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88-74 Park

I sense those who really, really love Citi Field off the bat are, in essence, Homer in the episode of The Simpsons when he angered at the high prices and crappy merchandise he continually encountered at the Kwik-E-Mart. But it was all Homer knew, so he put up with it. “If he discovers the discount supermarket next door,” Apu thought to himself, “all is lost.” Citi Field is unsurpassedly awesome if you never went anywhere but Shea or haven't taken a baseball road trip that didn't involve the Vet.

We hopeless romantics in the crowd liked to believe Shea Stadium and the New York Mets represented one another perfectly: too often a ramshackle 71-91 proposition that discouraged you for months at a clip, yet pulsating with enough heart, soul and electrical current built into the recesses of its infrastructure to produce a 97-66 charge we'd never forget. In that sense, Citi Field is a perfect reflection of the Mets as we've come to know them of late: promising a ton, delivering somewhat less and leaving you with the impression that they think they deserve all kinds of credit for coming relatively close to their goal.

Meet 88-74 Park.

That's Citi Field to me at this early stage of its existence (and who wouldn't want to be judged at the ripe old age of six games?). It's pretty good, sometimes very good, ultimately not the most incredible place I've ever been. An 88-74 Mets season — 1997, for instance — can be a great deal of fun, offer occasional surprises and feel extremely invigorating. An 88-74 Mets season — 1998, for instance — can also put you on edge, fail to provide exactly what you need and come up a little short here and there. But 88-74 isn't dreadful by any means. It's definitely above average. An 88-74 Park, unlike an 88-74 Mets season — 2007, for instance — probably won't collapse on you.

Just as you sometimes know by instinct that you've passed through the turnstiles of a remarkable season, you also know when you've come upon a singular ballpark. I knew when I arrived outside Pac Bell in the summer of 2001 and inside Comiskey Park in the summer of 1989 and on the other side of the warehouse at Camden Yards on a brilliant spring day in 1994 that I was somewhere fantastic, the kind of place I'd dream about in my idle moments for years to come. I just knew. When I stepped foot inside Keyspan Park for the first time, I began to wonder, quite seriously, if it would be feasible to move to Coney Island, work the afternoon shift at Nathan's and then spend my evenings watching the sunset reflect on the Atlantic as those circular neon lights beamed to full power (this became my retirement plan for a while, actually). After one trip to PNC Park, I honestly decided that if I ever became what they call financially comfortable that I'd buy season tickets for the Pirates and fly in for weekend series just to sit there for a few hours every couple of weeks. I never became financially comfortable but I haven't fallen out of love with PNC Park.

I haven't fallen in love with Citi Field, not at first sight, not after several sights. I can see us falling into an abiding like over time, getting used to each other, depending on each other for company, feeling each other out until we feel we're reasonably certain we can trust each other. But I'm not in love with Citi Field. Half of that is me, obviously. I brought way too much baggage to its Rotunda gate to let down my guard so easily. Half of that, though, is it.

This is not a lovable ballpark. It's likable enough, as a future president once said of his secretary of state to be, but it's not warm and fuzzy. Maybe the old place wasn't going to be your lifetime sweetheart if you weren't predisposed to see it and feel it that way, but nobody after the giddiness of April 17, 1964 wore off would have referred to World Class Shea Stadium. World Class Citi Field is what we heard for three years. It was overkill. High-functioning would have been enough to draw us in. After Shea's many foibles, functional would have been plenty to sell us. We would have gotten it. “Come to the ballpark that works” would have been an excellent pitch. “The bathrooms won't flood, we'll have paper towels, we won't stick our hands out for tips, we won't take your bottlecap, we'll ready your pretzels and we won't assault your senses with loud, warped nonsense over the PA.” If that was Citi Field's stated rationale from jump street, I would have jumped in with both feet.

The things I liked about Shea Stadium I loved. And the things I didn't like about Shea Stadium I loved to complain about. They fixed a lot of what was wrong with the Shea experience at Shea inside Citi Field. I'm elated to give up my old complaints. I realized Saturday I could stop hiding spare bottlecaps on my person before heading to the game. They weren't going to take my bottlecap! I didn't have to keep a single between my fingers should an usher and a rag emerge from a shadow to show me a seat that was numbered clearly. I could clap my hands on my own steam, not because “everybody” was instructed to. I'm happy to stop complaining about what I hated from Shea Stadium. I appreciate that somebody somewhere figured out a few simple ways of making going to a game more pleasant and, just as importantly, less unpleasant.

And the food is indeed to die for rather than from. Nobody doesn't love the food. I've never encountered so many answers to “how was the game?” that started with “I had the pulled pork sandwich.” It's a 180 from “Olerud lashed a double, scoring Rickey and Fonzie, we all went crazy and oh, by the way, I didn't get ptomaine poisoning.” Mind you, I wouldn't stand in an interminable line for a kidney unless I absolutely, positively needed one, so I haven't sampled some of the more celebrated menu items where innings go by while your burger is created, but I am enchanted by what I've chewed to date. I particularly like the World's Fare Market because its goods are not just delicious but just a grab away. Stephanie and I split a Mets cupcake from the WFM at the preseason workout, so now when I'm going to Citi Field, she asks, “Can you bring home one of those cupcakes?”

When was the last time anybody asked you to bring back food from a Mets game? Unless it was for a fraternity prank?

Food ain't really why you go to a ballgame, so I wouldn't say I love it as much as I like it. There's lots to like. Because I think you should have freedom of movement in general in this world, I like that last Saturday when I wanted to meet up with some of my favorite fellow bloggers before the game, there was a place to do it, down 42 way, without fear of being moved along. I like the Rotunda just fine, I certainly respect the reasoning behind it even if it feels like we've been assigned social studies homework when all we're trying to do is go to a baseball game. I'm really, really liking that bridge, where I spent several minutes leaning back and chatting with a friend I bumped into prior to heading to my perfectly lovely green seat Saturday. I like the vantage point; I like that it represents a landmark between left and right fields, thus a You Are Here for where you are; I like the view behind me (the old Apple), before me (the field) and above me (the stands, the sun, the planes).

I like that the bridge and its environs inadvertently forced me into an odd situation when my friend and I parted ways. The national anthem had begun. I wanted to get moving, stop by the dividerless men's room — don't like that — and the World's Fare. At Shea, if I had places to go before first pitch and the anthem was underway, it was little more than background noise in the concourse. Out there, at Citi Field, most people stopped whatever they were doing, removed their caps as instructed (I could do without the stage direction) and stood at attention. I found myself walking around and realizing what was going on and stopped myself. Even though I really had to go to the bathroom, even though I wanted to make my purchase, even though I needed to hustle up to the Promenade, it felt right to pause among my fellow Mets fans for the bombs bursting in air, et al.

Lots to like, enough to doubt. I have my doubts that we're going to see enough of the field to fully inform us, whether it's because of obstructions or blind spots (formed by the obstructing nature of certain angles of the building). I doubt we're ever going to be sated by the Mets Quotient of the Mets' home park. This is a separate post (hell, it's ten separate posts, several of which I've already written), but there are so many ways to emphasize the nearly half-century the Mets have already put on the wall, yet the Mets have been bizarrely determined to leave their wall blank for as long as they can [1]. I doubt many Mets fans care as I do, but I doubt we'll ever see any substantial evidence that the Brooklyn Dodgers had company representing New York National League baseball before there were Mets. I saw three older men in NY Giants caps in the Rotunda. I exchanged the briefest of simpatico with one of them. His expression was one of dismay, but I could be projecting my feelings onto his face…though I don't think I was. And whatever happened to the setting highlight [2] to be known as “Coogan's Landing” anyway?

I can't speak definitively to the sense that fans aren't or will never be as raucous as they were at Shea. I've been to two games, one of them terrible, one of them gripping. It's not a decent sample. But I am convinced we have raised a generation of Mets fans that requires an electronic tickle to get a decent LET'S GO METS! chant going (and, by the way, that rather statist LET'S GO METS sign above CitiVision puts me in mind of The Office when generally unsmiling Dwight was placed on the party planning committee and he mirthlessly hung nothing more than a plaintive IT IS YOUR BIRTHDAY. sign in the conference room). I feel liberated from a surfeit of dopey audio cues for when to cheer, but the audience for Mets-Brewers on Saturday seemed unmoved to act and react when its team could use a shove. Only when the video board got involved did they roar. The wave, however, started organically; oy.

While the Promenade's Upper Deck/Mezzanine hybrid is aesthetically pleasing, it's not paradise up there, not quite, not yet. I'm not complaining about the revolution in legroom, but I feel a bit disconnected from everybody else. Yes, there are those I'd have paid a premium from whom to be disconnected in the Upper Deck, but there was a “we're all in it together” vibe in the parking lot formerly known as Shea Stadium. I'm not quite feeling it in two dates at the Prom, though it's only two and neither game has been an exhilarating 10-9 slugfest. It is disconcerting how far above and below I am from adjacent rows, though the cupholders are nice. It is more comfortable, though I don't remember feeling exquisitely squeezed at Shea. Ah, let's err on the side of comfort — and structural integrity, too. Still, it is my habit to semi-consciously bop along to “Lazy Mary” and feel the ballpark earth move under my feet. When I did so Saturday, it literally didn't feel right. When you shook your groove thing at Shea, Shea shook with you. It didn't take a ten-run inning to turn Shea into a shake shack. It took simply getting up and stretching. It's probably safer this way, but I kind of missed the specter of instability.

I watched the Saturday game and nothing but the Saturday game, which is to say I did not roam as I did Thursday [3]. I could see Johan just fine. If I had gotten up to check out the mini-food court on Promenade, I wouldn't have seen anything. There are no monitors back there, which seemed strange when I noticed this afterwards. It's also a little offensive that after being told a club existed on every level — Excelsior! Empire! Caesars! Is this a ballpark or Plato's Retreat [4]? — that every level's club requires a special ticket, and I never seem to have one. This is one of those situations where if you didn't situate it so tantalizingly in my midst I wouldn't want in, but you did and I do, if just for a look-see. A little too much exclusivity at the top of the park. A little schleppy getting down the stairs when all was over. And to echo Dana Brand's comprehensive spiritual overview [5] on another matter I noticed but couldn't quite identify why it bothered me, the disembodied clang of Cow-Bell Man was downright spooky. (While the sudden reappearance of “Sweet Caroline,” pretty obviously detested by half the house, is simply mystifying.)

I'll confess to one change of opinion from where I was during the runup to World Class Citi Field, and I point to it, à la Terence Mann in Field of Dreams, as someone who was the East Coast distributor of Shea Stadium attachment. I wanted them to keep Shea alongside Citi [6]. I had this idea that it was too beautiful to lose and marginally functional enough to maintain in some small way. As I sat and stared down toward the mound while Santana and Gallardo exchanged zeroes, I realized, no, that was silly. Romantic but silly. These people here, at Citi Field, they weren't looking back toward Shea. Even I'm doing it less and less. Nevertheless, and perhaps this should be filed under the Mets and their expertly hidden history, I am amazed at how intent the Mets were on making Citi Field the UnShea. Lots of good reasons to do that, as catalogued above, but they really must have hated where they were. Yeah, there's the Apple and the Skyline, but that's found art at this point. Otherwise, I don't think there are five words officially sanctioned at Citi Field that you'd hear as a matter of course at Shea Stadium. Even the rows have numbers instead of letters. If they could sell dogs hot instead of hot dogs, they'd do it.

The New York Mets are a long-running series that its producers determined needed a major recast. Out went one of its old characters, in came a new one. They gave the old character a memorable farewell story arc. The new character is going to need time to establish itself. Mike Farrell took over for Wayne Rogers, Kirstie Alley replaced Shelley Long and Citi Field is succeeding Shea Stadium. It's a different character and we will discover its character. As pretty as it is, I don't know what it's all about, probably because it's not about anything yet. When Stephanie and I were planning our wedding, we discussed a First Dance song. I played her one she didn't know but that I thought fit the occasion perfectly, “You're A Special Part Of Me” by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. Her response was, “That song means nothing to me.” Right now I feel the same way about Citi Field. It's not a special part of me. That's not a knock, it's a fact. I've just been introduced to its melody. The lyrics will come eventually.

Sometimes it'll be great. Sometimes it'll suck. One way or another, it'll be the Mets.

Good reading between homestands can be found between the covers of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon [7], Barnes & Noble [8] or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook [9].