I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I don’t understand that Citi Field is a better stadium than Shea. It would be a god-damned shame if it wasn’t, after all that has been learned about building stadiums over the past 45 years. The designers of Shea paid no attention whatsoever to the idea of making the interior of the stadium pleasant or even tolerable. They designed the stadium to serve both baseball and football. They were working in an era in which the most important architectural principle was accessibility to automobiles, in which ornamentation and finish were considered outmoded concepts, and in which concrete was considered to be an attractive as well as versatile building material. The seats at Shea were cramped. Shea wasn’t built to last. It didn’t.
But I loved Shea. I didn’t love it for its architectural features and amenities. I loved it because it was the place where I celebrated my tenth birthday, where I shared wonderful moments with my family, friends, and strangers, where I saw Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden pitch, where I saw Keith Hernandez play first base, where I saw Mike Piazza hit home runs, where I saw Melvin Mora come home with the run that forced a one-game playoff. It was the place where I danced to “Lazy Mary,” did “The Curley Shuffle,” sang “Meet the Mets,” cheered Cow-Bell Man and the Sign Man, and booed “Sweet Caroline.” I loved Shea for what I brought to it, for what the whole diverse and goofy crowd brought to it, and for what the Mets team and organization brought to it. The ability people have to fill even the unworthiest vessels with their hopes and dreams and love is one of the greatest things about human beings. We made that place our home. We met the Mets, and they were us.
When an important building gets replaced, the people who are replacing it need to manage a very difficult transition. Something has to be done to make the new place recognizable as the worthy emotional successor to the old place. If the transition is too abrupt, if long-time fans do not recognize themselves in the new, they feel a sense of loss that is even greater than what they may have felt when the old place was demolished. They ask, “do I belong in this new world or is there only room for the future?” Baseball can never be just about the future. Look at what it says on the bricks. Those are the messages Mets fans have written on their new stadium. Baseball is about a shared past looking forward hopefully to the future. It is about families and a community moving forward in time together. It is about Mets fans forever.
Don’t let any radio jocks tell you that none of this matters, that all people care about when they go to a ballpark is seeing the ballgame. Who the hell goes to a ballpark just to see a ballgame? If all you want to do is see a ballgame, stay home and watch it on TV. The view is better and Gary, Keith, and Ron will give you much better analysis than you’re likely to get from the people sitting next to you. You go to a ballpark to be someplace special. You go to be where it is happening. You go to be in the crowd. You go to be with your memories. You want to hear the sounds, and smell the smells. You go for the total emotional and physical experience. You want what you can’t get in your living room or in a sports bar. You want to have an experience that is, face it, spiritual. And to have that experience, the place you go to has to connect to your spirit.
Citi Field is a better stadium than Shea. It is a magnificent structure and it has some lovely spaces. It is comfortable and new. Now it is time for us, and for the Mets, to make it ours. Let’s all write on the walls, the way we used to write silly and clever Mets stuff on old sheets and carry them around at the old Banner Days. Let’s write on the walls the way the Sign Man did and Cow Bell Man does, or like that lady who wanted to marry Wally Backman. Let’s make the place ours with the sweet, indomitable spirit of Doris From Rego Park. Let’s give it some quirkiness, some patina, some history, and some noise. Let’s make it feel like Shea re-incarnated in all of the good ways. Let’s give it the spirit of Lazy Mary and ethnic days and Mr. Met. We have some things to overcome, if we want to make this park ours. We have all of those expensive, restricted areas that are not at all in the spirit of our all-inclusive, loving, goofy old ballpark. Too many of the walls in the new stadium are blank, too little of the place looks like us, too little of it says back to us: “Mets Fans Forever.” But if we could overcome Shea’s shabbiness, maybe we can overcome Citi Field’s right-out-of-the-box sterility. Maybe we can get the snobby new guy to take off his jacket and join the party that’s been going on for almost fifty years. Here’s hoping we can do this, with the help of the Mets team and the Mets organization. This party has been too much fun. It can’t end just because it has moved.