This year marks the 25th anniversary of the best job I’ve ever had. Or maybe I should say the most memorable (yes, more than ESPN). I was a tour guide at Shea Stadium in the Summer of 1994.
I should point out: I didn’t work for the Mets. I worked for Nickelodeon, or in this case, Games Production Inc., which was the division that handled the mini-amusement center built behind the right field bullpen, of which ballpark tours were a small part. It was called “Extreme Baseball!”
I can still remember going through the New York Times classifieds looking for something, anything that would take up the summer after my freshman year at Trenton State College. They were looking for tour guides, carnival games operators and actors to work in the Guts! Arena. I went to the open audition and was prepared to take the SAT equivalent of a Mets knowledge test. Instead, they had us fill out some forms, put us on camera to tell our favorite Mets story and sent us on our way.
My story was about how listening to the 9th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS served as an inspiration any time I took a big test. It was my equivalent to listening to psych music. For those who don’t know me way back, I missed seeing the 9th inning of that game because my mom made me go to Hebrew School. I’m still bitter.
Apparently my tale passed the test and I was instructed to report to Shea Stadium along with a group of others that included a longtime Shea usher, a suite attendant, a mailman, a retired tax attorney, a guy whose claim to fame was playing with John Franco at St. John’s, a teacher, a cruise ship entertainer, a 1010 WINS producer, and a couple of other students, including one who starred in The King & I with Yul Brenner and now was at Harvard. We would get $10 an hour to give tours (I think … I remember a lot of details … I’m fuzzy on the salary)
One of the first things that happened was that we were given the tour script. Let’s say that it was evident that Jay Horwitz had not written it. It was lacking in Mets knowledge and baseball knowledge. And the tour had good moments … trying to make something of the locker room used for OldTimer’s Day (formerly used by the Jets) was not one of them.
It did produce a great moment though when one of the tour guides asked another “Can you take a picture of me in the shower? … The Jets old shower!”
Fortunately no one objected when some of us tinkered with the script.
My favorite addition was taking a baseball and producing it effect to describe the famous Shoe Polish Play in the 1969 World Series (“Gil Hodges went out to the umpire and produced a baseball … it was smudged, and the umpire awarded Cleon Jones first base.”)
The Nickelodeon folks had a lot to worry about with the carnival games and the Guts! Arena that they let us go on our own to rehearse our tours. The more knowledgeable tour guides (the ones who knew to refer to the 1986 Mets manager as “Davey Johnson” and not call him “Davey Jones”) clicked and we helped each other out with pointers and confidence boosts.
The next six weeks were amazing (or maybe Amazin’). You showed up, gave three or four tours to camp groups, retirees, and people who were just bored who showed up wanting to see what Shea Stadium looked like.
I remember getting in a smidge of trouble with head groundskeeper Pete Flynn. I made the mistake of telling some kids that they could jump into the outfield fence because it would make for great pictures. Pete saw it from a distance and screamed at us. He was really mad. Shea Stadium was his child and he would not let anyone harm it.
One of the tour guides was an actor named Lane Luckert, one of the most devoted Mets fans I’ve ever met. He and I walked out to the outfield to recreate Tommie Agee’s sno-cone catch in Game 3 of the 1969 World Series. He made me re-take the picture multiple times because he wanted to get it exactly right.
Lane gets major props because he gave me one of my favorite things ever: A videotape that included the view from the last row of the upper deck along the right field line when Len Dykstra hit the walk-off home run in Game 3 of the NLCS.
There were few encounters with players, but I do remember three. One is sad and I’m debating whether to tell it. Maybe. Let’s move past that one …
One was a reliever named Eric Gunderson playing a “get the ring on the milk bottle” game that no one ever won. His first throw was perfect, right on the bottle. The other was then-Cardinals infielder Jose Oquendo getting to a game early and running the warning track while I was giving a tour. When he ran by the dugout he yelled “I can’t hear you down there!”
I loved being a tour guide. I liked the performing. I liked the explaining. I liked the answering questions. I liked standing in the Mets dugout. I liked collecting the Jeff Kent cups that they put the commissary sodas in.
It helped that I got to talk about a subject I knew the most and enjoyed the most. Any time I take a tour anywhere, I notice how the tour guide explains things and watch how they succeed and struggle (most are excellent. I have great respect for those who do it well).
I relate it to my experience – like the time a kid asked a crazy question, I didn’t answer it and he said “What good are you?” That still makes me laugh.
Ninety nine percent of the people were very appreciative (I’m still mad I told a guy the wrong thing – that the umpire he was describing was Augie Donatelli when it was actually Ron Luciano. He walked away happy, but with the wrong info). I got high marks for my work. On my performance review, which I still have, it says “Not only is it clear that you love your work, but that you’re an authority on the subject.”
The reason I’m writing about this now is that Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the final games of the 1994 season before the players went on strike. Thus, it marked the end of the season, with the World Series canceled not long after. That was okay. I was headed back to school anyway.
The tours lasted a few weeks beyond the strike, ending once Nickelodeon realized that Shea Stadium wasn’t a tourist destination if there was no baseball being played.
We had a get together of the tour guides … I think it was a year later. Other than Mike Duggan and Lane Luckert (who became a tour guide at Madison Square Garden), I don’t think I’ve seen any of them since.
The funny thing is that this job connected to my next big job. While I was at the tour guide reunion, my mom told me I’d gotten a call from my college professor. Little did I know that he’d be setting me up for my next job at the Trenton Times. That one lasted 6 ½ years. Another story for another time.
I hope that the other tour guides got as much out of the experience as I did.
And I hope none of them told Pete Flynn (RIP) that on my last day, I went out to the pitcher’s mound, pantomimed throwing a pitch, ran the bases. and made a leaping catch at the outfield fence. It was pretty cool to do.
As was the job itself.