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A Beautiful Night in the Neighborhood

Joe Posnanski, who writes lyrically and frequently about baseball, published a breezy piece last week titled “Ranking the Stadiums [1],” in which he identified Citi Field as one of the majors’ “Underrated Ballparks,” alongside Comerica Park and Angel Stadium. He elaborated, “I actually don’t know if Citi Field is underrated  —  I suspect most people who have been there think it’s a pretty great place. But there’s something about the whole Mets persona that screams UNDERRATED…Citi Field is a fun place to watch a baseball game; it is easily the best ballpark in New York.”

If a respected national scribe like Posnanski had been so kind to Citi Field in its infant or toddler phase, I would have scoffed. I probably would have rooted for it to rate as low as possible while still retaining the bit about being the best in town. For several years, I resented Citi Field’s existence and found the sum of its parts overpriced and underwhelming.

Now? Now I’m happy to see the ballpark where my ballclub plays its home games be recognized as a relatively solid architectural citizen. Posnanski implies it rates somewhere in the middle of all extant ballparks, definitely on the sunny side of the median. I think that’s fair and I think that’s fine. I’m well past the point of rooting against Citi Field, or at least the perception of Citi Field.

My grudge lapsed a couple of years ago, once Shea Stadium no longer seemed to have stood five short minutes before [2] and once Citi Field showed it wasn’t necessarily incompatible with hosting winning baseball [3]. Twenty Fifteen took Citi Field off the hook in my estimation. It could go about its business and I could go about enjoying it without toting across its center field bridge the emotional baggage the demise of Shea left behind.

Tuesday night, I enjoyed Citi Field as best I can, which is quite a bit. My dirty little secret is that under the right circumstances, I’ve always more or less enjoyed Citi Field. I was angry at it for existing and I critiqued it with an eye for what it was lacking rather than what it contained, but (in the spirit of improbably long-serving Mets managers [4]) once I got used to it, I knew that if I was headed for a game there, I’d very likely have a swell time there…under the right circumstances.

A Tuesday night in May when it’s finally stopped freezing and raining is right. The Padres as unglamorous opponent when we could really use one is right; their lineup seemed to half-consist of visiting San Diego fans who custom-ordered personalized jerseys —MARGOT, SCHIMPF, RENFROE, SPANGEBERG, HEDGES — and wandered away from the tour group. A total attendance that is more gathering than crowd is right. The right field Promenade is right. Going with my wife, who literally lucked into a pair of right field Promenade tickets to see the Mets play the Padres on a warm Tuesday night in May, is rightest of all.

The eventual 9-3 win [5] we saw ultimately ensured the rightness of our cause. Seven runs in the bottom of the first inoculates you from the wrongs that can ruin any ballpark outing. Michael Conforto [6] led off with a home run and, nine batters later, Michael Conforto singled in two of his teammates. Michael Conforto may be the best leadoff hitter in Mets history, certainly on Tuesday nights against the Padres in first innings that graciously refuse to end.

Once New York’s effective ball control offense on its first drive of the game resulted in a 7-0 lead, all you wanted was for Matt Harvey [7] to go into the baseball equivalent of the prevent defense. But what was it Warner Wolf said about the prevent defense when he was doing Giants football highlights, circa 1980? Oh yes, the only thing the prevent defense prevents is you from winning. So let’s not go to the videotape of Harvey’s five lumpy innings. Suffice it to say Tuesday’s Mets starter was not so terrible that he gave up more than two runs, yet he wasn’t anything close to good while delivering 103 mostly torpid pitches. Still, he won. Perhaps all those many outings in which he pitched brilliantly with scant support at last yielded him a karmic cashback bonus.

Harvey — whose trademark je ne sais quoi is apparently still on the suspended list — left leading by five and the Mets, in the care of four (!) relievers and a second Conforto homer, won by six. The Matt saga notwithstanding, the contest was stressless enough that Stephanie and I did something we haven’t done in a while at Citi Field. We took an impromptu walk in the middle innings, from 504 in right to roughly 531 in left and then back. It was literally the only walk Harvey didn’t give up.

What a lovely night for a stroll. The Promenade concourse really had a neighborhood feel to it, its town square chock full of spots to grab a bite or cocktail or something sweet if that’s what you craved. You could window-shop. You could people-watch. Once you got to left and turned left, you could admire the view off to the west. Best of all, you never had to lose track of what brought you to the neighborhood, because every few feet, from every stoop and every living room on the block, you could hear Gary Cohen tell you what was going on. This must have been what Flatbush in the heyday of Red Barber sounded like.

Never mind Ye Olde Brooklyn. Citi Field, established 2009, has been around long enough for me to pick up on its own organic nostalgic cues. Furthest right field Promenade encompasses a concession stand that’s almost never open. I saw it Tuesday night and remembered when it was open and attracting plenty of customers, during the 2015 postseason. Man, that was fun. When Harvey warmed to his U2/Jay-Z mashup [8] of choice, I remembered the first time I noticed his music, the second game of the 2013 season, also against the Padres. Horribly freezing, but incredibly encouraging…and not in that “at least he got through five innings” way we’re thankful for now. I remember hearing Gary Cohen through the strategically arranged speakers in the top of the first that night as I hustled to my seat. Matt Harvey, he said, had thrown seven pitches for seven strikes. The heat outstripped the cold. Man, that was fun. I remembered less momentous moments at Citi Field on Tuesday night, too, games Stephanie and I have taken in together over these past eight-plus years, games whose details I spring on her with no warning and no expectation she’ll recall, but she plays along.

“If the score stays 8-3,” I share from my stream of consciousness, “this will be the first Mets’ 8-3 win since the last game of 2014, which we were at [9]. But I don’t have to tell you.”

“Oh yeah,” she responds with as straight a voice as she can arrange, “I remember that.”

She doesn’t, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.