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The future looms large over Shea

The future looms large over Shea Stadium

NEW YORK -- The most imposing figure at Shea Stadium on Tuesday afternoon wasn't even in the ballpark but, rather, adjacent to it. Few buildings of any sort dwarf the 45-year-old home of the Mets, but looming large as the Mets began their 2008 home schedule was Citi Field, a reminder of the future, if such an oxymoronic phenomenon can exist.

The vast area beyond Shea Stadium's outfield walls and scoreboards, an area without recognized boundaries, seemed less vast because of Citi Field. The new building, incomplete as it is, nonetheless shrinks Shea and creates a sense of intimacy, as the Mets hope it will for its inhabitants when it opens next year.

Whether it shrinks Shea in a more tangible way remains to be seen. The upper levels of Citi Field didn't exist last summer, and Mets outfielders experienced no difference in how fly balls carried, especially those hit to left and center fields. But now the infamous Shea winds are blocked by the new structure. Willie Mays already had played in windswept Candlestick Park before the stands wrapped around the field, and he determined that winds made center field at Shea the most difficult to play in the National League.

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The addition of the scoreboard in left field in the 1980s changed the effect of the winds, but not completely. And the Mets said that they couldn't get a read for the effect as they took batting practice on Tuesday. But the steady breezes of the morning were felt in the area behind the plate and at the batting cage.

Of course, the proximity of Citi Field piques the interest of people at Shea. The prevailing question is, "Can anyone reach the new place?" It seems unlikely, though when David Wright hit a home run off the Yankees' Mike Myers on May 19 last year, Howie Rose wondered aloud on the Mets broadcast whether Wright had become the first player to hit a Citi Field home run.

Chances are that Citi Field will survive Shea's final season without being dented. It might not have in the days of Dave Kingman, Mike Piazza and Butch Huskey, the most powerful right-handed hitters in club history. Each had the swing to reach the area occupied by Citi Field if perfect conditions existed.

Kingman, in particular, hit several homers that would have threatened Citi Field during his two tours with the Mets and in one memorable visit as a member of the Giants in 1974.

That one struck the Giants' bus, which was parked beyond the left-field bullpen.

"It broke the windshield," Kingman said on Tuesday. "I didn't see it. But that's what they told me."

Kingman on Tuesday was making what he believed was his first visit to Shea, for baseball purposes, since his days as an active player. He and one of his left-field predecessors, Cleon Jones, were brought to Shea by the Mets for a reception for SterlingStamos, the investment firm of the Wilpon family. The reception was held on the loge level in left field in an area some 25 feet into fair territory, an area that perhaps only Kingman could reach.

"I'm not sure anymore," Kingman said.

"I'm sure he could," Jones said. "He could hit it out of the Grand Canyon."

On April 10, 1969, Jones' buddy, the late Tommie Agee, hit a homer almost directly over the site where Kingman and Jones were sitting, the only home run ever hit into the upper deck at Shea.

"That ball might have hit the new park," Jones said.

Jones considers Kingman, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell and Dick Allen to be the most powerful hitters he saw play at Shea. But he never saw Piazza, Huskey and Darryl Strawberry work at Shea, much less such visitors as Ryan Howard, Mike Schmidt and Mark McGwire.

Piazza hit a tent beyond the bleachers in an Interleague game against the Yankees in 1999, and he and Huskey hit several over the bleachers that might have reached Citi Field, perhaps on a bounce.

"I can't tell [if I could have done it]," Kingman said. "I haven't really looked."

But Kingman thought that his best shot -- regardless of site -- might have reached Citi Field on a lot of bounces.

That was the one he hit as a Met at Wrigley Field on April 14, 1976, off Frank De Torre of the Cubs. It landed four houses down Kenmore Avenue, the street that runs perpendicular to Waveland Avenue, the street that runs behind Wrigley's left field.

"That one," he said, "had a chance."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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