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The first thing that I saw at Citi Field and the first thing that happened to me at Citi Field had something in common: They were nice surprises. Neither is a guarantee of anything, but they made for a heartening start.
Joshua and I landed at La Guardia around 11:30, and had made plans to meet Emily at noon in front of the rotunda, which was logical enough given that it's the only Citi Field landmark any of us know. The dispatcher looked at me blankly when I said Citi Field. So did the cabbie. If nothing else, Shea Stadium will live on in the navigational lexicon of New Yorkers for some time. To spare the cabbie a potentially hellish odyssey, I told him to let me and Joshua out where the left-field corner borders whatever road it is that used to serve as the boundary between the parking lot and the chop shops. (We'll learn.) We stepped out of the cab and right in front of us were sepia banners affixed to the side of the new stadium. And there, friezelike, were Tom Seaver, Tug McGraw, Rusty Staub, Keith Hernandez, Jesse Orosco, Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Mike Piazza and John Franco — along with Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, David Wright, Johan Santana and room for some more. Below them, crowning the left-field gate, was a silhouette instantly recognizable as Endy Chavez leaping above the fence. The right-field gate has Ron Swoboda in full dive, making for nice bookends. Oh, and from the sublimely reassuring to the ridiculously reassuring: The looped message that plays outside Citi Field still inveighs against “the irresponsible action of a misbehaving few.” (I think an 's' got dropped somewhere, but that's OK.)
Veteran readers of this blog will know Greg and I were of different minds about the passing of Shea and the arrival of Citi Field. But we agreed that we saw worrisome signs of an organization inclined to downplay, sell or erase its history in moving into Citi — our fear was that the park would evoke Ebbets Field but skip over Shea, as if a shabby park somehow invalidated the scintillating memories that were made in its blameless confines. As we'll see, things aren't as they should be in that department just yet, but the Mets' first steps are absolutely in the right direction. Getting a first sign of that while I still had one foot in a cab did a lot to set my mind at ease.
Joshua and I decided we wouldn't go in just yet, so we could all share first impressions with Emily, arriving via the 7 train. So we started to walk down the left-field facade to the rotunda. I got within about 10 feet of the first bag checkpoint, staffed by Citi Field security guys in maroon jackets and Met caps, and heard something that made me do a double-take: “Welcome to Citi Field — thanks for coming out, and hope you enjoy the game.”
Not “that bag is an inch too big, so take it back to your nonexistent car or hide it in a bush.” Not “BAGS OUT!” Not the vacuum created by surly silence. It was a greeting (I paraphrased a bit, as I was shocked), one that sounded genuine. And it wasn't just one guy — everywhere we went in Citi Field, we were treated invariably courteously and often warmly. That was another thing Greg and I had worried about in the interim — that better-angled seats and new amenities would be undermined by transplanting the same surly, inept vendors and ushers and counter people who too often made Shea a lousy experience to the new park. So far, the indications on that score are all very, very positive. There are old faces (and to be fair, some of the Shea staffers were welcome exceptions to an ugly rule), but the attitudes seem very new. It's a completely different experience.
Part of the fun of the St. John's-Georgetown exhibition was seeing 20,000 or so Met fans (the mist/cold/rain seemed like it cut down the crowd considerably) collectively wandering around with craned necks, learning their new home and trying stuff out. (Greetings to Dana Brand and Zoe Rice, online friends finally met in the flesh.) Conditioned by Madison Square Park, Emily and Joshua and I marched immediately to Shake Shack, whose trademark letters rise just below the old skyline that crowned Shea's scoreboard. Those sights together were enough to make me want to jump up and down, and it got better from there. The lines at the Shack were shorter than your average queue for a helping of Congealed Whatever at Shea (“We don't got no more Congealed Whatevah — NEXT!”), the prices were reasonable, and the quality of the Shackburger was indistinguishable from Madison Square Park. OK, the staff didn't have any idea what to do with customers waiting for their orders, which needs to be fixed but falls under the heading of First Day Forgiveable given everything else. I was too busy wolfing down Shackburgers with obscene glee to try the other Danny Meyer offerings, but I'll put that right soon enough. Another welcome sign in the left-field eateries area — staffers emptying trash cans so stuff wasn't overflowing everywhere.
Our seats were in the Promenade level; temporarily sated, I looked down at our tickets and realized I had not the faintest idea how to get there. And what's Promenade level, anyway? That was definitely a strange experience, being utterly lost in one's home park. (The backstairs are the way to travel. And, I suspect, the place people will congregate to smoke. Which would be against the new rules but basically harmless.) Once we got there, we found that the Promenade is the equivalent of the upper deck at Shea, and we were seated under the out-of-town scoreboard down the left-field line. The good news about Citi Field's seats is they're wider, have more legroom, are properly angled to the field of play and much closer to the action. Heck, that all adds up to great news. Basically, take the equivalent level of Shea, subtract one and move about a third forward and you'll have an idea of what kind of view you'll get: Our seats were far down the left-field line, a few rows from the top of the stadium, and they felt like we were in the same spot at Shea but about a third of the way up the mezzanine with a good angle. The bad news? The park's dimensions and overhanging decks suggest to me that there are a fair amount more seats where you'll lose an outfield corner and part of center.
There are many more places to eat — with lines that looked shorter everywhere, I suspect because the infrastructure is much better. There are many more bathrooms, with the whir of automatic towel dispensers replacing the roar of geysering toilets, and no recruiting pitch from the Dallas Police Department just yet. (The ovoid urinals struck me as a bit more Barcelona disco than New York ballpark, but so long as they work….) The left-field and right-field bleacher areas are connected by bridgework that doesn't particularly evoke any New York City landmark (though I'm sure the Mets will claim it's channeling something) but serves surprisingly well to tie those areas together. Generally speaking, the pathways for circulating around the stadium almost invariably take you behind people's seats instead of in front of them, which should cut down on screams of “DOWN IN FRONT!” And unlike Shea, Citi Field has a lot of unique geography — there's a food-court area high behind home plate that will become popular, the rotunda, the overview of the bullpens, the bridges that link the bleacher areas and the main stadium, and a lot of other nooks and quirks that we'll need to learn but I think will come to like, with fans sharing navigational tips and favorite hangouts in ways that weren't possible at Shea. Oh, and the home-run apple is gigantic and has its own lair in center — a Georgetown player hit one out, and the Hoyas were nominally the home team, but we couldn't see if it rose. (Update: It didn't.) Happily, Shea's apple is still there too — it's been saved and is down by the bullpens, where it attracted a long line of folks waiting to have their pictures snapped with it.
Another difference is more subtle: Shea was surrounded by an ocean of parking, and so felt like a suburban park. The back of Citi Field overlooks the maze of Willets Point chop shops, which will lead to thousands of jokes but definitely feels different: At least at that end, Citi Field feels like an urban park. It would be easy to make too much of this: The view is more Albania than Wrigleyville, and between eminent domain, ground pollution and the lack of infrastructure out there it'll be the view for a long, long time. But it's a bigger change than you might think.
Those are scattershot impressions from a single, very odd day with a small crowd and no actual big-leaguers on the field. (The plink of aluminum bats was borderline sacrilege.) I'm going to be lost for a while (what's Empire level, anyway?), and to really start getting to know Citi Field I'm going to need to see it after a Met comeback that leaves the faithful bellowing LET'S GO METS! as we march triumphantly out. And I'm going to need to sit it during some hot-as-hell night when the boys are down 10-2 in the third and the relievers have applied to enter the Witness Protection Program. I'm going to need to see it during close plays and managerial rhubarbs and slow-building rallies and tense extra innings and torpid middle ones. I'm going to need to see National Anthem singers and throwers of first pitches and giveaway days and ceremonies. I'm going to need to build up a backlog of Citi Field knowledge the way I did at Shea, in other words.
Oh, and of course there are things that need to be put right:
* The rotunda is not what it should be. It looks impressive from the outside and does make for a very nice introduction to the stadium. But inside it still looks a long way away from completion — you come in, look up at the ceiling and see not a soaring dome, but a crazy quilt of ductwork and pipes. (To be fair — Citi Field is, in fact, not actually finished. For example, the outfield walls are missing not only retired numbers but also distance markers.) A bigger problem is that the big number 42 detracts from the very nice salute to Jackie Robinson — at least for me, it's unfortunately more evocative of “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” than of a ferociously brave ballplayer and human being. I think an actual statue would work much better than a big number.
* The interior hallways are pretty bare. I'm sure this is temporary, but I hope, expect and will soon demand that we get many more banners and posters and nods to Met history to serve as not only reminders but also as landmarks. I hope all those banners at Shea are replicated somehow, and other bits of Met history are unearthed and shared. Again, early indications are very good — there's the scoreboard crown, the sepia banners, the silhouettes of players, and the old apple having not just been saved but presented so you can actually touch it. Much more of this please — for example, inscribe a concourse wall with the name of every Met to wear the uniform. (I'll make an Al Schmelz rubbing just to say I did.) Give us busts for the members of the Met Hall of Fame. Do anything and everything you can think of. Steep and soak the place in Met history.
* The A/V services aren't in place, so Citi Field gets an incomplete there. I hope the radio feed is piped into the bathrooms, and the concourses and concession stands have TVs so you don't miss anything. Again, the early indications are good: There were HDTVs in the right-field seats, and what looked like mountings for many more. And the area around Shake Shack and the kids' wiffle-ball field (another nice touch) has a mini-scoreboard and DiamondVision so parents can keep following the game while keeping a promise to Junior.
* The Danny Meyer area doesn't have anywhere to stop and eat — we kept looking for chest-high counters or somewhere to set down our burgers. This may be intentional, in order to get you back to your seats, and there are tables a bit farther along. But the natural inclination is to stop there, and there's nowhere to do it — so at the very least, fans will have a learning curve figuring out where to go. The food area above and behind home plate (I don't know the name of anything yet) has lots of picnic-style benches, and works a lot better.
* OK, this is ridiculously petty, but it annoyed me: The shade of blue in the bathrooms is closer to the Chicago Bears than to the New York Mets. I know Met blue has wandered around the Pantone scale since 1962, but it should match the team logo. (Oh, like you didn't guess I'd scrutinize the blue in the pissoir.)
I'm sure I'll nitpick more. But I don't want nitpicking to obscure the main point, and that's that my first impressions from a whirlwind tour were that Citi Field delivers: much better views of the game, much better food options, many more concessions and bathrooms, and customer service that feels night-and-day different than Shea's. (None of that is necessarily Shea's fault, but what else are you going to compare the new place to?) And the ballpark doesn't feel generic, which was something else I'd feared — the rotunda, despite its faults/growing pains, feels unique, as does the bridgework in the bleacher areas, the light stands and many other things. You want to explore not just to figure out where to go, but because you actually find interesting places if you do. That's nice.
And hey, Citi Field has Shake Shack and will soon have the Mets. Those are pretty big advantages too.
You'll also have a big advantage if you pick up Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets. And don't forget that this Thursday, Greg will be reading from his book at Varsity Letters on the LES. I even get to introduce him! You can get copies of FAFIF: AIHPOTNYM there, or come prepared with your own by visiting Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or a bookstore near you. To keep up on discussion and events related to FAFIF: AIPHOTNYM, join us at Facebook.