"Do I have to take off my hat?" he said.
It was a sharp number, royal blue, with a large logo depicting the ballpark that his father helped build. This, he knew, was the last Opening Day in the history of Shea Stadium, and the last season in which that cap would really matter. One year later, Citi Field -- already looming over the outfield wall -- will open, and the old Shea Stadium, home of so many memories in nearly half a century of baseball, will become obsolete.
The cap was a reminder of all that, but a reminder too that so many games remain.
"It's a sweet day, because it's still a memory," Shea said. "It's a sweet day because the fans still love it, and it's a sweet day because it will still continue, because they're going to keep some sort of memory. And besides that, it's about the Mets."
Shea threw out the first pitch before Shea Stadium's final home opener Tuesday -- a 5-2 loss to the Phillies -- battling through a "rotator cuff problem" to hit Mets manager Willie Randolph on the fly. Two Navy 18F Super Hornets flew over the park, following international recording star Michael Amante's version of the national anthem and the Fort Hamilton Joint Service Color Guard's presentation of the Opening Day colors.
All of that helped kick off a season-long celebration of the last summer at Shea Stadium, honoring the past before the Mets move into their state-of-the-art Citi Field venue next April. Thirty members of the Shea family were on hand to give their blessings, and to honor the legacy of William A. Shea, who worked to bring National League baseball back to New York after the Dodgers and Giants both left the city in 1957.
The Mets revealed a countdown in center field that will depict the number of remaining games all season, and a "Shea" logo in left field, which will hang next to the team's three retired numbers. That logo will travel with the Mets to Citi Field, ensuring that Shea's legacy will remain intact long after the doors to his namesake stadium close.
It also served to add a bit more pomp than usual to this year's home opener.
"We've got a lot of games here this year, and this is the first one," Randolph said. "This is a historical day in a lot of ways for a lot of people. There's a lot of history in this place and a lot of good memories, but hopefully this will be the start of something we'll remember more than anything else."
The finality wasn't lost on Randolph, who, along with entering his fourth season as Mets manager, once took his wife to Shea Stadium on their first "legitimate" date.
Randolph, a Brooklyn native, planted his roots in New York even before the Dodgers and Giants skipped town. He was young then -- too young to remember -- so in his memory, the city's baseball landscape has always revolved around the Yankees and Mets. Perhaps it always will, but not in this ballpark. Shea's relevance now has an expiration date.
"There are so many special memories, from the fans to the people that work here," former slugger and current Mets ambassador Darryl Strawberry said. "We had such a wonderful time here, and we were a part of history being in this ballpark."
For now, however, Tuesday's matinee marked nothing more than another beginning. The Shea family still has 80 more home games to enjoy, and 80 more opportunities to wish their namesake stadium farewell -- as if this afternoon needed any more significance.
"I love it," closer Billy Wagner said. "I love Opening Day. It's a part of the season when you're excited no matter what's going on."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.