The place happened to be the borough of Little Ferry, New Jersey, a 10-minute drive off the George Washington Bridge, but it could have been any small town, where kids grew up playing baseball at a field a block or two from their own front door. So close that a parent could yell out the window when it was time for dinner. No need for an email or text.
Step in to that place, as many did Friday morning — including a large contingent of Mets personnel — and the dedication of Shannon Dalton Forde Memorial Field was not only a fitting tribute to the team’s treasured public relations assistant, but a reminder of what her enduring legacy is truly about.
A strong family, lifelong friends and the special things that can happen when the game she loved, along with the Mets, loved her right back. Shannon ultimately lost her fierce battle with breast cancer a year ago, at the age of 44. But the countless number of people she impacted during those decades rallied to help create the ideal place to celebrate her life, and in doing so, maybe foster the same qualities she developed growing up in a house a short walk from the new, shiny home plate.
At Friday’s dedication, SNY broadcaster Gary Cohen, the Mets’ play-by-play voice, served as the emcee, with three general managers in attendance — Sandy Alderson, Omar Minaya, Jim Duquette — along with a pair of former managers — Willie Randolph and Bobby Valentine. Forde’s two children, Nick and Kendall, tossed ceremonial pitches to both David Wright and John Franco. The mayor of Little Ferry, Mauro D. Raguseo, opened with a stirring homage to Forde, and detective Mike Hinchcliffe, from the town’s police department, detailed the work that went into the project.
On a slightly smaller scale, the event had the pomp and circumstance of a new stadium opening, and few neighborhood fields, if any, have seen an MLB franchise go all-out to christen a Little League diamond with such heartfelt emotion. Truth is, this wasn’t for Shannon as much as it was because of her. But for everything she had done, for so many people, Shannon was happy to be the one behind the scenes, a modest trait that was universally acknowledged by those in attendance Friday.
Shannon had worked for the Mets for 22 years, and when Jeff Wilpon, the team’s chief operating officer, was asked how she would have handled such an impressive thank you for a life well-lived, he quickly responded, “Poorly. She’d be off hiding somewhere.”
Wilpon added that seeing the smiles on her kids’ faces would be enough for Shannon, because she was always the person taking care of everyone, from the rookie call-up fresh off the plane from Triple-A to a glum manager, depressed over that night’s defeat.
“She loved the Mets,” Randolph said. “And there were times, when I was down after a loss, as disappointed as she was, she lifted me up. When people impact you like that, you’re always grateful for it.”
Do the Wright thing
Wright laughed when asked the same question posed to Wilpon, about Shannon’s aversion to the spotlight, in a look-at-me business like professional sports. She was a pioneer in her own right, the first woman to hold such a high-ranking position in a baseball front office, but her own accomplishments were secondary to what she did for the Mets, as well as anyone hoping to get through the gates at Shea or Citi, be it the media or fans. Wright recalled the time, 13 years ago, when he first showed up in Flushing as the Mets’ prized prospect but still an overwhelmed 20-year-old.
Other than playing third base, Wright didn’t know what to do. How to get to Shea, or even where to go once inside. That’s where Shannon excelled — part tour guide, part confidante, but always a friendly face for those trying to get comfortable in what can be a cold, confusing place on occasion. And Wright remembers.
“It was like a big-sister, little-brother relationship,” Wright said. “She was always looking out for me.”
For Wright, who knows better than most, Shannon was a big part of what has made the Mets feel like a “family atmosphere,” along with Jay Horwitz, the media relations director who was like another father-figure to her. Horwitz’s devotion to Shannon came through again during the past year with his daily checkups on the renovation of her childhood field, often stopping by on his drive home from Flushing.
A true role model
Major League Baseball helped raise more than $235,000 for the construction, with Horwitz, in Wilpon’s view, acting as the lead blocker to clear the path for the project. On the drive down Mehrhof Road toward the field, the Empire State Building is clearly visible. Standing at home plate, despite the outfield fence being ringed by thick trees, the batter can see the Freedom Tower through a gap framed by green.
As beautiful as the new diamond looks, adorned with Shannon’s sign behind the backstop, the greater allure — certainly through her eyes — will be the boost for baseball and softball in Little Ferry. The sport’s continuous push for a foothold among the next generations is something every small town can identify with, and Shannon, by her lasting influence, is now this neighborhood’s greatest benefactor.
“She is a role model in every sense,” Raguseo said. “This is no longer a field of dirt and clay. It’s a field of dreams.”
Through her role with the Mets, making dreams a reality was something that Shannon tirelessly pushed for, a point that her niece, Felicia Spinella, emphasized during her emotional turn at the podium. Spinella echoed the sentiment that the dedication “would have overwhelmed” Shannon, but for those that were there, the day’s outpouring of affection was only a fraction of what she delivered.
“She was truly one-of-a-kind . . . an angel,” Spinella said. “She would do anything for anybody.”
That won’t change for the people of Little Ferry. As Spinella spoke, a young family, with two small children, watched intently from their front stoop across the street.