2008 was the final season for Shea Stadium. 2009 is the first season for Citi Field. A little over three months from now, the 2009 Mets will find their positions on the field, a batter for the Boston Red Sox will walk to the plate, and from then on Citi Field will no longer be the stuff of hypotheticals and future tenses. It will be where the New York Mets play baseball.
What kind of place will it be? By now we're familiar with its exterior, having watched it rise beyond the Shea walls for the last few seasons. Its interior is still relatively unfamiliar, though. We've watched its field evolve from vague lines in dirt and rubble to a blank space below a rising grandstand to a place with actual grass and an infield. We've started to wonder how its quirky outfield dimensions will play and realized those walls are too high for Endyesque takeaways and Finleyesque getaways. We've realized it has bleacher seats, and tried to imagine those not being a novelty. We've heard about the restaurants, the rotunda (quite a lot about the rotunda), the green seats, the huge scoreboard. What we don't know about yet — because for the most part they don't yet exist — are the landmarks we'll eventually use in navigating to our usual bathroom, or to get a Carvel helmet cup, or find the ATM.
Which is what I'm wondering about.
Last year, before Johan valiantly but vainly screamed “CLEAR!” and applied the paddles to the chest of our season, Greg and I sat in the upper deck (I desperately hoped it wasn't the final time for me, while suspecting it was) and had a … lively debate about the transition from Shea to Citi. (It wasn't an argument — that's not really our style — but it was impassioned.) Given Shea's imminent fate, it would be both impolite and irrelevant to reiterate its shortcomings here, and it wasn't the heart of what we discussed then either. We knew each other's feelings on Shea and Citi pretty thoroughly by then.
From a Shea Stadium perspective, late September was the era of the stadium fire sale. The seats had been put up for sale — I'd even plunked down money my unemployed self didn't particularly have for a pair — and now everything else was on the block, too. This is the pricelist MeiGray sent around, as reproduced by our colleagues at Loge 13. And that is where our discussion started to get impassioned.
It wasn't that MeiGray was selling just about everything that was about to no longer be nailed down — that's so thoroughly the 21st-century American way that kicking against it is a bit like complaining about gravity. It wasn't that countless banners and signs bearing the name Shea Stadium were up for sale — obviously those would be of no use in the new park — or that MeiGray had the audacity to sell off a priceless piece of Met history like the MAIL ROOM AUTHORIZED EMPLOYEES ONLY sign. (I hope whoever parted with $75 for that one is happy with it — heck, looking over that list, I kind of wish I'd spent a mere $50 to buy Greg one of the signs that used to warn hapless fans of the curious fact that ELEVATOR DOES NOT STOP ON THIS FLOOR.) Big organizations don't take the old place's furnishings with them when they change locales, because they want a unified style that fits the new place. All understood.
But why were the Mets selling off all this stuff that seemed like it could be reused? Take those giant banners from the concourse. Why wasn't the huge Gary Carter with his hands in the air making the trip? Was there no room at Citi Field for a big, triumphant Todd Pratt, or an oversized Cleon Jones or Tug McGraw in exultis? After thinking it over a bit, I told Greg we of course couldn't know whether the banners fit the new concourse. But surely we would find their equivalents at Citi. So what if it wasn't the exact same Joyous Tug banner greeting you on your way to your seats in the Platinum Centurion Level (or whatever the heck it is) — the important thing was that there would be a Joyous Tug banner. And there would be, right?
And that's where I started to get a bit worried.
Like why were all those posters of yearbook covers from the Diamond level up for grabs? How could framed yearbook covers not work with the new Citi Field look? Did the retired numbers from the outfield wall really need replacing? Because Citi Field would have a spot for 14 37 41 and 42, right? Why would the Mets sell the flags for their two world championships and two N.L. pennants? I don't want to see updated versions of those at Citi Field — I want to be able to look out at the same ones I saw flying proud or hanging disconsolately all those years at Shea. (Celebratory flags will fly somewhere at Citi, right? Right?) And while it's obvious the Mets are getting new lockers, why wouldn't you keep one for the new place? Like, say, Tom Seaver's? The $41,000 price tag on the Franchise's locker was a nice historical nod, but why sell it at all? (Greg and I had no bone of contention regarding this point. To the contrary.) Why not put it behind plexiglass in the new concourse, with an old-style 41 uniform and Seaver-era gear in it? You'd have an instant spot for pilgrimages when we needed a starter to come up big — like, say, Johan did against the Marlins. Hang on, man — this is a big game, I need to go tap Tom Terrific's locker for luck. What? It worked in Game 7 of the '09 Series, didn't it?
(While were on the subject — who the hell let Aaron Heilman occupy the Seaver locker?)
In the last years of Shea my position regarding the Mets' home was firm and clear: The memories of miracles on that green field and what it was like to watch them with friends and loved ones from the stands would forever be dear to me, but they had nothing to do with the architecture, which I would neither miss nor mourn. I was ready to move on. Eager to do so, in fact. But there was a bargain assumed in that point of view, one I figured was obvious and so never felt the need to spell out: The Mets' new home would celebrate the Mets' history, even if it hadn't unfolded in that exact spot.
And that's what's come to worry me more and more. From the Shea sale to the Citi Field renderings to the Mets' statements, sometimes I get the uneasy feeling that the Mets see nothing wrong with rewriting or even restarting their history, casting aside the jumble of lovable futility, unlovable futility, championships won by an underdog and an overdog, ignoble chokes and noble failures for a simpler narrative: Once there were Brooklyn Dodgers, we won two titles, isn't Citi Field great?
There has been no Met communique to that effect that I'm aware of. There is nothing whatsoever to say that is what will happen, beyond one Met fan's uneasy feelings shaped in part by winter paranoia. But after 33 years of close-up Met viewings, I refuse to discount these forebodings out of hand. And Citi Field needs to put them to rest if it wants to be not just a new place but our new place.
Everything doesn't have to be just so on Opening Day — like any new building, Citi Field will need some time to get the kinks out and find the right way to do things. But I can tell you, in broad outline, what that right way is. It's got to celebrate 1969 and 1973 and 1986 and 1988 and 1999 and 2000 and 2006, in as much detail as possible. It's got to honor what was done by Casey and Tom and Jerry and Gil and Krane and Tug and Rusty and Willie and Maz and Davey and Mookie and Doc and Nails and Straw and Mex and the Kid and Mike and Tank and Al and Johnny and Robin and Fonzie to appreciate what will be done by David and Jose and the Carloses and Johan. It's got to have a place for the eye to alight and remember that no, nobody in our colors will take this field wearing 14 or 37 or 41 or 42, and if you don't know why, ask the guy next to you. It's got to remind us that the Sign Man and Banner Day and Mr. Met in his various incarnations and the Bullpen Car and the K Corner and random aerialists and rushing the field are iconic images in these parts.
And ideally that would be the beginning, not the end. When Greg and I first started imagining a new Met home, we talked of Met statues by the various entrances, of trading Gates A, B, C, D and E for, say, Casey and Tom and Tug and Keith and Mike. I daydreamed of a concourse where the Holy Books became marble, with the name of every man to take the field for the Mets on a wall. The Mets don't have to do that. But whatever they do, it has to make Citi Field a place that does more than just provide a better view of the ballgame amid better amenities. It also has to let visitors soak up as much Met history as they can hold — from the forebears who wore blue and orange to the Continental League to the Polo Grounds to Shea. And then — and only then — to Citi.