“You like it?”
“Good, 'cause we live here now.”
—Danny Tripp and Matt Albie, Studio 60 pilot
The first song to come on my iPod on the 5:11 to Woodside was Carly Simon's “Anticipation”. It was a coincidence, I swear.
Anticipation. Not dread. Anticipation. I was excited when I left the house just before 5:00. I was excited in June of 2005 when the go-ahead was given for what would become Citi Field. I hid it well since its design was unveiled in April 2006 because I had dreamer's remorse, but I stayed, in my own way, authentically anticipant.
Second story of the week from that trip to Milwaukee two years ago. We took a bus to get around the city, which was fine, except for one leg of the journey for which I miscalculated the distance between the bus stop and our hotel. We got off in what would objectively be viewed as a not great part of town. We're walking around in our touristy state and feeling quite out of place. Maybe we were in absolutely no danger, maybe we weren't technically lost (Milwaukee's too efficient a city for that), but we definitely weren't where we needed to be. We weren't feeling too good about our predicament as the sun set and a way out seemed miles away.
Two thoughts crossed my mind as we walked and got no closer to our destination.
• If something happens to us, the cats are boarding at the vet — what will happen to them? My sister's the emergency contact and she freaks out when one of them does as much as arch his back.
• If something happens to us, I'll never get to see Citi Field.
Note that in my moment of panic, I didn't think “I'll never sit in my beloved Shea Stadium again,” but rather I worried that the pile of bricks rising next door would go up without me, that I would be cut down going from second to third before I could see what was going to be my team's new home. I'd seen Shea, by then, more than 300 times. Nobody had seen Citi Field.
(Oh, we hopped another bus and eventually made it back to our hotel, in case you were wondering.)
I waved the Shea banner high and proud and, ultimately, sadly because it deserved to be waved for all that its 45 seasons had given us and given me. But for all my precautionary kvetching and moaning, I never didn't want to see the Mets play baseball in Citi Field as long as that was where they were headed.
Yet when the moment arrived for me to see the Mets in Citi Field on April 3, 2009, I was almost too shocked to get that it was going on.
It was around 103rd Street, en route on the 7 from Woodside, that I got up to find a window at which to stare at the scene I knew was waiting: a clear shot at Citi Field. Absolutely nothing in the western foreground. Shea a pile of rubble, Citi up and at 'em. Me and another guy, a fellow traveler. We both stood and stared. We looked at each other. We agreed we didn't know what to say.
Next stop Mets/Willets Point, whatever that was.
Down those installed-in-2008 stairs and…boom. Shock. A plaza. And behind it, a stadium. I mean a park. I mean a field. Whatever. It was the new home of the Mets. That's what the ticket Jason gave me said. I never looked at the tickets I had before to see if they said Shea Stadium. I just assumed they did.
What the hell is this place? I know what it is, I watched it from its environmental impact study infancy all the way to nearly complete. I studied every picture that every baseball-fever obsessive took all winter. I even sat down and focused on Mike Francesa's YES simulcast Friday afternoon because it was live from here and it was the first extensive televised look I'd seen.
But what the hell was this place?
The bricks…my brick. Our brick, make that. Suzan and Mark gave me a brick certificate for the birthday that followed my making fun of the whole commemorative brick initiative. But there I was filling it out on behalf of Stephanie and myself, and in the mail, a few weeks ago, came word that I could find the finished product in Section 11, last batch on the upper tier of bricks. So I sought to meet my brick before introducing myself to my park.
I still haven't met my brick. It's out there somewhere, I'm sure. But forget about it. There's like 7,000 bricks per batch. They all seem to say LET'S GO METS, which is swell, except it's one large blur of team-first mentality, a whole lot of being true to the orange and blue in varying auburns and umbers. My sweet message about our first Shea date (METS 8, GIANTS 3 MAY 15, 1987) did not leap out. Maybe next time.
I'd read too many perspectives on Citi Field after the St. John's game. I'd examined too many photos. I knew too much going in. I sort of wish a tarp had been thrown over the whole thing and that it had been constructed in private. I knew too much, yet I knew I didn't know anything. A lethal cocktail.
Where do I go? Ticket says JRR, which has nothing to do with Jeff Reardon, Jerrod Riggan or Jason Roach, the only three Mets with the initials JR. No Met had a Rotunda built in his honor. Jackie Robinson's entryway was the first thing anybody told us about this place, back in '06. It indeed existed just as they said it would. It was right there for the inspiring but it was also backed up clear to (Jackie) Roosevelt (Robinson) Avenue with ticket holders. From all the reviews and pictures, I knew enough to bolt right.
The BULLPEN GATE beckoned. Gate BG, I suppose. I suppose not, actually*. The days of Gates with letters are over. Leave it behind, already yet. The Gates were the first elements of Citi Field to start winning me over this winter. On the LEFT FIELD gate, there was a silhouette of Endy Chavez leaping and catching. For the RIGHT FIELD gate, Rocky Swoboda, stretched out and catching. Two Silhouettes from the Shea. It gave me confidence that this wouldn't necessarily be Ebbets II, that the Jackie Robinson Rotunda and the Ebbets Club and that placeholder from the CGI featuring DUKE'S GRILL (though Snider was a Met, too) just combined for an opening salvo, something to talk about, like the inane chatter about seat cushion thickness they dealt us at the Citi Field Preview Center in Loge in 2007. The Mets would have Mets around, right?
Yes. Banners with faces in NY caps lined the walkway from the Rotunda to the Bullpen entrance. Not Giants, but not Dodgers either. Mets. Mets is all I wanted in this strange place. Mets is what I was beginning to get. It didn't seem possible that this was a Mets operation because they were doing something right after convincing me for the last few years they could do only wrong. They were honoring the Mets. It also didn't seem possible that there was no line at the Bullpen Gate and that they'd let me in without a hassle. (While I was calculating the odds that this would go smoothly, that I wouldn't be sent to the back of the Rotunda queue, some guy walked by and gave me a big “Faith and Fear! Keep up the good work!” So now I, too, was part of the Citi Field Experience.)
It was an operative gate, topped by a silhouette of probably Seaver, maybe Gooden, hard to discern inarguably. The security was quick, efficient and not offensive. In a moment, I was groped respectfully and directed up a brief flight of stairs and inside Citi Field.
Inside Citi Field.
I was in shock. Not awe, just shock. This is our ballpark? This, not Shea? This, not the Polo Grounds? This, not…I never pictured us anywhere else. I never saw the Mets in the Polo Grounds except on a plaque. I never saw the Mets play any home games anywhere but Shea. Which at the moment is rubble.
I was in shock.
I entered some concourse. I didn't know what it was leading me to. I glimpsed the field and the seats. I hoped to be blown away. I was blown away in Pittsburgh. I was blown away in Baltimore. I wanted to mutter to myself how great this was, how wrong I'd been for three years of nitpicking, that for all my odes to Shea and all my warnings against soulless corporate greed or whatever was bothering me for three years, I was wrong.
I wasn't blown away. I wasn't necessarily right that this was going to be missing something, but I couldn't tell yet. I was reminded, in a one-two punch of snap judgment, of Citizens Bank Park and Nationals Park. My very first glimpse of the new home of my Mets reminded me of two venues devoted to two rivals of my Mets. Fine parks both. Neither ever blew me away. And now we were the third in that line, already a game back in the parks department.
I forgot about impressions and comparisons and just sought bearings. Where the hell am I? Oh right, the Mets game. The Mets game isn't quite starting yet, and it doesn't count in the standings, so I don't have to rush to my seat. I can walk around. So I did.
Where, I didn't know. I mean, yeah, I could see the field from out there in the outfield. I could put together the bridge in front of me with the bridge I'd seen on my computer. I could read the signs for the places with the food. WORLD'S FARE. (Cute, but why no 1964 motif?) Peckish and curious, I went in.
Quesadillas! And my Daruma! I love quesadillas, so I bought one. My fondness for Daruma is well-documented. I didn't really need their sushi anymore in the new order because I had quesadillas, whereas at Shea, it was me and Daruma against the world: only food I truly enjoyed there, so naturally I was barred from it more often than not by “policy”. For old time's sake, I bought the tuna rolls from Daruma. To satisfy my curiosity, I bought the quesadilla.
“Do you take credit cards?” I had to ask before taking possession. Of course they did. This is Citi Field.
The quesadillas were overpriced (everything was overpriced) but the first thing I ever ate at Citi Field was heavenly. It didn't last long. I wouldn't last long without a cash machine. Citi Field has those, too.
I placed the pre-packaged sushi in my schlep bag for later partaking (if anything, Daruma's grown dandier) and took off on a 360-degree tour. Just walked and watched, watched and walked. Stopped to witness the first pitch by a Met in Citi Field history (though it didn't count) and the first at-bat by a Met in Citi Field history (ditto). Otherwise I wandered and I lingered and I remained in shock.
Where am I?
I had come into the park around Section 109 and my seats were in Section 109. These were exhibition-priced Field seats. They were, like the food, overpriced given that this didn't count, but Jason snapped them up, figuring they were a one-time-only opportunity to sit down here (even if the new Mets thing is to let us walk unfettered almost everywhere). I was surprised and delighted I could figure out how to find my seat immediately. I thought after a lifetime of nailing Mezzanine Section 7 and Upper Deck Section 23, that a new stadium/park/field would baffle me. It didn't. It was clearly marked.
I showed my ticket to a man at the top of the stairs of the section. He pointed me in the correct general direction. You mean no schmata preserved from George Weiss's private stash is going to follow me down the stairs to grunge up my seat in exchange for a dollar? You mean it? No ushers ushering! Hallefuckinglujah! This is a seat upgrade.
The playing was the thing for a bit. We watched some baseball while comparing notes and grasping what we were in the midst of. Where's the count? Is the out-of-town scoreboard functioning properly? Do you like the retired numbers looking as they did before? Where will the pennants hang? What's with the angles in the outfield? Why is the wall black? Who are those advertisers? What's that weird thing with the pizza boxes on the big screen? That would have been out of Shea.
Shea was never far from our thoughts. It's our only home park reference point to date, so it had to serve as straw man in every reflexive comparison. I don't mind telling you Citi Field was winning every informal battle by TKO. But this wasn't a competition and the scoring wasn't done viciously by either judge. Shea is now that mangy mutt who ate your shoes and left you a package you didn't order, but he's gone and now, for all his misdirected hijinks, you remember him honestly but fondly. A sub-theme of the evening emerged: Look how well this aspect of Citi Field works…remember how at Shea it didn't? It was inconvenient then. It's sort of sweet now that it's not bothering us.
I can't measure Shea the baseball pressure-cooker against whatever Citi will be when the heat is on in a big game because we have yet to see a big game here. Nothing counted Friday night except first impressions.
Among those impressions was they didn't lie about a couple of winning features. Big seats. Long leg room. You don't know how great that is until you've got it and recall how the mangy mutt you loved/tolerated bottled you up. I mentioned no ushers. I should also mention the nice young man who sold me my Diet Pepsi didn't take my cap away. And that a pretzel and a hot dog (because a quesadilla and a tuna roll weren't enough) were hot and fresh, not regrettable and maddening.
The rain delay was the highlight of this Mets-Red Sox exhibition game. It gave Jason and me an excuse to stroll everywhere. Except for not being permitted to drag our wet selves into the Excelsior Club (in our Shea-conditioned minds, Field Level seats trump everything and thus double as backstage passes; at Citi, they don't), we loved everything we encountered. Citi Field is arranged to function as a very sociable place. Access may be restricted by ticket price and shortened supply but the place itself, inside, is very accessible. You can pick a spot and stand and do, as Larry David calls it, a stop 'n' chat. You can gaze out at the Queens that surrounds you from all kinds of intriguing vantage points when you're away from your seat. Stare south at the Unisphere and remember why they call that thing in the outfield WORLD'S FARE. Project east toward downtown Flushing and believe you can reach out over Little Albania and touch the U-Haul sign. The skyline of Manhattan twinkles to the West. LaGuardia's fun to watch beneath the northern sky. I don't care for being cut off from a view of the outside world at my seat, but I love the way the world is there for the taking in once you get up and walk around.
I also loved the sense that we — the fans, the staff, the media, the players a little bit even — are all in this together. Nobody knows anything yet. I'm clueless, but so is everyone else. We're learning this thing as a group. It's kind of fun to feel in the same boat.
It's also fun to see the old Apple. I never quite melted at the thought of it in Shea as some others did, but welcome to Citi Field, you big lug.
I thought the rain delay would become a cancellation, but the game came back, so we returned to our seats in 109. We were joined by my friend Gary and his wife Aneta (ah, the magic of the text) and, with many having cleared out from the storm, we had even more leg room. Gary was overwhelmed with joy at what he deemed a “palace,” taking to the organ accompaniment in particular (we call Gary “Jane” in deference to his Jarvisian keyboard skills). As play resumed, it wasn't so much a shockingly strange new place where we couldn't figure out where they posted the radar readout. It was “this is really nice, hey another baserunner.” Not a lot of people, a little tack-on rally, some cheering from the faithful…holy crap, it felt like a Mets game. It felt like one of those nights at Shea where you could lean back and enjoy the companionship of those you were glad to come with and delighted to bump into. Except here you could actually lean back.
Somewhere between the bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the sixth and Frankie Rodriguez's triumphant final strikeout in the ninth, I found myself thinking, without even thinking about it, “I want to come back.”
I don't know that Citi Field is a particularly special pin on the ballpark map. It wasn't PNC or Camden. It doesn't have to be, I suppose. What it has to be is ours. It has to become ours, which will take a little time. Friday night shows me it has the potential to be a friendly place, a relaxed place, a place where we and the Mets fit in glove-like cohesion. How it acts with a fuller house and greater concentration and lots more drinking will help us understand what it means to be the home of the Mets from this moment on.
The prices are ridiculous. The prices were getting ridiculous at Shea for a long time. In 1977, M. Donald Grant justified the shunning of free agents to Sport magazine this way:
“The board discussed it and we thought it wasn't good for the fans. We don't think fans can afford it. if you continue to pay these prices, the fan is going to have to pay between $7 and $8 to get into the game.”
Somewhere Down There, the chairman of the board of Met Hell is having a good laugh. We sign free agents, we pay our players well, we tear down a stadium to replace it with a field and all $7 gets you is a little change for your frank. But at Citi Field, to a certain extent, you get what you pay for. The food is way better. The service is way better. The physical comfort is way better. The bathrooms, pending a mass run on beer, are way better.
Yet even as I couldn't see the world outside because of the way the park “envelops” you (Jeff Wilpon's phrase), I remembered on the train home there is a world out there and it's not doing so hot. Jason was a lower-case prince and treated me to my first game at Citi Field. That was $38 for a game that didn't count. I didn't keep track of my noshery bill, but the total spent was close to that figure (I don't plan to eat that well every trip in, but boy am I tempted). These are not throwaway figures in the course of an evening or a week or a season. What I am left to mourn of Shea Stadium is the way of life it represented before, during and, for a not inconsiderable period, after Don Grant. You could walk up and buy a pretty cheap ticket on no planning. You could buy four to bring your kiddies, bring your wife. It got more difficult as the years went by, but it was manageable. And you were guaranteed, in ways that counted, to have the time of your life.
In Citi Field, upstairs is filling in fast and first. When those cheapish seats are snapped up, your options ascend financially like one of those old World's Fair rockets. What was $38 in short right Friday night for an exhibition will be $75 for the proverbial weeknight against the Marlins by the end of this month. And that's the Value date. A Friday night against the Brewers in between? That's Gold, baby — Gold. That's sixty bucks in left field reserved. Per person. Never mind all your fancy sections that are beyond the means of most of us. That's absurd, and not in that Marvelous Marv Met sense of the word.
I didn't want to think about how much things cost at my first-ever game at Citi Field or how much they'll cost for the one after that and the one after that. But it costs a lot. Shea has Citi beat on that, even if all you paid for was baseball, crappy food and snarling personnel (or was it snarling food and crappy personnel?). The market will dictate whether these prices will hold, whether every Mets fan who wants to will or can go, whether they have to skip the quesadilla or whatever so they can handle the $18 parking. I hope something can be arranged and that those wide seats with loads of leg room don't go unoccupied. They deserve to have asses in them and legs unfurl from them, respectively.
It's a good park. It's a fine park. It's not a great park on first contact, but first contact is just that. It has running room. We will see how we interact with it, whether we spend so much time meeting and greeting and eating that we don't focus on the field and yell as we always did at Shea. But we're Mets fans. We'll figure it out.
Citi Field is a nice place to visit, which is good. 'Cause we live there now.
*Actually, no. I realized Sunday I entered through the RIGHT FIELD gate on Friday. Boy was I disoriented.
Thanks go out to Matt Silverman, the latest in an encouragingly long line of blolleagues to file an enthusiastic review of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets. And he knows from Mets books. You can order FAFIF: AIPHOTNYM from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or find it at a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.