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The First Year of Citi

Not far from here, Citi Field sits empty, as we’ve known it would for months now. The team that calls it home had the kind of year that makes you want to sleep with the light on. The people who run the baseball operations had a worse one.

Given that, it’s a bit complicated answering what should be a simple question: How was Citi Field’s first year?

For example, we don’t really know what Citi Field feels like with a huge, revved-up crowd making noise inside it. The Mets’ early-season games were marked by the usual spring chill and a certain forgivable inattention as the faithful wandered around and figured out the new park. (I can’t go behind home plate on the, um, Excelsior level? What gives?) That was followed by a strangely cold June, and by the time full summer arrived it was obvious the 2009 club was going nowhere.

We can all remember nights when Shea’s decrepitude was transcended by the enormous, exultant noise of a big, baying crowd, but Citi Field never got one of those, so how can you compare them? Any discussion of the park runs into a similar problem: 2009 was a frustrating, infuriating and embittering year, and the sourness of that will cling to Citi until it's washed away by better days.

But l’ll try anyway — with a few admissions up-front. As longtime readers know, I was never a fan of Shea, which I generally described as a DMV with a baseball game in the middle of it. I have lots of great memories of baseball games I saw there and friends and loved ones I saw those games with. But those are memories of people and events, not of a building. I shed no tears for Shea’s passing and I have not missed it.

From the beginning, some of the things that bothered other people at Citi Field didn’t bother me. I quickly warmed to the Jackie Robinson rotunda (though it’s far more useful as an exit than an entrance), and I never begrudged the Wilpons making the front half of the ballpark into a handsome replica of Ebbets Field. Imagine the Mets had decamped for Sacramento when Shea was torn down, and generations later you found yourself owning the expansion team that replaced them, with a new stadium to build. You’d want to right a historical wrong, too. I don’t mind the green seats and the black walls — there’s no reason for a park’s colors to echo that of the team, and Shea’s variegated seats always struck me as borrowed from the palette of a 70s panel van anyway. Security guards wearing maroon? Not the greatest idea, but they can wear panda costumes for all I care.

For a while it was strange watching a game without people circulating in front of me, as they did in Shea’s aisles. But I soon found myself grateful to be able to watch the game without having to stand and peer irritably around lost tourists or bark “Down in front!” at some moron who’d gone into a coma after coming out of the tunnel. For every Cow-Bell Man or bearer of an amusing/inspiring banner, Shea stuck you with a gang of wandering mooks in sideways Yankee hats, accompanied by dimwitted girls leaking gum-flavored drool into their Sidekicks. I’m glad they’re now up in the concourse instead of down between me and the game.

While Shea was literally two-thirds of a concrete donut, Citi Field has architectural surprises, from the center-field bridge to the funny walkway that leads to the Pepsi Porch to the picnic area atop the rotunda, with its baseball set in the floor. I immediately liked the light towers, with their simultaneously industrial and vaguely organic feel, and the gates down the lines and at the bullpen, marked with iconic silhouettes.

And the park is friendlier to foot traffic, without having that traffic interfere with the sightlines. I’ve rarely been to Citi Field without running into people I know out by the bridge or in the left-field food court, and I love that. The crowd naturally flows through the field-level concourse as game time approaches, and it feels right to stop on the bridge or among the food tables, under the early-evening sky, and chat about the game before moving on to the business of 7:10 or 1:10 or 4:05. Shea’s dank tunnels were no place to stop, unless you liked being serenaded by towel-hawking MasterCard touts.

The food? There's no debate there. Alas, no skirt steak, elote and Sabrosa for me until April.

Finally, there are the seats themselves. There are shamefully bad seats at Citi, about which more in a moment. But when I was able to stay out of those, I was happy. After my first couple of games I told someone that the seats felt like moving down a level and forward by a third compared with their Shea equivalents, and I think that was fairly accurate. They’re angled properly for baseball, they're bigger, and they have cupholders and more legroom, all of which make me happy. It wasn’t until late May that I got out of the habit of sitting Shea style: feet tucked firmly under the chair, shoulders forward to avoid contact with knees or fumbled beers behind you. As for there being fewer seats, maybe I’m just getting old and undemocratic, but this never bothered me either. Shea generally had 15,000 or so empty seats on a given night.

I thought all of that was a great foundation, one the Mets could have built on rather nicely.

Unfortunately, they didn’t. Instead, they undermined their own efforts by making the kind of dopey, tone-deaf mistakes the Mets seem to always make. In doing so, they damaged relationships with a lot of loyal fans who missed Shea and were nervous about what would replace it.

First off, the seats. Yes, they were mostly better. Much better. But the ones that were worse were mind-bogglingly worse. For our first visit to Citi Field, Emily and Joshua and I sat in the Promenade, far down the left-field line. Emily and I settled into our seats for St. John’s and Georgetown and grinned at each other and reminded Joshua to eat his hot dog and compared notes, and we were so busy doing all that that it took me a while to notice something.

I couldn’t see the left fielder.

Nor could I see the center fielder.

What the hell?

Yes, there were seats down the lines at Shea where you lost a corner, and I called the back of the loge the U-boat seats because you lost the top half of the arc of fly balls and had to peer at the field through a slot. But this wasn’t Shea — this was a brand-new, extremely expensive, state-of-the-art baseball-only park that had been relentlessly marketed as everything Shea wasn’t. And I couldn’t see two of the outfielders.

On the FAN, Dave Howard split hairs about obstructed views vs. sightlines. He invoked park geometry, blustering that this was the price to pay for the greater intimacy of the modern parks. Really? In the last 13 months I’ve been to Coors Field and Petco Park and Nationals Stadium and walked around all of them. The only geometrically-challenged seats I found were in one Petco section behind the warehouse around which they built the park — and those were clearly marked when buying tickets. The Mets opened Citi Field with whole swathes of seats like mine. Moreover, balls down the line disappear from view even if you’re in the really expensive seats. Gary, Keith and Ron lose sight of balls in the corners, for God’s sake.

As always with the Mets, it’s impossible to figure out who screwed up. Did someone not vet Populous’s work? Overrule the architects? Ignore their counsel? We’ll probably never know. But someone definitely screwed up — that aspect of the design was negligent and incompetent. It got put right, sort of, with the mid-summer installation of a video board down the right-field line. But that was a kludge for a problem that never should have existed in the first place — the stadium-design equivalent of There I Fixed It [1]. Those seats should be cheap in 2010, and purchasers should be told what they’re getting.

Then there was the other big problem.

In the final days of Shea, Greg and I had a polite but impassioned argument about the selling of everything in the park that wasn’t nailed down and most everything that was. He wanted to know why there was no place for the banners of Tank and Rusty and Franco at Citi Field; I wanted to know what the big deal was. OK, those particular banners wouldn’t be in the new place. But surely there would be other banners, right?

Wrong. Citi Field opened with the silhouettes on the gates, a new apple, a couple of welcome holdovers from Shea, a sepia collage of famous Mets down the left-field line and some sepia banners outside the building. But that wasn’t nearly enough. Contrast that with the soon-to-open Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins, as toured by Ken Davidoff [2]. Its entrance gates will bear the teams’ retired numbers. There are beautiful atriums named after Kirby Puckett and Rod Carew and bearing artwork of them. A 573 bar for Harmon Killebrew. Announcers’ famous calls engraved in stone. That's what the inside of Citi Field should have been like. Instead, its features were either anonymous or evoked Dodger history.

There’s nothing at all wrong with honoring Jackie Robinson or evoking Ebbets Field — I think both those things are great, in fact. (And they’d be even better if from there you were led to an exhibit dedicated to National League baseball in New York, one that acknowledged the Giants and put the Mets in their full context.) But honoring the Dodgers and Giants should have been prologue to celebrating the Mets. If that had happened, few fans would have griped or made jokes about Fred Wilpon’s favorite team. But it didn’t happen. Jeff Wilpon has called the anger about the lack of Mets stuff a fair criticism, and the Mets belatedly tried to put things right with more team imagery. Good. But as with the Promenade seats, it’s disturbing that the team got something so basic so wrong.

Moreover, it’s not clear to me that the Mets understand what’s broken. It’s not just the lack of Mets stuff but the way it’s presented. The Mets went too far in delivering the Anti-Shea, making everything blend in an overzealous effort to class the joint up. That’s fine when you’re talking brick and green seats and black walls (heck, I wish they’d rejected the horrible scoreboard ads on aesthetic grounds), but it’s not right for Mets iconography. Tug McGraw and Lenny Dykstra and Turk Wendell didn’t blend, and we loved them for it. Sepia works for the rotunda, and it works for Ken Burns, but banish it elsewhere. We want our Mets in Technicolor.

And we want a lot more of them. We want a Hall of Fame, of course, but don’t stop there. The interior of Citi Field should be full of Mets stuff. It should be a scavenger hunt of Mets stuff. Give us a wall of honor carved with the name of every player to wear the blue and orange. (I’ll make rubbings of Mike Phillips, Rusty Staub, Edgardo Alfonzo and David Wright. And Al Schmelz.) Tear down the sepia and put up full-color photos. (They can still have a Nikon symbol. Don't care about that.) Put up Shea-style banners in the weirdly barren stairwells. Line the concourse with yearbook covers, biographies of players great, good and merely beloved, and graphics about the Mets’ changing uniforms, past homes and origins. Name the park’s features to honor our heroes — calling the picnic area the Piazza, for instance, is funny and appropriate. (And what the hell's Excelsior, anyway?) Buy back Tom Seaver’s locker and encase it in Plexiglass as a devotional point where fans will gather before big games. Reward exploration and keen eyes. Surprise us.

Citi Field began with two pretty big mistakes that should have been avoided, and that was unfortunate. But they’re fixable, and the Mets have already made some progress. If they finish fixing them, I think Citi Field will be discussed for the many things that were done right, and before we know it the park will be three or four years old and the initial missteps will have faded. What we’ll have then, I believe, is a wonderful park — one where friends meet on the bridge or in line at Shake Shack, then head for their seats past a parade of reminders of the Mets and their rich (if star-crossed) history. Citi Field is the Mets’ home, and ours. With a little work, it can be a happy one for decades to come.