the apple is loved. A few years ago, the Mets gave their season-ticket holders a gift of a clock made out of a replica of the top hat and apple. In 1981, Donohue says, he designed a lapel pin with the Met logo, the apple and a stem.

Donohue, who now runs his own event management company, EventSavvy, jokes that he'd take the apple home with him and put it in his front yard "if I could satisfy the zoning board" in his New Jersey hometown.

"Realistically, I'd love to have that apple, in all its lo-tech glory, be seen and celebrated at Citi Field," Donohue says. "It really kept fans entertained while Frank and his team rebuilt the team on the field.

"I have some ideas on how we can make everybody happy in the new park. I have a presentation in mind that I'd be happy to make to the Mets. I'm intrigued by the aerial photos of the new stadium; it looks like there's a space for it."

If there's no spot for the old one at Citi Field, Strawberry has a suggestion: "Put it on eBay. I know somebody would love to have it. They could bid on it.

"In the new park, you might have to build a new one, the old one might not look right and it might be exciting to have a new, bright red apple up there."

[April 21, 2008 11:49 PM]  |  link  |  reply
Bobster said

I think Darryl is right: put it on Ebay. Though it hurts me to the core (pun intended) I think 28 years is long enough.

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