NEW YORK -- It's loud, it's obnoxious, and that's just the airplanes passing over Shea Stadium.
Venturing inside one of the oldest ballparks in the National League is like stepping back in time -- to the French mobs who stormed the Bastille in 1789.
The only thing missing is the guillotine, and fortunately for the Atlanta Braves, who open a division-deciding, three-game series against the Mets tonight, New York law forbids public executions.
There's no other stadium like Shea, not for the level of noise, fan misbehavior or range of insults. It's parts Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. It's Comedy Central on speed. It's the corner grocer heaving a foot-long salami from the upper deck.
"Let's say it's the playoffs and your mom passed away the day before," reliever Mike Remlinger said. "They wouldn't hesitate. There's no line they won't cross. If a crowd is ever going to make a difference in a game, it's going to be at Shea."
The atmosphere tonight will be a mixture of carnival and crucifixion. New Yorkers have watched their beloved Mets spend the summer chasing the hated Braves, who knocked their favorites from the playoffs last October. The Braves take a four-game NL East lead over the Mets into the game. Atlanta's magic number is three, with six games remaining. And, as if that's not enough to raise the blood pressure in Queens, the presence of bad boy John Rocker is like lifting a curtain on a full moon to a den of werewolves.
It's going to be a howlin' good time.
"It's a chaotic place to play," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "I won't let my wife go to a game at Shea, and I don't want to subject my kids to that kind of atmosphere."
"The place is called Flushing for a very good reason," TBS broadcaster Skip Caray has said several times on the air.
Fans come early to Shea and stay until the final out. In between, they spend most of their time root, root, rooting for the home team -- and curse, curse, cursing the visitors.
The range of taunts is both infuriating and amusing. Playing at Shea is like a cross between Audience Participation Night and Open Mike Night at the world's loudest nightclub.
"They're always loud and they're always in the game," second baseman Keith Lockhart said. "You're prepared to be yelled at when you get to the on-deck circle. It's a great place to win, but it's a tough place to lose. You're going to get yelled at and ripped no matter what happens, but it's easier to put up with when you win."
In response to the expected sellout crowds, the city is beefing up the team's security by sending an additional 500-600 police officers to Shea. With mounted officers outside and hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes officers roaming inside the stadium, there were no significant incidents during the Braves' visit in June.
But, that was the relatively tame middle of the season. This is the frenzied final week of the season, and the Mets and the city are prepared for the worst.
"I'm sure our fans will be into the games, and there will be a lot of energy and electricity in the ballpark," said David Howard, the Mets' senior vice president of business and legal affairs. "It is a home-field advantage type of scenario that we enjoy. I've heard it many times over the years, how players dread coming in here."
Most arrests before and during games, Howard said, are for scalping tickets. Security and police usually handle rowdy fans with an ejection from the stadium, rather than an arrest.
"It's going to be a zoo," said Mets fan Derek Lundquist, a news editor from West Islip, N.Y. "That's the way it's always been whenever the Braves come to town. And we're so fanatic about our Mets, that's all we care about. We haven't been to a World Series in so long, we have a lot of built-up passion and we have to let it out some way."
Many players describe Shea as the National League's toughest stadium. Fans often scuffle among themselves. They boo their own team. At best, it's a longshoreman's bar. At worst, it's a four-tattoo minimum at the gate.
"I had a lit cigarette thrown on my back two years ago and I looked around and people were laughing about it," TBS cameraman Tim Smith said. "It's the roughest bunch of losers I've ever seen."
Shea is New York through and through. It's an in-your-face challenge to play there, an Olympian task to win there. Fans are annoying, insulting, vulgar, outrageous, rude and shocking. The boiler-factory din from planes landing and taking off from nearby LaGuardia is distracting. It's not a Walt Disney experience. It's Times Square before Mayor Rudy Giuliani's cleanup.
"There's not many stadiums we go into with 45,000 fanatics," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "If you do well, you keep them quiet. But, if the Mets do well and the crowd gets into the game, it can be a little intimidating."
Or, it can be exhilarating. Rocker feeds on taunts like an X-Files alien devouring a life force. Do the fans get in his head? Get real.
"You hear much worse in minor league stadiums," said Rocker, dismissing Shea's rowdies. "It's nothing unique. They really do themselves a disservice because you want to beat them that much worse. It energizes your will to win and your concentration."
Said Remlinger, "From a player's standpoint, it's the ultimate challenge. They want to kill you, they're booing you, and you want to make them shut up or make them boo louder, because that means you're doing a good job."
The Braves have risen to Shea's challenge since their nine-year run to the playoffs started in 1991. They have won 33 of 59 games at Flushing during that stretch, including splitting a four-game series there three months ago.
But, on a stage with the world's toughest critics as their audience, their achievements are likely to be acknowledged only one way tonight.
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org
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