Ebbets Field was always in reach. There were obstacles — money, the policeman’s shoe, a leap, the greasy garageman — but a boy could contend with them and triumph, if he had wit and persistence and a touch of courage. It was easy and absolutely irrational to relate getting to see a Dodger game with getting to be a Dodger. Which, in the fine irrationality of boyhood, is what generations of Brooklyn children did.
—Roger Kahn, The Boys Of Summer
Why is Mets security being wasted on the Mets? Why isn’t it being dedicated toward the national interest?
Take that pesky couple that crashed the state dinner a few weeks ago. They got by the United States Secret Service. They got by the staff of the White House Social Secretary. But Tareqe and Michaele Salahi would have been stopped stone cold outside Citi Field. Or at least they would have been effectively delayed.
My proof? The last time I visited Citi Field, November 14, for a social event at least on par with that which President Obama threw for Indian Prime Minister Singh — the Bar Mitzvah of budding Mets superfan Ryder Chasin. As previously noted, it was a lovely affair…once it got going. That is to say the celebration was slated to begin at 1:30. Most people would be arriving via chartered bus from Connecticut where the actual synagogue service was held in the morning. Stephanie and I, however, were only able to attend the afternoon portion of the de facto doubleheader. We came, as we always do, via train, from Long Island, arriving unfashionably early, a little after one. It was a raw, gray Saturday, so we looked forward to going inside and warming up.
The invitation (which looked like a big ticket to a Mets game) said we should enter through the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. I wasn’t sure if this was just a charming affectation or actual instructions. It’s not that I doubted the Chasins. I doubted the Mets. Is it possible they’d actually a) have someone on duty in the middle of November in front of their own ballpark? b) have someone duty in the middle of November in front of their own ballpark who was sentient of an event about to take place therein?
Yes and yes, it turned out. So much for doubting the Mets. There was a young man in a red windbreaker stationed by the Rotunda. Hi, we said, we’re here for the Bar Mitzvah. I waited for the blank stare, but it didn’t come. He knew what we were talking about. He also knew the starting time was 1:30 and it, somebody must have told him, was inviolate.
“You can come in at 1:30,” he said, looking at his mobile device. “It’s…1:03 right now. You have 27 minutes.”
So much for not doubting the Mets.
There was a pause as we digested the notion that we were not allowed inside to an affair to which we were invited guests because we were early. We were not allowed inside on a blustery day when it had been raining. We were not allowed inside even though we were, on this particular occasion, a well-dressed couple about as not on the make as two people can be. We were not the Salahis before the world discovered the Salahis. We were not bucking for a reality show scam while conceivably putting the federal government at risk.
We were there a little early for a thing — not a 7:10 First Pitch with a 4:40 Gates Open, mind you, but a private party — and we were kept out.
“Is there a restroom we could use?” I asked, as if to appeal to the man’s sense of common decency (and because we could both use a trip to the restroom).
“Only the Porta Potties,” we were told, as if we had been excessively tailgating.
You’ve got a whole building of them right behind you, I was tempted to say, but held off, as we held it in.
It was clear as the sky was murky that this was the Mets way in all seasons. Policy rules all. Orders must be followed. Flexibility is on permanent hiatus. Not, “Let me use this walkie-talkie and check with my supervisor” or “Everything isn’t technically ready yet, but I don’t see why not” or “Sure, go ahead.”
The Mets, in the person of this guy in the red jacket, adhered to their clipboard. The clipboard said 1:30. Damned if they were gonna let anybody scam them out of what it said on that clipboard.
This is an organization wedded to its clipboard logic.
I grant you ours was not a situation that will affect millions of Mets fans when baseball is played again at Citi Field. It was just us at that moment. Just two people who had a reason to be there and got there less than half an hour before the proceedings commenced. They could have pointed us to another entrance; or noted the Acela Club won’t officially be open for this party for another 27 minutes so you can use the bathroom there but you can’t eat or drink yet; or said you can wait in the Rotunda considering it’s rather chilly out here, just don’t break anything.
Instead the Met way was to tell us to cool our heels and buzz off ’til the exact appointed moment of entry. Our choices were to huddle in the doorway in proximity to this guy and whichever of his red-jacketed compatriots were on the beat, or wander around the perimeter of Citi Field for 27 minutes before we could walk in like people.
So we wandered, which, weather and bladder issues aside, was not an altogether displeasing alternative to getting out of the cold and using a restroom. It would give me a chance to commune, one final time in 2009, with the place that had become, stretching back to April 3, my recurring bane, my destination of choice and the focus of the most puzzling question of my current baseball life:
Why can’t I bring myself to out and out like this place?
A Fonzie’s dozen of the many thoughts that floated across my mind during Citi Field’s first year:
1) If the Mets really want to be inspired by the lessons of Jackie Robinson, they’d learn to slide directly into home plate.
2) Daniel Murphy should not have been permitted to play left field in such close proximity to the Endy Chavez silhouette intended to define LEFT FIELD.
3) The ads behind the scoreboard look terrible, but they blend in quite nicely with the VINA AUT GLASS motif from across the way.
4) Visiting my brick and routinely recognizing the bricks that surround it reminds me of going to see my mother at Pinelawn and becoming familiar with the final resting places of others who just happened to be entombed in the same courtyard.
5) The seats had the leg room that was promised, but most of them outside the special Swells sections were noticeably hard on the butt. And to think the one item they emphasized at the Citi Field Preview Center was how great the seats themselves would be.
6) Overhearing former Shea planholders rue their resettlement into outer reaches of the Promenade was like something from an immigrant drama. “In the Old Country, I was in Row A!”
7) I wondered why there was a plethora of attendants overseeing the Fixin’s bars. Then I attempted to pump the ketchup or the mustard and realized it was not a one-person job.
8) Caesars Club smells like a high-end shoe store.
9) Before I realized ’47 was a brand name, I didn’t understand why the ’47 store wasn’t called the ’62 store — or why the Mets would allow any retail that even fleetingly evoked T#m Gl@v!ne.
10) Whatever happened to taunting the opposing pitcher? “Shush! Ian Snell is trying to pitch and he needs absolute silence!” And sustaining a respectable “Let’s Go Mets!” was like pulling teeth. Or pulling pork.
11) The acoustics are weird. I wind up listening in on individual conversations I want no part of, yet I detect no buzz whatsoever.
12) If you’re not a stickler for watching baseball, Citi Field’s a dandy destination.
13) All ballparks lose their charm when the Mets suck in them.
The Bar Mitzvah, besides the fun and joy it held in store once we were let in, provided me a unique opportunity. This was my 40th trip to Citi Field in 2009. There were 36 regulation games, one exhibition game, one open workout and one corporate-sponsored event connected to my work. Now a Bar Mitzvah. It wasn’t like Citi Field wasn’t giving me plenty of chances to get to know it. Yet I still feel like we’re strangers.
You might say I prepared specially for this 40th meeting. Four days earlier was Stephanie’s and my 18th wedding anniversary. Because she’s somebody I’d marry at every possible turn, she found my suggestion of how we could spend part of that day not just acceptable, but embraceable. We accepted a gracious invitation from the premier New York City historian Peter Laskowich to take one of his handcrafted tours. A month earlier we had joined him for the weekly walk and talk he gives in and around Grand Central Terminal; in June I was up and uncharacteristically at ’em on a Saturday morning as he led a group uptown, from Madison Square Park to Coogan’s Bluff. The latter was the one that ended overlooking the site of the Polo Grounds, which is my idea of a happy ending.
Our November 10 terrain was different. It wasn’t Manhattan. It was Brooklyn. Its underpinning wasn’t Giant black and orange. It was Dodger blue and white.
It was the other side of my heritage.
When I was a kid, my parents liked to joke they were a mixed marriage. Sure they were both Jewish, but one was a Litvak and the other was a Galitzianer. They each laughed. I never got it. Only recently did I bother to look into it. Litvak refers to Jews with roots in Lithuania, Russia and northern Poland. Galitzianer indicates Jews from southern Poland and the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The distinctions — theological, temperamental, culinary — are lost in the America of the 21st century, but apparently they were big a deal in Europe.
The Litvaks. The Galitzianers. Sooner or later, the rivalry melts and you’re part of an assimilated team playing together on common ground.
And then there’s us, the Metropolitan-Americans of today, more than a half-century removed from our roots. We are not Giants. We are not Dodgers. We are Mets. We are the repository of a melding of two great spiritual traditions. On April 11, 1962, as Richie Ashburn waited on the first pitch a Met would ever see, it was clear cut which of our bloodlines stemmed from where. It hadn’t been five years since there were New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. The New Breed knew precisely from whom they were birthed. They were the product of a very mixed marriage that we who postdate 1957 couldn’t possibly fully appreciate as we approach 2010.
I’ve always tried to appreciate it though. I’ve always veered toward the black and orange myself. The New York Giants are the lost tribe in whom I’ve found my baseball background. I’ve been reading about them since I was nine years old, when the last active member of the tribe, Willie Mays, was becoming a New York Met. I’ve been hooked on the myths, the legends and the realities of what was New York (N.L.) before the current iteration took hold. I’m a New York Mets fan in my heart, a New York Giants fan in my soul is the shorthand I use.
So I’m not a retroactive Brooklyn Dodgers fan, exactly, but they have to be in there somewhere.
They have to be, even if they were the sworn enemy of the New York Giants. Litvaks and Galitzianers didn’t like each other as a rule, either, yet the progeny of Litvaks and Galitzianers married and, after a while, the labels amounted to little more than nostalgic wink.
They have to be, even if they aren’t a lost tribe. They never got lost. The less you heard about the old Giants, the more you kept hearing about the old Dodgers, who didn’t win as many pennants but long ago clinched first place in the romance column.
They have to be, even if the practiced exclusion of the Giants from the Mets’ backstory, culminating in the building of a Mets stadium that serves as homage to the Dodgers’ old ballpark without the slightest explicit nod to the Giant’s old ballpark — which happened, oh by the way, to be the Mets’ first home — is one of the things I held most vehemently against Citi Field in its first year, almost as much as red-jacketed security men who were in love with their clipboards and their inflexibility.
The Dodgers are in there somewhere with me. They have to be. They’re the D in the Met DNA. They’re from Brooklyn, just like me (though I was from there for about ten minutes before settling in my Long Island homeland). They’re the blue. It’s not a matter of black and orange versus blue and white anymore. It’s all about the blue and orange. I’ve read my share on the blue. Now it was time, under the guidance of Peter Laskowich, to experience it as best as I could up close.
On November 10, four days before my return to Citi Field, I was going to bone up with a trip to where Ebbets Field used to be. I wanted to sense what Ebbets Field was so maybe I could appreciate a little better what Citi Field is.
One thing you need to know about a Peter Laskowich tour: it’s never limited to what you think it will be. Grand Central was everything from geometry to psychology. Baseball in Manhattan was economy, demography, topography and destiny. Baseball in Brooklyn? It was America. It was an education and it was a little improv street theater, too, when Peter, outside the old Dodger offices on Montague, eased up on his erudition for a moment to tell a buttinski Yankees fan passerby (the kind who points at his cap as if that settles all arguments) where to get off when he started insisting, uninvited, that Yogi Berra tagged Jackie Robinson on Jackie’s steal of home in the ’55 Series.
Peter carries the pictures to prove otherwise.
Plenty of baseball, of course. This is not intellectual mumbo-jumbo smothering the reason you came, don’t worry. Peter gets to the baseball. He surrounds it with context, he leads you down one relevant path after another, he tells you to get out your Metrocard and, next thing you know, you’re where it happened.
You’re at Ebbets Field. Well, where Ebbets Field was. As with my two visits to the Polo Grounds, you just as soon use the present tense and forget that what you came to see isn’t really there anymore.
Approaching Ebbets was a third of the fun. We exited the 2 at Sterling Street and walked a block in what Peter ascertained was the wrong direction. An older man passed our hardy little band.
“Where’s Ebbets Field?” Peter asked him.
“Over there,” the man pointed.
That’s experience at work, I thought. The old guy knew Ebbets Field was there, even if it wasn’t.
It was a bit of a hike from the Sterling stop, even after we got reoriented. That was intentional, Peter explained. The Giants had ingratiated themselves with the city’s powers that be by the early 20th century, so much so that they could influence the placement of public transportation close to or far away from ballparks. It was no accident that the Polo Grounds was easily accessible (it had its own express line) and that Ebbets Field was a schlep from anywhere but the neighborhood. The Giants were New York. The Dodgers were Brooklyn, and Brooklyn was only reluctantly a part of New York.
What mattered, though, was the neighborhood. The neighborhood may have been a whole lot different from Charlie Ebbets’ time. It may have been a whole lot different from the time Walter O’Malley kissed it goodbye. But it was still the neighborhood and Ebbets Field was in the middle of it. I’d always read that, I’d always ascertained that, but until Peter led us to the corner of Sullivan Place and Bedford Avenue, I never quite got the depth of it.
I get it now.
Peter mentioned a statistic about a very large percentage of the Dodger trade coming to Ebbets Field on foot. Most of the fans lived within a half-hour’s walk of the park. The Dodgers were the neighborhood’s team. Ebbets Field was theirs. It was tiny. It fit right in. I could see it.
I could also see why everybody who was ever a part of it gets so choked up about a ballpark disappearing into the mists of a housing project that carries the name if not the spirit of the former structure. They did that uptown once the Mets left. The Polo Grounds became the Polo Grounds Houses. By then, Ebbets Field was already morphing into the Ebbets Fields Apartments (or “Ebbett’s,” as a sign offering rental information called it).
You couldn’t fool me, though. I could see what had been. Peter was a big help, pointing to where the visitors clubhouse was and how the visitors weren’t treated royally, particularly when they were visiting from Harlem. He showed as well the way home Gil Hodges and Duke Snider — when they were young, before they had wives — took after games. They, like the fans, walked home. The kids would follow along. Nobody bothered them too badly, Peter said. If you did, you feared Gil and Duke and the rest of the guys wouldn’t be such good sports about letting you tag behind them. Yes, Peter was a big help offering context and history.
But I could see it without his guidance. A baseball fan knows. Bedford meeting Sullivan, Sullivan meeting McKeever, McKeever meeting Montgomery, Montgomery coming back around to Bedford. An infinitesimal urban footprint. The boundaries of a major league ballpark for 45 summers. The home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Where you walked to. Where you walked home from. From where O’Malley walked away. The heart of a neighborhood.
I could see Ebbets Field there. I really could. Four days later, I tried to see it in Flushing.
I really couldn’t.
I thought visiting the site of Ebbets Field and studying pictures of Ebbets Field would give me a greater appreciation of Citi Field’s exterior aspirations. Instead, it left me vaguely embarrassed by them. As aesthetically impressive as all those bricks and arches are, it’s not the heart of any neighborhood, not literally, not figuratively. After treading the actual sacred ground in Brooklyn, Citi Field’s Ebbets impulse felt a little creepy. Less an homage than a stalker’s obsession with recreating something that can never be duplicated. A 2009 state-of-the-art facility at the end of a parking lot masquerading as a 1913 bandbox off Bedford two solid weeks after Halloween ended.
Ultimately it made me think of Ned Flanders insisting his new brown-haired girlfriend put on a red wig to make her look more like his late wife Maude.
It took me most of the season to adjust my field of vision from the 7 after 111th Street, to quit lingering over the parking lot and to focus on the current ballpark in residence. I was quite heartened that on November 14, my instinct was to look for Citi Field, not Shea. I was also proud of my progress when we landed in Mets Plaza and I announced to Stephanie, “We’re home.”
The security guy knocked that sentiment right out of me. Peering hard at Citi and trying to find Ebbets didn’t help either. The rest of our perimeter walk just kept saddening me. I thought a ballpark in November would be the cure for the offseason blues. Many was the time my mood was brightened en route to LaGuardia in January just by passing Shea on the Whitestone Expressway.
Maybe that was the problem. I never got out and walked around Shea in November (I tried to drive up to it once or twice but couldn’t negotiate the locked gates). I got up close and personal to Citi Field during those 27 minutes, yet the closer I got, the more impersonal it felt. It felt abandoned somehow. Somewhere off the first base VIP entrance we even found a sizable patch of weeds or some such discouraging landscape overgrowth, as if this was the ballpark somebody had ditched for the West Coast.
Forty-one days had passed since the last game at Citi Field. Maybe it was going to feel deserted, but I didn’t imagine it would be so desolate. The chop shops were busy this Saturday, though they don’t constitute a neighborhood. The Mets want to raze them and create a Ballpark Village or something more pleasing and profitable. Would a few bars give Citi Field a neighborhood feel? Maybe. Wouldn’t be the same as a neighborhood.
Shea Stadium didn’t have those problems. Shea Stadium never engendered neighborhood pretensions. As a result, its concrete fit into its cement surroundings much better than our version of The Ballpark in Arlington. That, to me, is the real model for Citi Field: the Texas Rangers’ place, whatever it’s called this week. The Rangers built on a spot surrounded by nothing in particular and revved up the sepia-toned baseball theme to cover up its nothingness. For Arlington, Texas, it’s not bad. For Queens, the concept’s a little off.
The one area where you have a shot at Citi Field feeling like it’s in the middle of somewhere is the Bullpen Plaza entrance. It’s where you can stand outside and see a little something. But that’s all you see: a little. You see the Plaza, but not much field. You see some Promenade seats. You don’t get a great sense of the possibilities of a baseball game from 126th Street. I didn’t in November, anyway.
The rest of our perimeter tour wrought little delight. The back of Citi Field didn’t feel any friendlier. The Mets pictures you see on the Northern Boulevard side are still a nice touch, just as the mélange of ads is ugly as sin. As we made our way through the rear parking and reached the third base side — faux McKeever — Stephanie asked me if I wanted to round the bases. It took me a couple of seconds to realize she meant Shea.
Markers signifying home, first, second, third and the pitcher’s plate, when folks are stopping by and posing for pictures, make for a nice, understated tribute. When it’s November and nobody’s strolling by, they’re a collective downer. This is it? This is 45 seasons? Four lousy bases and the rubber? No sign, no plaque, no statuary, no foul lines, no sense of place? Yup, that’s right.
But who can pass up the Shea bases? We rounded them, and then we headed back to the Rotunda. My watch said it was almost 1:30. It took nearly 27 minutes to kill 27 minutes, but we had just about slain them. I could see a photographer and videographer were waiting out front. They had every good reason to be let in for the Bar Mitzvah, but the security guy made them wait, too.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with Citi Field that an entire organizational and ownership facelift wouldn’t cure. Whether it’s the season or the offseason, I can never escape the notion that somebody has drilled it into the Met workforce that loving, liking or tolerating the Mets should be made as needlessly difficult as possible.
Gads, what an operation.
Magnanimous as hell, the guard said now we could go in. Go up that escalator there and take the first elevator to Excelsior. Before we did, we took advantage (until another red jacket told us to move along) of a private moment with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. We took pictures of each other at the 42, which still makes me think of Butch Huskey before it makes me think of Jackie Robinson.
Had I been asked for input on creating the First Thing You See inside the Mets’ new ballpark, a lavish Jackie Robinson tribute would not have occurred to me. Nor would it have occurred to too many Mets fans. That whole Mets ballpark thing would have sent us in another direction…say toward the Mets. Still, as the Metsiness of Citi Field is filled in as promised (assuming the Mets keep their promises), I think I’ll come to like the JRR more. I already like it as an exit, as backhanded as that sounds. As an entrance, it’s just one more place you’re rushed through by men in red jackets. You’re whisked up an escalator and you practically run into a brick wall if you’re not careful. When it’s an exit, you come out of the dark and into something light, airy and pretty grand. On the way in, the intention, I think, is to have you respect it. On the way out, I can feel myself mentally lingering. It’s a great transition from baseball back into the real world: Rotunda, archways, plaza, stairs to the 7, train… home.
I respect the Rotunda’s cause and I like aspects of it. I downright love the picture of Robinson and Branch Rickey in particular (taken at those Dodger offices on Montague Street). I love that the two of them together are teaming to throw off the institutional racism that choked off baseball’s claim to being the National Pastime. Rickey’s showing some courage. Robinson’s showing loads more.
The rest of it…it’s not so much that it’s not about the Mets that bothers me. It’s that it’s not all that exciting, which seems antithetical to a ballplayer considered perhaps the most exciting to ever suit up. Again, respectable; important. It’s all about convincing us what a great human being this uncommon person and ballplayer was.
Am I shallow for not really focusing on all that on the way into a Mets game?
I read a description of the Rotunda recently, by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books, that I think explained to me why it doesn’t really hit its visceral mark:
Vague words like “teamwork,” “determination,” “persistence,” and “courage” are now emblazoned around the Citi Field rotunda like slogans from some corporate retreat. These platitudes dovetail with the sense of business people, however well-meaning, who are disconnected from the game and its true followers.
A big sign that says JACKIE ROBINSON, WHO PLAYED NEARBY, BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN BASEBALL AGAINST FORCES OF HATRED AND IGNORANCE MOST OF US COULDN’T IMAGINE AND BY DOING SO PAVED THE ROAD TO A BETTER AMERICA might get the point across without pussyfooting around.
I’d rather see a banner commemorating the Grand Slam Single when I walk into the Mets ballpark, like we used to see at Shea, but I get the idea of the Rotunda, and it is indeed respectable. When it was dedicated in April, I noticed how Rachel Robinson marveled at the permanence of the displays, how Fred Wilpon obviously meant for Jackie Robinson’s image to hover this year, next year and all years. It seemed to mean a lot to her (and him). It seems to mean a lot to enough people who do stop and dwell over those Nine Values and everything else. I’d still take the Grand Slam Single, et al, but I get the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Like Robin Ventura’s blast, it’s not a home run, but it doesn’t hurt anybody to score it generously.
Following security’s instructions, we found our elevator in the dark. Citi Field was incredibly dark on this November day. Darker than you’d imagine. Everything was still where it was on October 4, which was a little surprising. You’d figure a ballpark would stay busy, have something to do when you’re not around, but if it’s not multipurpose, it doesn’t. It has, essentially, a summer job.
The same sense pervaded us when we got off our elevator on Excelsior. It was dark enough that I was briefly lost. I knew where Acela was, but I took us in a wayward direction. We wandered through a dark Caesars Club and toward first base before I realized we were off course.
It all sort of felt like home, but home in that sense of having been away for months and noticing nobody bothered to vacuum while you were gone. Still, everything was more or less where you left it, and you could take comfort from that. It wasn’t cheery — at least not until we reached the Bar Mitzvah celebration itself — but it was still Citi Field.
Just as I remembered it.