Well, at least you boys'll get to see the old manse, the home where I spent so many happy days in the bosom of my family, a refugium, if you will — with a mighty oak tree out front and a happy little tire swing.
Right now, our favorite ballpark is the former Thomas J. White Stadium, Tradition Field, whose tradition is primarily that of luring a baseball team from an actual city to what is still reportedly the middle of nowhere. Actually, until the end of the month, our favorite field is whichever one on which the Mets are preparing to back up their garrulous centerfielder's bold prognostication that his team will be successful (ah, February). Wherever they've got Kevin Burkhardt doing sitdowns with Olmedo Saenz will be fine with me.
That's all we need right now, Port St. Lucie and whatever grass it presents on TV. Come April 8, however, we'll have two ballparks on our radar, Shea Stadium and Citi Field.
Judging by the proliferation of pictures and the corporate happy talk, Citi Field could be easily mistaken for a park in full once Shea's last Home Opener rolls around. I erred on the side of the future myself last September when my buddy Rich drove us to a game and found us a space right near the entrance — to Citi Field. For about three seconds, I was thinking, “Great. We won't have to walk very far at all…” until I realized the entrance he got us close to was the one that won't be unlocked until April 2009. That thing was going up uncomfortably fast last year and it shows no signs of stopping now.
As long as it's inevitable, I sure hope Citi Field both kicks and seats ass in pleasing proportions. Whether they're including enough chairs for the common folk we won't quite know for a few years, after the excitement of the newness wears off. I've sat in enough empty Shea Stadiums to know that there was a time when drawing 20,000, let alone 50,000, was an accomplishment. It doesn't seem like the greatest planning in the world to offer up a ballpark with 80% the capacity of the incumbent at the very moment the Mets are routinely drawing the biggest crowds of their life, but I imagine the bizheads who planned a 42,000-45,000 capacity knew what they were doing, or at least decided they did when they drew this bricky baby up. There's probably a formula underneath a pile of papers on somebody's desk that explains why goosing demand with lesser supply for the next several decades beats filling the demand that 2007 and 2006 and a few other very good years in the past proved exists for Mets baseball. Maybe whoever is assigned to that desk remembers those lonely nights in Flushing as well as some of us do.
We'll see if we can get a seat in '09 and get a sense by oh, '11, whether we are condemned to a lifetime of SRO or, once the Mets take a break from their Johan-powered dynasty, attendance levels off with performance. When the Mets have one of those seasons when the collapse comes in April instead of September (not that that will ever happen again, no sir), we'll have our truest test of whether Citi Field is magnetic or just there. You've seen games from the new parks across America. You've seen that in places where the team is no good that the park isn't a draw after a while. You know those are smaller towns with smaller budgets and — knock southpaw wood — that kind of decline won't happen here, but, well…you know. And we'll see. Maybe none of us will be fretting that we can't get seats down the line. If it's a function of subpar baseball, that won't be such a great fret to be rid of, but at least we'll know who the front-runners were by their eventual absence.
Let's hope that it is an attraction, though. Let's hope it's a showplace. Let's hope it's the best ballpark in town (the other one in another borough ain't shaping up too badly), not just a faux-neighborhood park in a neighborhood conspicuously devoid of neighbors. Maybe I've just stared at the sonograms of the unborn ballpark for so long that I've come down with a premature case of Citi fatigue, but a little bit of me has already transitioned from fearing the future because it obliterates the past to fearing the future because it might not be as swell as has been hailed.
Will Citi Field, even with its overbearing homage to Ebbets Field, kick ass? Will it be unique? Will the fan who's been to plenty of ballparks think, “Now this is something I've never seen before?” Will the fan who's been only to Shea or even the fan who's never been to any ballpark think, “Gee, this is pretty awesome?” I guess what I'm wondering is will this be one of a kind the way PNC and Pac Bell were when they broke previous molds or will this be our version of new Busch Stadium, which is the Cardinals' version of Citizens Bank Park, which is the Phillies' version of Minute Maid Park…and trace it all the way back to Camden Yards, which remains one of a kind no matter who else hauls it to Kinko's and copies it?
You could do worse than take your cues from Camden Yards (or Ebbets Field), but how many you take determines the ohmigod factor, your mouth hanging open when you walk in, when you look around, when you have nothing to say but ohmigod…and not because the toilets have overflown again. There are good new parks, there are great new parks, but there are few ohmigod parks. Will Citi Field take our breath away? Seeing as how it will take my Shea away, it had better.
Shea is the park we're going to see a lot more closely in 2008, of course. Shea is the only one of the two off Roosevelt and 126th that will be open for 81 ballgames and one concert. Shea is the one that goes away at the end of the year. Shea kicks ass this season no matter how poorly the plumbing works.
On that happiest of Wednesdays two weeks ago when Johan the Magnificent was introduced in his spiffy new top, I took a beat out from my elation to feel an involuntary chill. Over Santana's shoulder, on the wall of dancing logos that no team can conduct a simple Q&A without, was the insignia the Mets are plastering on everything this season: SHEA STADIUM 1964-2008. It wasn't the first time I'd seen it but it was the first time I really looked hard at the dates and realized how final it appeared, how this isn't one of those logos that celebrates an anniversary, how it's one of those logos that accurately forecasts a death.
Oh the finality.
I'm mildly impressed that the Mets have gone to the trouble of sewing those patches on their jerseys, that they showed the imagination to acknowledge Shea used to look different from how it does now. Obviously there is sentiment to milk and merchandise to sell, but they could have opted for a different route. They could have sewn on a COMING IN 2009 patch. They could have sold the space to Citi. They could have gone with some sort of hologram, so depending on the angle at which you view a player's right sleeve, it would have switched from a picture of Shea to an image of Citi to (718) 507-TIXX. I wouldn't have put it past them.
But they didn't, and for that I am grateful. When you know the date of death of a member of the family so far in advance, I suppose you're thankful for small favors. I was quite thankful that at the press conference announcing the Billy Joel “Last Play at Shea” that a couple of Met executives stood and said nice things about the old joint without reflexively putting in a plug for progress. It would have been unbecoming. I certainly wouldn't have put that past them.
In 1990, as the Chicago White Sox pounded their drums on behalf of state-of-the-artistry and reminded every White Sox fan how lucky he or she was going to be to get a new Comiskey in 1991, they conveniently remembered that the original Comiskey, from 1910, still existed and could still be make for a targeted sales pitch. Douglas Bukowski, author of the wonderfully rueful Baseball Palace of the World: The Last Year of Comiskey Park, a day-by-day diary recounting the death of the home where he spent so many happy days in the bosom of his family, noted on August 16, 1990 that the White Sox program cover of the moment featured the caption, “AS THE SUN SETS ON THE BASEBALL PALACE OF THE WORLD.”
“A sentence fragment here is bad form,” Bukowski added, “so let's finish it: 'Stadium Officials Are Getting Excited over that New Parking Lot that Will Go North of 35th Street.'”
Now let me be fair. The Mets are sinking a whole lot of money into Citi Field. It is the current regime's baby. They didn't make the call on Shea's multipurpose nature two generations ago. They didn't design its football-friendly contours. They're the ones who work there every day. They're entitled to be more excited about what they're building than what they're tearing down. Still, my insides churn a little bit every time I read quotes like this from the team's COO:
“There isn't that much of Shea we want to bring over. Shea was a dual-purpose stadium in the '60s, and it served its purpose.”
Lord, that kind of dismissiveness makes me cringe. The admittedly “not that nostalgic for Shea” Jeff Wilpon is trying to build a dream house and I support it being as dreamy as possible, but do ya have to be so blunt about it? Do ya have to write it off with one season of unmade memories to go? If this were a nominating contest, your new park is McCain and your old one is Huckabee. Your guy has won. Be gracious. Just say, “Shea'll be great in '08, Citi will be superfine come '09” and leave it at that.
To offer pesky context, Wilpon was confirming the Sheaiest of Shea totems, the Home Run Apple, will magically reappear at Citi Field, but was a little hazy on whether it would be the 1981 Apple that's been bobbing up and down gamely for nearly three decades of dingers or a more highly polished apple to be named later. Since a speck on the Citi CGI has always been devoted to what appears to be an apple (if you squint), it wasn't really news when it hit the wires as such last week. Nice to know somebody's thinking about it though.
There's been a groundswell of support to move and maintain the Apple we know and occasionally love. I think I signed the heartfelt petition at SaveTheApple.com to be neighborly about it, but I don't know if I really want the '81 Apple to remain on the active roster in new surroundings. For goodness sake, save it, display it, do something respectful with it (if it doesn't disintegrate on contact; if you've ever leaned over the right field seats to get a good glimpse at it, you know that's not fresh fruit that's been ripening out there in the sun all these years). Don't toss it into the same Dumpster-brand trash bin with our memories. Save the Apple? Absolutely. Transplant the Apple for another three decades of dingers? I'm not so sure. Citi Field deserves its own memories, its own furniture, its own knickknacks, even its own produce. (Besides, if we're going to save a piece of Shea, I say we save all of Shea.)
In the meantime, we'll get 81 more bites of our big juicy blueberry of a ballpark — more if we're lucky; add one if you got through for Billy Joel on Saturday — and each one will be worth savoring because once they're all gone, it will be all gone. The Mets won't be shy about selling us Shea even as they prepare to remove it from our grasp. They won't be the first to traffic in and profit from sentiment. And I won't be the last to buy in.
BUT THIS WILL BE FREE
Tune in tomorrow for an important FAFIF announcement regarding our own tribute to the final 81 regular-season games scheduled to be played at Shea Stadium and how YOU can be a part of it.