The brick is still there. The brick is always there. The brick couldn’t be more reliable. Stephanie and I trundled down the stairs from the 7, shlugged sample cups of Pepsi Max, disposed of them and zagged right to inspect our etched immortality.
OUR FIRST DATE
METS 8 GIANTS 3
MAY 15, 1987
It’s a little worn around the edges, but that’s OK. It makes the brick seem a little more permanent, as if cobblestone streets surround the modern edifice masquerading as a thriving remnant of Ye Olde Breukelen (pity the architects who came to the site with their finely honed presentation only to be halted by their client with, “Let me tell you how this is going to work — the front of the building is going to look like Ebbets Field.”). A brick can absorb quite a pounding in two-and-a-third seasons, including the harsh winters in between. I once saw somebody standing on our brick as his group posed for a picture, and I was going to raise a fuss about it, but then I thought that I’ve stood on quite a few bricks without malicious intent since April 2009. Still, random feet on our brick will, over time, add to the toll it takes. The same can be said for all the bricks that line Mets Plaza.
Stephanie and I acknowledge our brick as surely as it acknowledges us. It always makes us proud to pick it out of a crowd of bricks on the first shot. It’s more impressive Stephanie can do this since she’s not quite the regular visitor here that I am.
Having zagged, we now zigged to the Rotunda entrance. I have a particular security guard in mind. If someone has to handle the contents of my bag, I prefer it be him. The other guards are employees. This guard is a person. He does his respectable check of my belongings and tells me to have a good time. Every employee, starting with the wall of personnel enigmatically erected to smile at you when all you want to do is cross the road and see your brick, welcomes me to Citi Field with practiced cordiality. They may even mean it. My guy, however, definitely means it.
I’m briefly onced-over by the next security man. I get a man because I’m a man. Stephanie gets a woman in deference to her being a woman. Sometimes I’m patted down (hence the issue of men and women and who pats down who). The first home game after Bin Laden was caught and killed, I was positively frisked. I broke out into ticklish laughter. Saturday night I was simply wanded. I was clean. So, apparently, was Stephanie.
At Shea, I had my tickets out long before I reached my entry gate. At Citi, I’ve learned to keep them in my wallet almost up to the last second. With security tables and wanding and patting and intermittent requests to unzip jackets or put down bags (sometimes they insist, sometimes they don’t), tickets just get in the way. Not until I’m deemed no threat to the well-being of the physical plant do I remove my tickets. I always worry this will hold up the works. It never does. I hand one to Stephanie and approach the turnstile first for scanning. In every other situation, I would take the chivalrous “after you” tack, but at ballgames it’s easier if I go first because I know as much lay of the land as it’s possible to know. My ticket scans, and I enter. Stephanie’s ticket scans, and she enters. I always feel a palpable sense of relief at being on the inside. It’s like getting through customs unscathed.
The Mets are giving away tote bags tonight. These were the sorts of premiums that used to be distributed on Mother’s Day, for ladies 14 and over. Then the Mets were inundated by complaints in September 2008 when a Johan Santana bobblehead day was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon. ESPN demanded it become a Sunday night. Parents who thought bringing their kids to a school night game that started after 8 o’clock was irresponsible didn’t bring them. When they produced their tickets and requested the bobbleheads in absentia for those sons and daughters, they were told, sorry, they’re for kids only. The Mets’ method for sorting out this recipe for guaranteed disappointment was to make every promotion for everybody — no more age limits, no more gender specifications. It was a very egalitarian solution.
That’s how the first 25,000 fans at Citi Field Saturday night were given tote bags that by Stephanie’s and my reckoning were either “feminine” or “kind of gay” or perhaps evocative of what was known many decades ago as flower power. What really made the tote bag something that looked more fit for moms than dads was the orange belt that rings the upper tier of the blue canvas. Even accepting our communal affection for blue and orange, this bag — which isn’t particularly deep and doesn’t let you tote all that much — looks like a crafts class project of Marcia Brady’s.
I have kept, since swiping it from my high school’s English department the last semester of my senior year, a curio from the era before mine, a book called Teen Scene: 1001 Groovy Hints & Tips. As the title would indicate, it offered hundreds and hundreds of nuggets of moddish advice. The Mets totebag of 2011 brought to mind this groovy hint and/or tip from that 1970 paperback:
Decorate a carton and fringe it for your own wastepaper basket.
On the issue of promotional androgyny, Stephanie didn’t think the men who flung the tote over their shoulders were flattered by it. To me, it’s blue and orange, as is much of what I own. “Borderline,” I decided, when I got home. But I probably won’t be flinging it over my shoulder any time soon.
Take the belt off and it’s a pretty innocuous bag, but the belt really “makes” it. “Belted and cinched” is how Stephanie described our bags when we received them, harking back to the recurring SNL Gap sketch wherein Chris Farley, Adam Sandler and David Spade played catty salesgirls whose only piece of advice to their customers was that blouse will look fine once you belt it and cinch it.
I shoved our controversial bags into my relatively manly black schlep bag that I schlep everywhere when I’m using public transportation and led us into the Mets Museum. I had read in Phil Mushnick’s column a couple of weeks ago that the Mets had done the sort of thing they’d assiduously avoided since the opening of their Ebbets-exteriored clone. They recognized a piece of ancient Polo Grounds history.
The Mets very quietly have done a very solid thing. A plaque on display in the outfield of the Polo Grounds, a memorial to Capt. Eddie Grant, a Harvard grad, lawyer and for three seasons a Giants infielder, disappeared sometime after the Giants’ last game in the Polo Grounds, in 1957.
Grant was killed in World War I in October 1918 during a mission he led to find and rescue “The Lost Battalion.” Grant, who at 34 enlisted despite being three years beyond draft age, is one of 14,246 buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.
Though Grant is still memorialized by a short stretch of road called The Eddie Grant Highway just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium — it leads to the Cross Bronx Expressway — his achievements as a scholar and athlete and his self-sacrifice as a soldier were about to be forgotten here.
But the Mets recently hung a replica of that plaque, word for word as it first appeared at its dedication in the Polo Grounds, Memorial Day, 1921. It can be viewed in the Citi Field exhibit that includes a historical salute to Giants’ and Mets’ baseball played in the Polo Grounds.
Mushnick reported this addition to the museum on May 15 and I’d been eager to confirm it existed. I told one of my friends about the article and he, cynical like me, asked who I thought told Mushnick about it.
I went directly to the Polo Grounds’ share of the stadium exhibit and sure enough, the legendary plaque was recreated in full. All of Grant’s athletic and military accomplishments were listed, accompanied by an explanation of the plaque’s history. As a latter-day New York Giants buff, I was gratified. As a student of baseball history, I was impressed. But as a Mets fan who has wanted the Mets to embrace in some substantive fashion their two-pronged line of ancestry, I was thrilled. I was thrilled that someone in the Mets organization, perhaps at the highest level, went the extra 483 feet (the distance from home to deepest center at the Polo Grounds) to carve a niche for a meaningful piece of local baseball lore: something that had nothing at all to do with the Dodgers, something that had nothing directly to do with the Mets, something that represents the kind of patriotism and sacrifice the Mets honor every game when they single out a veteran for our appreciation. The Eddie Grant plaque’s dedication having occurred ninety years ago this week is a perfect, perhaps coincidental, touch.
The Mets indeed, per Mushnick’s description, did this quietly. They should feel free to clear their throats and announce their deed: “Come to the museum and learn who Eddie Grant was. See how a New York National League baseball team once upon a time remembered an American hero.” There’s so much noise in the Mets’ world these days. This is one time when quiet isn’t necessarily an ideal antidote.
We didn’t linger much longer in the museum. I always feel a bit guilty that I don’t spend many minutes there on every Citi Field visit I make, but after a while, if you’ve been there often, you’ve seen most everything. But I always feel very good in there even if I’m just passing through. It’s an essential element of the Citi Field experience and I was pleased to see a lot of milling and a good bit of reading going on there Saturday night. I love to see Mets fans taking advantage of the museum’s easy access and breezy informativeness, and I love the fans of the opposing team — even when it’s the Phillies — opening themselves up to our story.
The museum cleverly leads you to the team store. There was far more milling in the store than the museum. Stephanie tends to browse hard but has held off on purchases thus far this season in her two visits. She’d like a mini-pennant to add to her workspace in her new office (among a certain strain of Queens social workers, Stephanie is considered a leading Mets fan, and she’d like to maintain that image), but the Mets don’t seem to sell such a compact item, only standard and oversized felt banners. I have a mini-pennant, acquired in the late ’70s buried somewhere amid my piles and my boxes, and I’d gladly loan it out from my “collection,” but I have no idea where it lies. The lay of the land in my own closet is much more mysterious to me than the pathway into Citi Field.
There are no mini-pennants on sale at the Mets team store, but there is a surfeit of Jason Bay merchandise, much as seven years ago there was no shortage of Kaz Matsui shirts, Kaz Matsui caps and Kaz Matsui Celebriducks. The only shortage was willing buyers: for Matsuimabilia in 2004, for Baypparel in 2011. I never went in for Kaz gear and Saturday I avoided the temptation to Bay it up. I did, however, splurge on two t-shirts whose proceeds, I hope, will be used to extend Jose Reyes’s professional association with the club (as if my five Jose Reyes shirts haven’t already contributed to the cause). One was a vintage-style 1986 World Champions shirt, a necessary companion to the 1969 World Champions shirt I bought from the same store two years ago. The other, an orange issue, said simply Mets on the front and CARTER 8 on the back. I don’t know if Gary Carter gets a cut on t-shirt sales, but I’d like to believe a vibe from a name and a number on the back of a shirt can be sent to a cancer patient at Duke.
Electric orange and Gary Carter sound about right, actually.
After standing in a surprisingly long checkout line and waiting for the cashier to conquer the complexities of UPC technology on the full-size Mets pennant the Tigers fan from Michigan in front of me was purchasing, Stephanie and I left the store (showing an employee my receipt, ensuring that yet again I steal only from my high school English department) and headed for the escalator up to Field Level. I glanced around at the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, specifically the parts where Robinson is most intensely lauded: his guiding principles; his inspirational quote; the mosaics that, tile by tile, tell his life story in black & white photography. I have to confess to thinking that I sort of wish David Einhorn, should he assume control of the franchise, finds a tasteful, somehow respectful way to ease up on the Jackiefication of the Mets’ main entrance.
I remember Fred Wilpon being most proud (and Rachel Robinson being most surprised) that the Robinson tribute was so permanent, that it wasn’t — like, for example, Joan Payson’s hat, a staple of the museum in 2010, locked in storage in 2011 — a rotating exhibit. It jibed perfectly with Wilpon’s self-satisfied assertion about overriding any architectural guidance as laid out in the instantly infamous New Yorker article. “I loved the Dodgers, I loved Ebbets Field, I idolized Jackie Robinson, now you will, too,” was what Wilpon was almost defiantly telling us when Citi Field opened.
“All the Dodger stuff — that was an error of judgment on my part,” Wilpon told Jeffrey Toobin. Yet the error sticks out as E-CEO on Citi Field’s permanent scorecard. The “Fred Wilpon built a shrine to the Dodgers” charge (and it is a charge, not a commendation) is one disgruntled Mets fans make as a matter of course even though once you come up the escalator from the rotunda, you are — at least since the renaming of the Ebbets Club — subject to no institutionalized reminders of the Dodgers, a few shirts and caps in the ’47 Store window notwithstanding. But an exterior so eerily imitative that it transcends homage and a rotunda so devoted to one individual with zero ties to the team in residence is plenty Dodger stuff enough. It’s Dodger stuff too much. This isn’t a new revelation, but Wilpon’s remarks to Toobin, embellished by the sense that there may be light at the end of the Wilponian tunnel, makes me wish the owner’s influence starts getting erased around the edges as soon as possible.
It may be unfair I’ve come to conflate Jackie Robinson with Fred Wilpon more than, say, Branch Rickey, but whose fault is that? Seeing the impact of Jackie Robinson in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda isn’t the problem. Seeing the impact of Fred Wilpon is. Perhaps we can eventually be reminded of Fred Wilpon in a more benign way. Perhaps after a decent interval, Fred’s hat can be put on display in the museum next to Joan’s.
After gliding up the escalator, Stephanie and I caucused on where to get our supper. Keith’s Grill, she said, not surprisingly. Stephanie saw the two segments SNY aired (one during a game, another during Mets Weekly) in which the great man himself gave us a tour of his new epicurean interest. I tried the Gold Glove Burger at the beginning of this endlessly eventful month, and was quite sated. Though I maintained multiple yens — a preoccupational hazard at Citi Field — I figured we could make Chez Hernandez our first stop for her and I could maybe make another for me.
But Keith’s Grill has blossomed as an attraction and we encountered a line long enough to necessitate the installation of a network of traffic-regulating velvet ropes (not really velvet and not exactly ropes) to keep the line from unruliness. If you were presenting a stage play, you could use the popularity of Keith’s Grill to mark the passage of time. On April 11, it was barren and windswept. On May 3, there was a clutch of curious customers. On May 28, it had become a (if not the) place to be. We joined the snaking line as I decided too much time would be sucked up for me to wait it out with Stephanie and find something else for myself. So we finalized a game plan: the Mex Burger, no jalapeños, for her, the Gold Glove and its Keith-prescribed two squirts of ketchup for me. Another lay-of-the-land situation unfolded. “You better order,” Stephanie said, as we switched places in line so I’d be the one to communicate all nuances and niceties.
As we waited to place our order, the Mets were saluting the military in recognition of Memorial Day. From the Field Level corner where Keith’s Grill sizzles, you can’t exactly make out all the pregame fussiness. There was something with an oversized flag. Somebody then sang an unfamiliar patriotic song. When our linemates heard music, a few removed their caps. It wasn’t anthem time yet (which didn’t stop one pushy burger patron from shouting randomly at a passerby, “TAKE OFF YOUR HAT!”). Then it was anthem time, which is generally awkward if you’re not at your seat. Do you drop everything and stand at attention even though there’s nary a star nor stripe in sight? Do you go about your business even though you’re violating unenforceable baseball decorum? I tend to half-ass it, stopping until I see somebody else is walking casually along, starting on my path again until I see someone solemnly standing arrow straight. It’s very awkward.
Easier to clarify was what to do while the starting lineups were being read. I couldn’t hear them too clearly as we moved like an irresistible force inevitably toward ordering, but I knew Alex Anthony was announcing the Phillies first. So I booed. Most of that was in reaction to our first sighting of critical crimson mass, about a dozen interlopers from the Delaware Valley chanting their brutally mutated “Let’s Go…” chant (any “Let’s Go…” chant that doesn’t end in “Mets!” is hopelessly corrupted and should be immediately deleted from the hard drive). One Phillie fan at Citi Field is one too many. Predictably, in deference to geography, StubHub and the National League East standings, we were inundated. A few awaited Keith’s specialties, which I guess was permissible since I partook of Bull’s Barbecue at Citizen’s Bank in 2007. Some Phillie partisans had no compunction against not just eating Met food but carrying Met tote bags. It didn’t flatter them, either.
I booed the usual suspects even as I wasn’t sure precisely who I was booing. I prefer specificity in my disapproval. My friend Joe was mighty impressed in April when I told nine Diamondbacks nine different reasons I considered them unworthy opponents, few of which I any longer remember. Saturday night, I contented myself with steady booing, varying only to inform Domonic Brown that he was a “nonentity”. Stephanie, I appraised, 50% enjoyed my steady stream of negativity toward the visitors, 50% wondered if I’d inflame the passions of the wrong critical mass of Phillie fans. I wasn’t worried, however. I haven’t lasted a lifetime in ballparks without picking my spots and choosing my battles. Cheering the Mets as they were introduced was a much more buoyant exercise, though the quality of the PA was rather muddy from where we stood, so by the time I got around to applauding Nick Evans, Ronny Paulino was being introduced.
Finally, we were called to order. I told the man what we wanted: one Mex, no jalapeños; one Gold Glove. And, as I was certain would happen, I was asked about 30 seconds later what it was again we wanted. It’s a little chaotic down there at Hernandez’s Hideaway, so I could excuse the stutterstep.
Less forgiven was the preparation of the Gold Glove bun. Mine was given one squirt of ketchup. One. This was no small gourmand detail. Keith was very specific on SNY that his signature burger required two, the second to keep the pickles in place. I’ve come to take that as gospel on every Boca Burger I prepare at home (as I try to fool myself into thinking it’s a real burger). When I pointed out to counter personnel that they were being stingy with the ketchup, they courteously directed me to the condiment station and said I could add extra ketchup over there.
That’s not the point, I restrained myself from responding. I’m here for the Keith Hernandez treatment, and it doesn’t begin and end with the Tootsie Pop garnish. Instead, I nodded and said nothing. I decided I’d try my Gold Glove with the one barely adequate squirt of ketchup obscured under the lettuce leaf.
We waited for our burgers to grill, clutching our Lipton Brisk (Stephanie’s) and Diet Pepsi (mine) and paying $30.50 for the whole thing. Two cheeseburgers and two beverages cost more than a CARTER 8 t-shirt. But there was no HERNANDEZ 17 t-shirt for sale in the team store, and sooner or later, your Mex bill comes due.
At last, somebody inserted our burgers between our buns and we emerged from the steamy line. First pitch was only minutes away, but that was all right. Our seats — thoughtfully passed along to us by Jason and Emily when they discovered they’d be out of town this weekend — were only a few sections over from Keith’s Grill. Let’s just take the burgers over there and see the game from the start, I said, hoping to skip the usual Citi Field ritual of eating away from one’s seats.
That plank of my platform was not passed by acclamation. Stephanie didn’t want to eat her supper at her seat, not at Citi Field, where fine dining is part of the gracious-living appeal. Our Field Level tickets entitled us to entrée into Caesars Club, of interest to Stephanie because it meant we could sit in a chair in front of a table and properly bite into the Hernandez hamburgers. I suggested alternate accommodations, such as those fairly convenient standing stations beyond center field, but a chair and a table is what my wife wanted. “I can go to Caesars Club and meet you at the seats,” she said by way of compromise.
I didn’t want that. I wanted to enjoy my supper with my wife. And if it meant foregoing the first pitch from Mike Pelfrey to Jimmy Rollins and first few pitches that followed, it was a small price to pay. It was certainly smaller than $30.50 for two cheeseburgers and two beverages. I consented to the Caesars detour, my small snit at Stephanie’s bizarre priorities melting by the time we reached the Excelsior Level.
We presented our special-access tickets, found an empty table, of which there several, and positioned ourselves to watch the top of the first on TV (just like at home) while we sampled the best Keith’s Grill had to offer. The verdict: Stephanie was infatuated with the tanginess of the Mex. I liked the Gold Glove better than I had previously, though it really was missing that additional dollop of ketchup (while the allocation of kettle chips had decreased from generous to adequate). Most happily, two people could devour the entire feast in the time it took Big Pelf to make short work of three Phils.
“I’m ready when you are,” Stephanie said when it was apparent we were both done chewing our meat and crunching our chips. Stephanie always says, “I’m ready when you are” as quick-serve restaurant situations wind down. It’s one of those endearing aspects of being married to the same person for nearly twenty years that you know your spouse will say that. I was, indeed, ready, but not ready to bolt from Excelsior to Field Level because I knew (or at least sensed) we might miss the best part of the game while in transit on a staircase. So taking advantage of our temporary Excelsior existence, I suggested we stand out in the concourse, behind one of the sections of seats, and watch the bottom of the first. I didn’t want to miss Jose Reyes leading off.
My instinct was correct, as correct as Stephanie’s for sitting down and eating like human beings instead of commuters. Jose doubled, Then Jose stole third. Then Justin Turner singled him home. Just like that, a Jose Reyes production had ensued: Jose’s franchise-leading stolen base total increased; Jose’s franchise-leading run total rose; and Jose’s career hit total closed to within 238 of Ed Kranepool’s for yet another franchise best. The pursuit of that last record, so stubbornly clung to by Eddie for 35 years, assumes Jose is given every chance to continue making team history beyond the July 31 trade deadline.
The Pelfrey Mets led the Hamels Phillies 1-0, and a night of possibilities opened up before us. Two batters had raked Cole. Carlos Beltran was up. Jason Bay, as cold as Canada through the rainy spring, but 1-for-1 in his last 1 at-bat the warm night before, would follow. The Met majority in crimson-speckled Citi Field was ascendant. The closest thing our normally disengaged park has to a roar was unleashed.
But its oxygen dissipated as soon as it encountered reality. Beltran struck out. Turner stole second, but Bay struck out. The part of our lineup in which I had confidence was done for now. Nick Evans, in his fourth season as an unknown quantity, grounded to third for the third out. Now we could head to our seats.
Eight innings later, Stephanie and I and however many defeated Mets fans who remained to the acrid end departed in the unwanted company of a giddy, gloating red wave. Marching out through Field Level and down the rotunda stairs, we hit the bricks with more force than the Mets hit Hamels, Contreras and Madson. But, we agreed, we’d enjoyed one splendid supper.
Dana Brand, our friend and fellow blogger whom we lost earlier this week, is remembered in the New York Times, here, and by his Hofstra University colleagues and students, here. Learn more about the July 16 Shea Stadium/Citi Field Dana Brand tailgate tribute GKR is organizing, here.
A public memorial service celebrating the life of Dana Brand will be held at the Newtown Meeting House in Newtown, Conn., this Saturday, June 4, at 1 PM. It will be my deepest honor to speak at this event regarding what Dana meant to the Mets fan and blogger community. Friends and readers of Dana’s are most welcome to join in the celebration.