My Impressions of Citi Field, Part II: The Crowd and the Quiet

 100_3579-1 by you.

Now I want to talk about some things I’m not sure I liked, on my first visit to Citi Field.  I reserve the right to revise everything I say here.  These are first impressions and I am hoping that they will change.   

I felt, once I was seated and once the game began, that there was a kind of dullness in the stadium, a kind of eerie quiet.  I was surprised by this because I had expected the experience of the game itself to be as happy and lively and pleasant as the pre-game atmosphere.  It wasn’t.  In fact, I didn’t enjoy watching the game anywhere near as much as I enjoyed watching games at Shea.  I have thought long and hard about the reasons why this may have been.  As I said in my earlier post, I am committed to learning to love Citi Field and I am committed to being fair in my evaluation of it.

I believe that part of the reason there was a kind of dullness during the game is that everyone was so pre-occupied with their own explorations of the stadium.  Certainly a lot more people were walking around in the concourses than would ever have been walking around in the concourses at Shea.  I could see the Shake Shack – Blue Smoke area from my seats in section 502 and the area was packed for the entire game.  So a lot of people at the stadium were not paying as much attention to the game as they will be later in the year when the novelty has worn off.

There was also, I think, a little bit of a stun effect.  We are never as spontaneous in a new, unfamiliar environment as we are in a familiar environment.  Even though there were plenty of exciting moments in a thrilling game, people didn’t seem to have their responsive reflexes working.  People didn’t leap to their feet as often as they normally would at Shea, and there were many fewer spontaneous cheers for players coming to the plate, or for second strikes, or for happy, surprising developments in the game.  There were very few points at which there was a successful “Lets Go Mets” cheer that had not been prompted by the scoreboard.  I think this stun effect will go away.  I assume that as we get used to the stadium, we will feel less self-conscious about making noise and getting excited. 

If the novelty wears off and people spend less time exploring the stadium, if everyone, with time and warmer weather, starts feeling more comfortable and spontaneous, will the traditional levels of Mets fan noise and enthusiasm return?  Maybe.  But I think that there are a couple of reasons to fear that they may not.

Here’s one part of the problem:  Some of the shortcomings of Shea were conducive to the intense, enthusiastic involvement of the crowd and some of the advantages of Citi Field may prevent it from ever being as loud and as lively as Shea was when the Mets were playing well. 

At Shea, the concourse areas behind the stands were so unpleasant that no one was tempted to linger in them.  As soon as you could get back to your seat, you did.  And one of the pleasures of Shea, of course, was emerging from the darkness of the concourses into the brilliance of the great bowl of light, where everything of significance was happening.  At Citi Field, even after the novelty has worn off, the pleasant concourses, food plazas, and shops will continue to be distracting.  It will be as nice to watch the game from behind the stands as it will be to watch the game from the stands.  There’s a possibility, at least, that the distractions behind the stands will always drain some of the crowd’s energy and shift some of its focus.  

In the seats in which I normally used to sit at Shea (the Loge and the Mezzanine), if something important happened, everyone always leapt to their feet.  You had to stand up because if the person in front of you stood up, you couldn’t see anything.   In the Promenade Level of Citi Field, where I expect to sit for the rest of my life, the pitch of the seats is so steep that it isn’t necessary to jump up to see an important play.  I noticed that people were almost never jumping or standing up.  Part of this was because their view was not being impeded, but part of it was also because the steepness of the pitch was a little scary.  If you jumped up, the seat in front of you could not serve as a security railing, as would have been the case at Shea.  And if you jumped up, you could sense that if you stumbled, you would break your neck.  Here again, an advantage could involve a disadvantage.  In the Promenade Level, people weren’t blocking your view, and people weren’t standing up.  Maybe this will change and maybe it won’t. 

With more legroom and with the steeper pitch of the seats, at least in the Promenade Level, you are not right on top of the people in front of you, as you were at Shea.  This is undeniably a good thing in terms of personal comfort.  But I wonder if it is one of the reasons why the crowd didn’t feel right to me.  At Shea, you were always aware of the people in front of you and behind you because everyone was uncomfortably on top of everyone else.  Spontaneous conversations were frequent, enthusiasm was immediately contagious.  You always felt that you were in the middle of a crowd.  I didn’t feel this way at Citi Field, because I had more personal space.  I didn’t hear anything anyone else said.  I didn’t have any awareness of my neighbors.  I know that this is supposed to be a good thing.  I was more comfortable.  But I can’t help but wonder whether this was another reason why the crowd was not cohering.  Will the greater space and comfort of the new stadium make it harder for us to come together, or will new pathways develop to conduct our enthusiasm? 

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was my negative reaction to the fact that there is no longer a walkway in front of the sections of the stands.  Until I watched the game the other night in Citi Field, I didn’t realize just how much I have always liked the constant buzz created by the parade and cries of the vendors and by the endless and fascinating procession of fans walking in front of the seats.  It seemed to me that there were hardly any vendors.  Certainly no one came by all evening to try to sell us peanuts and cracker jacks or Pepsi.  Maybe they’ve cut back on the number of vendors because there are so many more food options.  All I know is that I missed their constant and familiar racket.  I missed their bright yellow green shirts and their trays of soda.  I know it seems perverse to be complaining about people no longer walking in front of my view of a spectacle, but I am serious about this.  It was part of what I felt to be a diminished sense of the crowd while I was in the stands.  I felt as if I was in the middle of a very long row of seats, staring at the back of people’s heads.  It was like being in a movie theatre with stadium seating.  I didn’t see anybody.  I didn’t feel as if I was at the game with all these strangers I could see and even talk to.  There was something missing.  Nothing was bringing us together.  At Shea, Cow-Bell Man would walk in front of everyone on the walkways and we would all join together in our section responding to him.  I heard Cow-Bell Man all during the game in the way in which you hear someone banging on a pipe.  He would surface every once in a while, to stand on the little landing between each section, but he would have to descend to the concourse behind the stands in order to move on to the next section.  It wasn’t the same.  We didn’t see Mr. Met in our area of the stands.  Without a walkway, he would not have been able to parade through the stands the way he used to at Shea.  If he had come to our section, he would have been as marginalized as Cow-Bell Man was. 

Yet another element that made it difficult to feel the crowd was the lighting.  It’s probably that I’m just not used to it, but I didn’t like the way the stands were lit.  I’m sure it’s not my imagination.  Shea was much brighter.  I didn’t get the impression that I have written about in my books of “a magical bright green daylight.”  The field was sufficiently well-lit, of course, but the stands were darker and they felt shadowy and there was even what I felt to be a kind of dour impression created by the dimmer lighting and the dark green seats.  Maybe this was a green thing and maybe it is therefore wrong for me to complain about it.  But I missed the sense that I always had at Shea that everything in my field of vision was as brightly lit as it could possibly be, including and especially my neighbors in the stands, whom I could see beside me, in front of me, in back of me.  And when I walked along the walkway in front of the stands, I was always thrilled by the spectacle of the brilliantly illuminated faces, the infinite particularized diversity of the New York crowd.  I didn’t see this at Citi Field.  I got my fullest sense of the crowd when I went behind the stands, to go to the bathroom, or to get food.  There was a sense I had all evening that somehow Citi Field was inside out. 

The peculiar, comparative absence of sound may or may not have had anything to do with a lack of crowd cohesion.  I wondered, as I looked around the stadium, whether there were acoustical differences between Shea and Citi Field that accounted for the differences in the sound.  It certainly seems to be the case that very few seats at Citi Field have any kind of roofing or canopy over them.  Part of the volume of Shea sound may have been created by the fact that large portions of the Loge and Mezzanine, the acoustical heart of the stadium, and often the most densely populated parts of the stadium, were covered in some way.  The sound reverberated.  At Citi Field, much of the sound that people are making may be getting lost.  People may be cheering and not hearing each other. 

There’s another factor that may have contributed to my sense that the crowd was not entirely “there,” or that they were not “there with me.”  And here I have to mention the thing about Citi Field that I will go so far as to say that I hate.  I don’t blame the Mets for this, because what I hate is something that is a part of the way in which baseball in general is developing.  This is a feature of the game that is involved now whenever an old stadium is replaced by a new stadium.  But I want to address this, because I want someone to say something about how hateful this development is, even though there is nothing that can be done about it.  The thing that I hate about Citi Field is probably going to keep it from ever being as loud as Shea.  And it is the reason why, for all of its advantages and amenities, I will never think of Citi Field as being as pleasant a place as Shea at which to watch a ballgame.    

All my life I have paid what I consider to be a fair price for a ticket to a baseball game.  At Citi Field the other night I still paid a fair price.  $23 was a reasonable price to pay for my seat and so I am relieved to find that, for the time being, at least, ordinary people can afford to see the Mets play.  I don’t have a problem with the price of the tickets I will actually buy.   It is true that these seats in the greatly improved new stadium were nowhere near as good as the seats I used to pay $27 to sit in at Shea, in the Loge.  I was much closer and had much better “sightlines” in my old seats at Shea and I felt as if I was in the very heart of the stadium.  At Shea, I could also always see the entire field (that’s part of what good “sightlines” means, I suppose).  In section 502 at Citi Field, I couldn’t see a nice-sized slice of right field and I wasn’t even in the seats that people have been complaining about. 

Anyway, I grant that seats at the ballpark are still affordable.  But here is the difference.  At Shea, virtually everyone paid a price for their ticket that was somewhere between $12 and $80.  Great seats in the Mezannine and Loge were available for prices in the $20s and $30s.  There was the Diamond Club, an exclusive area for season-ticket holders completely hidden, along with just a few luxury boxes, in the narrow press level.  But although there was some range in the ticket prices, everyone was going to a ballgame in the same universe.  All of the tickets were in what I could plausibly consider my price range.  When something great happened in a ballgame, everybody was able to feel close to everyone else in the stadium because everyone was in the same universe, in the same sunshine, eating the same hot dogs.  Everybody was able to be a part of the great illusions of democracy and equality that have always been an essential part of the heritage of baseball.  For almost a century and a half, Americans have been going to ballparks where rich and poor could experience the pleasure of caring about the same thing in exactly the same way.  Yeah, it was an illusion, but it was a noble illusion.   Baseball brought very different people together and this was something you always heard in the grand, broad, reverberating thunder of the crowd at Shea.

It is different now.  Now the bulk of my baseball stadium is taken up by seats that have cost someone as much or more than the cost of a tasting menu at a restaurant that earns three stars in the Michelin Guide.  An enormous chunk of the stadium, its heart, is taken up by the club levels, the areas that are off limits to most of the people in the building, where people with more money than they know how to use intelligently have paid hundreds of dollars for seats no better than my old $27 Loge seats, in which they may simply enjoy the privilege of watching the game, if they choose, from an airport lounge with casino light bulbs in the ceiling that is not significantly more comfortable than a typical sports bar in a strip mall.  Others are sitting behind glass in luxury boxes some company has bought so that clients may watch a ballgame with amazing amenities like private bathrooms and refrigerators, luxuries you can normally only have in your own home.   Exclusivity, once hidden away on the press level because it was somehow not in the spirit of the game, is now on display everywhere.  It is now the stadium’s most marketable commodity, because I can’t think of any reason why anyone would buy any of the seats on the Club Level except to be able to experience some of that sense of exclusivity.  From my seat in the Right Field Promenade, I had to look, for the whole ballgame, at an absurd terraced restaurant, behind glass and with a TV at every table, where the amount people were paying for their seat and their meal was more than they would have paid for a meal at the most distinguished restaurants in the world. 

Every time somebody complains about this, other people say, “yeah, well, if people are willing to pay for this, who can blame major league baseball for wanting to sell it?’ or “what difference does it make to you if you can still get an affordable ticket for yourself.”  This is all true.  But I still say it is gross.  And the reason it makes a difference to me is that the crowd is no longer just the crowd at a baseball game.  It is fragmented and stratified.  And in the wealthy better neighborhoods of the new stadium there is a quiet and a stillness that you can often find in better neighborhoods everywhere.  I looked over at the off-limits heart of Citi Field and saw broad banks of empty seats at a game at which almost every seat was sold.  Nobody was there.  Had they bought their tickets and not shown up?  Were they in the lounges?  Were they behind the glass?  There was a crowd in the Promenade Level.  All kinds of people were waiting on line for cheeseburgers and ribs on the Field Level.  But in the broad area behind home plate, the area where I used to sit at Shea, there was an absence.  There was no sound.  For all that there were some real Mets heroics on the field that night, what was missing was what we had at Shea, the sense of blue and orange (Yes!  Blue and orange.  Blue and orange. Hear me! Listen!  Blue and Orange!) fellowship, the sense that all of us were here together to have the same experience, to share our lives and share our triumphs, to lose our differences and become, all of us, part of a great wall of terrifying, building-shaking sound.

Now that we have a stadium designed according to the new principles of baseball economics, what we had may never be recovered.  And the fact that I can still afford a ticket is not going to make me ignore my fear that something precious may have been lost.  I wonder if overcoming the sense that the heart of the stadium has been turned into a temple of excess is going to be the greatest challenge we face as we try to make Citi Field our home.  I certainly believe that it is a major part of the reason for the quiet.  We Mets fans are going to have to get to work, on a great many levels, if we want to feel at home in a place like this.  We will do this, won’t we, with the Mets’ help?  We have to find each other in this place.  We have to see ourselves and we will have to hear ourselves. 

 [More to Come]


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