Every year I swear I’m done with seeing Opening Day live — it’s generally miserable weather and I’m so wired that the wisest thing is for me to work out my neuroses sitting at the computer and on the couch. But every year I hear the siren call: The Mets are back, doing their jobs to the best of their ability, and I should do my job by being on station to hoot and holler.
And so it was that I yielded to temptation: two seats in the Pepsi Porch, which last year emerged as one of my favorite places at Citi Field to see a game. It’s quirky without forcing the issue, offers a view I never saw at Shea, and is its own little micro-park with bathrooms, beer, food, and places to stand. Having committed, I was left to wait anxiously for some kind of read on the weather.
Sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, you get an unseasonably warm Opening Day. Twelve years ago Greg and I got one of those, sitting in the mezzanine at Shea on March 31 for the Mets and the Phillies. The weather was borrowed from July; the game seemed destined to end in August, and neither of us minded at all, kicking back in 80-degree weather until Bambi Castillo beat the Phils with a scratch single in the 14th inning. (Greg remembers here.)
Most of the time, though, you’re not that lucky. The weather scrapes its way into the 50s, everyone is so bundled up that if you move too vigorously you move your neighbor’s outermost layers, and he then moves his neighbor’s, and so on down the line. Beer is reserved for diehards, cocoa and coffee become the coin of the realm, and depressingly often it’s a rainout anyway — or a game that a sensible person would have decided should be a rainout.
A week ago the forecast for Monday was somewhere between indifferent and bad. Too far out for a definitive forecast, I grumbled. This is what I always do in this situation. Usually the forecast is on the money.
Not this time, though. Instead, we got the kind of day you’d like to bottle and uncork in old age, a game that leaves perfectly sober grown-ups staggering around like drunks with happy smiles on their faces. I arrived at Citi Field with doubts about the 2010 Mets, but no doubt whatsoever that I was lucky to be a part of this Opening Day, however it turned out. And I was relieved to realize that I was eager to see our summer home again.
Yes, relieved. Because my relationship with Citi Field had proved a bit, well, complicated in 2009.
I liked a lot of things about Citi right away. I liked the way fans circulated around field level before heading up to their seats, and how I’d almost always run into fans or bloggers I knew. I liked the food, of course, and the big food court atop the Promenade, and the bridge in center field, and the Pepsi Porch, and the experience of exiting the park through the rotunda and making my way across the plaza to the subway.
Moreover, I’d never had any affection for Shea, and it irritated me to see my friends’ memories turning misty-colored and beginning to smooth away Shea’s many problems. The Dallas police ads above the urinals in the sludgy lakes that passed for bathrooms? The relentlessly horrible food? The grinding rudeness and incompetence displayed by nearly every Shea worker a fan encountered? I remembered all of it. I missed none of it.
But Citi Field came with imperfections and oversights that made the place hard to defend and difficult to love.
There were the swathes of seats from which you lost sight of not one but two outfielders, and the Mets’ nonsensical attempts at spinning this into some side effect of geometry that we were too stupid to understand. When I visited Coors Field, the first thing I did was march up to the cheapest seats in left and right, look down and fume. The seats weren’t horribly high, and I could see 99.999% of the field — at Citi the announcers lose sight of fair balls. Last April, as the extent of the sightline woes became clear, it boggled the mind that someone could have let this happen. It still does.
Then there was the fact that Citi Field seemed almost embarrassed about being associated with the Mets and their decades as the raffish, rude, occasionally ragged little brothers of New York baseball. In escaping the sour murk of Shea, the architects of Citi went too far in the other direction, toward bland and sterile. Most of the pieces of Met history that hadn’t been sold off were tucked away in corners. The images of players outside the park (and eventually inside) were presented in Ken Burns sepia, a poor fit for a jet-age, technicolor team. Without the Mets (and New York Giants) as a counterbalance, the salutes to Jackie Robinson and Ebbets Field came off as slavish devotion. There were too many blank expanses of brick and concrete that cried out for some Metsing up.
The Mets eventually stopped making excuses and started fixing things, and I kept reminding myself and anyone who would listen that most of these problems would be relatively easy to put right. But by then the year was a disaster, and our suspicions about the park had spread to the baseball-operations department and ownership. By the end of the year I was sick of defending Citi Field and, frankly, sick of the defenseless Mets. They were horrible to watch, and good tacos and clean bathrooms couldn’t fix that. I thought of the Mets every day during the offseason, of course, but it was for minutes a day, not the hours of years past. And I rarely thought of Citi Field at all.
Like I said, a complicated relationship.
So I happy to hear that the bullpens were being reconfigured. I found myself smiling when I heard that the old apple had been removed from Citi’s equivalent of a back hallway and installed right in front of the stadium — an unexpected stroke of genius. I heard that things were being renamed and repainted. That images of Gil Hodges and Tom Seaver were being literally set in stone. That great moments were joining fan exhortations along the walkways. And that the Mets had a real Hall of Fame and museum now — something they’d never had before — and folks I trusted gave it rave reviews.
I still haven’t visited the museum (it was horribly crowded early and then I had a game to soak in), but I’m happy to say that yes, a lot of other things about Citi Field are much improved. The plaza outside the rotunda now feels like a celebration of the Mets, and in glorious, gaudy color no less. The greatest moments make you want to linger among the bricks and remember. Even from outside, the museum feels like the counterweight the rotunda lacked in its first incarnation — particularly when you climb the stairs and encounter the day’s Mets lineup. This is as it should have been in the first place: The Brooklyn and Dodger past giving way to the Queens and Met present. And there are nice surprises, like the peekaboo window into the stadium control room.
But it’s the littlest touches that help the most: the replica Mets baseball cards you encounter, the orange and blue paint in the stairwells, the plaque for Bill Shea that adorns the newly christened Shea Bridge, and the bathroom floors that are now pointillist blue, orange, white and black. Seriously, the bathroom floors are an improvement. We’re Mets fans, why wouldn’t we have bathroom floors in goofy Mets colors?
Granted, it also helps that we’re now no longer tourists at Citi, trying to figure out where to go and what clubs will admit us. But the Mets have come a long way, making efforts big and small. I’d urge them to keep going — to fill those remaining brick walls with pictures and artifacts and Did You Know? factoids — but the baseline is good. Citi Field feels like our place now.
I walked around happily for a half-hour, taking all this in, and then found my seat. After a bit Greg joined me and then the Mets … well, the Mets gave us everything we could have asked for. Opening Day is just one game, but the Mets couldn’t have drawn up a game more perfectly designed to reassure us. David Wright waited all of zero at-bats to bang a home run off Josh Johnson, the baseball touching down in the right-field district that seemed destined last year to be called Utleyville. Johan Santana made me feel silly for worrying about his spring, tormenting the Marlins (particularly Cameron Maybin) with his entire arsenal. The new guys delivered: Jason Bay hit 2010′s first Citi Field triple, Rod Barajas (who makes Ramon Castro look like a gazelle) roped one over Maybin’s head for a double, and Gary Matthews Jr. was flawless in a center field made treacherous by sun and swirling wind. Meanwhile, the 2010 Marlins were playing like the 2009 Mets. That was welcome too.
Greg and I spent the second half of the game amiably arguing about which numbers ought to be retired, cheered K-Rod through his inning, and trooped down a repainted back stairwell on our way to field level, the rotunda and the train. Marching down the stairs amid choruses of “LET’S GO METS!” I remarked to Greg that OK, I did find the stairs a less dramatic setting for triumphant chants than Shea’s scissored ramps had been.
“I don’t think I ever heard chants like this here last year,” Greg replied, and I nodded. A little bit sadly, but then I shrugged and let it go. That was 2009. This was just one day, and one win from a flawed Mets team, but it’s 2010. Things are already different.