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Dave Howard’s First Mets Game (and Your Next 81)

Once upon a time, a five-year-old boy was pulled out of kindergarten by his dad to attend a weekday afternoon baseball game. It was his first baseball game, and it was the greatest baseball game in the world as far as he knew. Forty-five years later, he could recite the details lovingly — at least those details that would impress themselves upon a five-year-old’s brain…the kind of details that remain planted there forever.

It was the Mets and Pirates at beautiful Shea Stadium, September 29, 1965. It was sparsely attended, which wasn’t bad at all for a five-year-old boy, because fewer grown-ups meant you could get real close to your team. Why, your dad could snap Polaroid pictures of you and your brother with Mets players: you and Ron Hunt; you and Joe Christopher; you and Cleon Jones; you and a rookie shortstop just called up from Buffalo, a 21-year-old boy named Buddy Harrelson. You could sit close enough to first base so that your brother would grow quite amused that the coach who stood there while the Mets batted had a funny name: Yogi Berra. And your dad had room enough so he could “literally leap” over the first base railing and catch a foul ball.

Who won that game? Isn’t it obvious? It was the five-year-old boy.

His victory transcended mere National League standings. That game began a lifetime love affair with the home team. The kid grew up a Mets fan and, decades later, he found himself holding a job in which his actions impacted most other Mets fans. He got on the phone with a bunch of bloggers Thursday night to talk about his latest big decision.

The Mets have reset their ticket prices [1] in advance of next year. Shake out all the particulars, and chances are you’ll pay less for admission to Citi Field in 2011 than you did in 2010 or 2009. It’s not as simple as an across-the-board cut — the very cheapest tickets are actually a dollar more than they had been — but the overall effect is to make prices lower and to make access to more sections of the ballpark more affordable more often.

Affordability is all relative. In 1965, a box seat at Shea Stadium to come see the 50-108 Mets become the 50-109 Mets (en route to becoming, by the end of the week and season, the 50-112 Mets) cost $3.50. A father could take two sons for $10.50, plus parking, snacks and, if he so chose, Polaroid film. The mere thrill of sitting in, standing at and leaping from those seats proved priceless and timeless to five-year-old Dave Howard, who is now the executive vice president of business operations for those very same New York Mets. At $3.50, a dad or a mom could pretty easily buy a thrill in 1965.

You don’t have to watch [2]Mad Men [2] to understand times have changed since 1965. Three dollars and fifty cents  buys you maybe a small soda at a Mets game nowadays. A box seat in the neighborhood of where Razor Shines recently continued [3] the Met tradition of memorable monikers among first base coaches is understandably going to cost a lot more than it did when Dave Howard was a kid. Why shouldn’t it? The average player salary 45 years ago [4] was $14,341. Major League Baseball players in 2010 — the uniformed descendants of Hunt, Christopher, Jones and Harrelson — were paid, on average, nearly $3.3 million dollars [5] for their services.

That’s only 230 times more than it was in 1965. Perhaps we are blessed, then, that tickets behind first base won’t cost $805 in 2011.

What will they cost? Ah, to comprehend that, you will require a jeweler’s eye loupe as you pore over the Mets seating and pricing chart [6], which still veers toward thoroughly complex. But it’s less like jewelry in that the segmentation that befuddled us in previous seasons has been replaced. No longer do Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze line up to the left of rockbottom Value on the Mets’ version of the periodic table of elements. Instead games that aren’t Value are labeled Marquee, Premium and Classic.

Much simpler, right? (We won’t get into how sections are still sliced and diced to within an inch of their lives [7], except to say there seem to be a few less delineations within the subsets.)

The best news to be discerned from the rebranding is that Value has become a much wider category. In 2010, Value was code for games the Mets might as well have marketed as Unattractive: Three weeknights in early April for the Marlins; three weeknights in early May for the Nationals; four weeknights in the middle of September for the Pirates — the same club that dealt five-year-old Dave Howard’s 1965 Mets a 4-2 defeat [8]. Never mind that for the true Mets fan there is no such thing as an unattractive matchup. As long as the Mets are playing, we’ll be there.

If we can find a satisfactory ticket…that we feel we can afford…provided we think we’re not getting the shaft along the way. Winning more would help, too, but some of us aren’t that picky.

Just as the ticketing matrix is more complex than in 1965, so is our need state. The Mets recognized that after two increasingly empty years at Citi Field, the Value group required expanding. Thus, it now encompasses 30 dates — three times as many Mets games in 2011 will be sold by the Mets at their lowest price point, and not just the perceived worst of the worst. Essentially, the Mets stopped pretending there was something intrinsically more alluring about the Brewers on a Tuesday night in September than there is the Bucs on a Tuesday night in September, and they melted Bronze into Value.

I call that progress. I’m sure the Mets consider it a setback, less in the name of garnering more money (though that, too, I suppose) but because nobody could argue by September 2010 that the Mets were a solid buy. Howard told the Mets blogger conference call that on-field performance was “the most important factor” in determining the trajectory of ticket sales, which in turn helped determine the latest dip south in ticket prices. If the Mets had been in the playoffs the last two years, Howard said, “The tickets would have sold.”

But they weren’t and they didn’t, and now it’s time to move on. It’s time to move on to 2011 when every single Monday through Thursday game in April, May and June will be Value. A couple of Fridays in the first half of the season will carry that designation as well. Then it disappears until mid-September when it’s back seven more times.

The so-called Marquee games are the old Platinum, and those are the ones they’ll have no problem selling: Opening Day and the Subway Series. The Premium is what used to be Gold, while Classic is the ticket formerly known as Silver…except the Classic games on the first iteration of the schedule, as printed in a PDF of the 2011 ticket brochure [9], are actually colored bronze…and the Premium is silver…while Marquee appears gold.

Value, for the record, is still orange.

On Thursday afternoon June 2, you can see the Mets and Pirates play a Value date — $12 in Promenade Reserved.

On Friday night June 3, you can see the Mets and Braves play a Classic date — $20 in Promenade Reserved.

On Saturday night June 4, you can see the Mets and Braves play a Premium date — $28 in Promenade Reserved.

Just for fun, I’d bundle those three as the $60 Variety Pack and see if anybody finds the baseball noticeably different or better as the price rises day after day.

Howard spoke of “peak demand” as the reason summertime weekends will generally cost more than the rest of the grid. “Demand is greater on weekends,” he said. I couldn’t disagree with that, but it did make me wonder. The family of four that could get in the Rotunda door for $48 on Value Thursday (putting aside nettlesome convenience fees and such) is going to require $112 on Premium Saturday or Sunday. That’s a swing of $64 right there for the least expensive seats Citi Field has to offer.

To sit in pretty decent — not great but perfectly good — Promenade Infield seats, from which Citi Field’s unique geometry gives kids of all ages a better shot at seeing substantially more of the playing surface, you’ll pay $35 apiece on peak demand Saturdays and Sundays ($140 for our familial foursome). That’s $20 more than it costs on Value Thursday ($60) or, for that matter, $10 more than on Classic Wednesday ($100).

Johan Santana, Jason Bay, even Dillon Gee can look at those figures and call it tip money. People who want to take their entire family to a Mets game have to be selective.

I asked Howard about whether there’s a concern here about pricing out families by making the dates with the most family-appeal more expensive than everything that isn’t the opener or the Yankees. That’s how we got off on the subject of Dave Howard’s first Mets game, because this franchise, he said with conviction, is “founded on kids and family. It’s been a hallmark of the Mets from the very beginning.” From there, we were onto Ron Hunt and Joe Christopher and the wonders of September 1965.

Of course Dave Howard has a job to do, and his job includes helping the Mets maximize revenue. Though what Dave the former five-year-old remembered was charming as all get-out, Howard the current executive was politely frank in explaining people have choices to make within the realm of buying tickets. They can go on the weekend and dig a little deeper or they can go midweek (“off-peak demand”), assuming the whole family can make it.

Or, as was the case as 2010 wound down, they can go not at all. But Dave Howard and the Mets wouldn’t want that to be anybody’s default option, and the gist of their ticket announcement Thursday was to make all days of the week more appealing. Tickets in the tiers physically below and financially above Promenade have been reduced — not to bargain prices, but to slightly less unreasonable rates. Long-absent discounts on season tickets and partial season tickets have been implemented, with a break of 10% when you buy in bulk.

The partial plans are still being formulated. Howard couldn’t say for sure whether plans sold on the basis of Saturday games will, in fact, include every Saturday game or nothing but Saturday games. Nor has it been determined whether Promenade plan holders can gain access to one or more of the clubs (where, I didn’t get a chance to point out on the phone, they will likely spend more money).

Howard seemed most excited about touting the Amazin’ Mets Perks program. You buy full season tickets and pay for them in full by December 15, and you receive some serious goodies, and I don’t mean a Mike Piazza uniform pencil holder (or Headless Mike, as I referred to the 2002 partial plan premium). You’ll be on the field, you’ll be shagging flies, you’ll be taking BP, you’ll be dealing pinochle with Saul Katz…OK, I made the last one up, but you get the idea. If you’re laying down serious scratch seriously early, you’ll be taken care of.

What’s more, you become eligible for one of thirty different treats [10]: schmoozing with the umps at home plate (if you get Angel Hernandez, you know what to do); sipping wine with Tom Seaver (or gulping — your call); receiving the jersey a player has just worn in a 2011 regular-season game (may it not be Oliver Perez’s for all that would imply about the 2011 regular season); and…well, it’s all good. If you’re willing to invest in 81 dates at Citi Field and pay for it up front, you’re entitled to a shot at this stuff.

One of the perks is dubbed the “Player Meet-And-Greet,” described in the ticket brochure as “Have a pre-game meet-and-greet with a current Mets player with a photo opportunity and a chance for items to be autographed.”

That’s a perk now? To think, in 1965, a five-year-old was able to get all that for $3.50 and get out of kindergarten for the day.

Want to know more? Check out the coverage from Mets Police [11] (who’s been all over this ticket news for days) and Metsgrrl [12], who transcribed much of the conference call.