- Faith and Fear in Flushing - https://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Save Citi’s Soul

I don’t care how much they’re paying us or how much ickier the easily imagined alternatives are. Citi Field will be born from original sin. Spell it with a space, pronounce it with a pause, cite all the precedent you can and rationalize all the benefits you like. The fact is we’ll be playing in a ballpark bearing the mark of corporate sellout. It’s a sin to the sensibilities of every true blue and orange baseball fan.

To every Metsopotamian who says, “I don’t care what it’s called, just give me a winner,” you’ve got to be kidding. You will care. That’s your new home. To every Metsopotamian who says, “I’ll just keep calling it Shea,” you’ve got to be kidding. There’s only one Shea Stadium. To pretend you can transfer identities between two very different buildings the way you transfer a payment from your money market to your Visa is delusional. Shea is Shea. Citi will be Citi. Let’s not confuse them.

As these are done deals all around, our next task is not to throw ourselves in front of the bulldozers or preach against the sin of corporate namesmanship, but rather to offer the unborn park near-immediate absolution.

No Sheadenfreude here, old-guarders. We need this Citi thing to work for us.

Right now, as planned, Citi Field is essentially a nice pile of bricks. It’s got to have more than bricks. It’s got to have a soul. Twenty million bucks does not buy you a soul. But there is, I believe, a soul-ution.

Homecoming Weekend 2009.

You can’t have a future without a past…your own past. So let’s link what’s come before with what will come later. Citi Field does not get a clean slate or a blank check. It has to reflect where the Mets came from, spiritually and geographically. That’s why we have Homecoming Weekend in 2009.

This is a high school and college conceit, one I picked off from my new favorite prime time drama, Friday Night Lights. It is when your alumni come home and your heroes reappear and your tradition springs to life. It’s more than an Old Timers Day. It’s a vital nod to who you’ve been and who you are and who you hope to be.

Citi Field requires an injection of soul right off the bat. Any new park would, but one whose only clear references are to somebody else’s favorite childhood team and a financial conglomerate really needs the help.

Wider concourses, increased leg room, pretzels baked the same day they’re sold…that’s all great, but going to a Mets game is more than that. It’s looking around and knowing somethin’ Amazin’ happened right over there. It’s saying I was here when that happened. It’s passing it on and paying it forward.

Performance is, as ever, an unknown variable (though a no-hitter on Opening Day would be nice). Hence, it will be a long time before there’s much beyond the novelty of the new to associate with Citi Field. Until there is, we’ve got to imbue it with as much Mets, the Mets we’ve known, as we can. And it’s up to the Mets to make the first, second and third moves. Management must thread the present of 2009 and whatever future it holds to the glorious, yes I said glorious, past from next door. I don’t mean flooding the bathrooms and creating wind tunnels. I mean you make damn sure that when you pack up all the history in 2008 that you don’t just leave it in crates and forget about it.

The Mets do that too much already [1].

Some of us who haven’t kissed the Citi stone with gusto (reportedly [2] some have) owe our reticence not to Citi sponsorship or Shea nostalgia or retro recycling. Many Mets fans simply find themselves overDodgered by what they’ve seen to date. You won’t find a single human being of any value who doesn’t revere Jackie Robinson. I doubt too many people have a problem with him getting the rotunda. I sure don’t. And if you’re going to crib a classic design, you could do worse than Ebbets. But by the time this baby is delivered, the New York Mets will have put up a pretty impressive history of their own. 2009 will be the 48th season of Metropolitan operation. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ 48th season was 1937. Do you think those Dodgers felt the need to genuflect daily and broadly before their 19th-century American Association [3] ancestors by then?

While a nod to the Dodgers (and Giants…hello?) is not out of line, Citi Field needs to be Met territory. It needs to be Met territory as soon as it can be. That’s where Homecoming Weekend 2009 — a three-day series of celebrations commemorating a trio of conveniently occurring Met milestones — sets things right. Some of what needs to be done will be due. Some of it is already overdue. All of it will be utterly Amazin’, which is not a bad thing to be if you’re planning on being home to the Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’ Mets.

Homecoming Weekend 2009.

Clear eyes.

Full hearts.

Can’t lose.

Friday Night Lights. In his rookie season, Dwight Gooden lit up Shea Stadium like nobody before or since. If there was one night that was truly his, it was Friday: Five home starts, five earned runs in 41 innings with 51 strikeouts. Dr. K operated at his best at the end of the week, so it’s appropriate to kick off Homecoming Weekend with the return home of Dwight Gooden, three years clean and sober, on the 25th anniversary of his debut year to induct the franchise’s second-greatest pitcher ever into the William A. Shea New York Mets Hall of Fame and National League Museum — known as Shea for short — an institution that will celebrate the rich heritage of the Mets, the Giants, the Dodgers, the Cubans, the Bushwicks, the Bridegrooms and almost every team that made a mark on Big Apple baseball (almost). “Shea” enjoys its grand opening tonight. It will be open year-round and be easy to find since the mayor has signed a bill that redubs 126th Street between Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard Bill Shea Way. Doc, after acknowledging the tough road back and thanking the fans for sticking by him after all this time, cuts the ceremonial ribbon with a scalpel. A strikeout tally board is installed in left field and officially dubbed the Doctor K Korner. Joining Doc in the Mets’ first induction class since Tommie Agee in 2002 will be his first manager, Davey Johnson, marking his own quarter-century anniversary. He thanks Doc for making his first big managerial decision in 1984 — whether to add “the best pitcher I ever saw” to his rotation despite his tender age — an easy one. Following 1997 inductee Keith Hernandez’s presentation of plaques to Doc and Davey, Omar Minaya assures all that the Shea Hall of Fame Induction will be an annual Citi Field tradition. “The Mets have a great history,” he says, “and we’re going to make sure we show it off even as we continue to make new history.”

Saturday In The Park. Was there ever a more exciting moment that didn’t involve playing than when a certain No. 31 emerged from the home dugout at Shea Stadium on a Saturday afternoon in May 1998? Mike Piazza’s debut was so exciting that Mets fans voted it the eighth-greatest moment [4] in team history. It will be an exciting Saturday when Mike Piazza emerges from the home dugout at Citi Field to see No. 31 become the first number since Jackie Robinson’s 42 in 1997 — and the first Met number since Tom Seaver’s 41 in 1988 — officially retired by the club. The occasion meshes nicely with the 10th anniversary of the most exciting season of Piazza’s tenure, 1999, so it’s also a good chance to reunite that particular Wild Card edition of Mike’s Mets. By now, just about everybody from ’99 is also retired, so just about everybody can make it back. And they do. Rickey Henderson takes his time emerging. Al Leiter waves a little longer than everybody else. Bobby V flies in from Japan and dons the mustache and glasses. The greatest defensive infield ever trots out to their positions together, though Todd Pratt tackles Robin Ventura before he can get anywhere near third. Mike himself thanks John Franco for “loaning” him 31 and “borrowing” 45 and returns the favor by calling the crowd’s attention to the newly dubbed McGraw-Franco Mets Bullpen in right. It’s not far from the spot on the right field wall where five numbers are posted now and forever. (Dozens of fans scattered throughout Citi sport updated Faith and Fear t-shirts while dozens of others opt for their worn 2006 models.)

Beautiful Sunday. The Met everybody flocked to Shea to see on any day he pitched will now be the Met everybody sees when they flock to Citi every day of the week. As part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the 1969 world championship, the CitiVision board takes us live to Stengel-Hodges Plaza, directly outside the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, where a parade of celebrants — Koosman, Grote, Kranepool, Jones — pulls the tarp from the first statue ever commissioned by the Mets to honor a Met. It’s a larger-than-life likeness of none other than The Franchise himself, Tom Seaver. When we go to games, we can meet by The Knee…the lovingly sculpted joint with the trademark splotch of dirt that Seaver absorbed every time he went into that perfect motion. As his teammates file back into Citi Field, Fred Wilpon presents Seaver with a scaled-down model of the sculpture that will greet every Met fan before every game. Seaver, rarely at a loss for words, is genuinely humbled as he speaks from the mound: “I never pitched here, obviously, but to know I’ll be a part of this great new ballpark means a great deal to me.” He only wishes, he says, his teammates Tommie and Tug and Donn and his pitching coach and his manager could see “that awesome statue and this marvelous place,” but as long as he’s out there, forever pitching in bronze, “all of us from ’69 will be a part of this.”

Tom concludes his remarks and joins every living 1969 champ to ride in a stream of vintage Plymouths around the warning track. An impromptu ticker-tape parade breaks out. The cars depart through the centerfield gate, the grounds crew comes out to clean up the shredded paper and a black cat roams in front of the third base dugout. Way up in the Darryl Deck, somebody pulls out a handkerchief and cries “Goodbye Leo!”

Not everybody gets it, but those who do have a good laugh and share what it means. That’s what you do at Citi Field.