I went to Citi Field yesterday, bearing a ticket that said $180 on the front. Needless to say, I didn’t pay this. My sister Stefanie has a friend named Jeff who has a friend who works for a law firm that has these tickets. So Jeff got these tickets for the night and I went to the game with Jeff, his son William, and Stefanie. This is how I got to sip Myer’s rum straight from a snifter in the Acela Lounge at, shall we say, the ballpark.
So what is the Acela Lounge like? Simply exquisite. The designers have made bold and interesting decisions, creating a space that is of the ballpark yet transcends it in a striking and inventive way. This is a contemporary version of the clubby spaces in which New York’s sports aficianados have congregated for over a century (e.g. The Twenty One Club, Toots Shor’s). As soon as you enter it, you think, this is how to go to a ballgame! This is how to elevate the experience!
No, seriously. It looks like an airport lounge.
We sure as hell weren’t going to eat there for $48, so we took the escalators down to the areas of the stadium where they let everybody go. Farewell, I thought, oh favored realms to get into which you have to show a ticket with a three-digit number. Will I ever see you again? Not often, not so long as I still continue to have a five-digit income.
Before checking out the lively, festive (not) bar scene at the famed Acela, we did check out an equally exclusive experience down at our seats (which were six rows behind the Mets dugout). It’s called batting practice and I must tell you that it is so much fun. You get to stand behind the dugout and see the players up close. You get to see how they interact. You see Omar Minaya and Jay Horowitz. You feel a sense of intimacy and excitement. You are right in the heart of things, two hours before the game. Over in right field, we saw a whole mass of people shading their eyes and looking towards us and the players. I wonder who those people were.
For dinner, we went down to the food area out beyond right center field. Here is one of the great paradoxes of Citi Field. The food court in center is an absolute triumph of democratic values. Everyone in the stadium is entitled to buy superb food, not just good, not just good for a ballpark, but superb food, for very reasonable prices, not just good prices for a ballpark, but reasonable prices by any standard. If they had the centerfield food court set up in Manhattan, I would go there when I felt like having a reasonably priced delicious casual lunch. The food court is itself a destination. This time I had a soft taco sampler with wonderful sauces for $9.25, and a corn on the cob with a cheese crust flavored with Mexican spices that was so good it brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t help but also grab myself some clam and corn chowder later and if this was ancient Rome and if there had been a vomitorium over by the waffle ball court, I would have gone back for a some ribs and pulled pork from Blue Smoke, and tried what I’ve heard are some excellent Italian heros and pizza, and anyway, I can’t figure it out. I’ve heard from Jeff and from several other sources that the food in the Caesar’s club is very unimpressive. My biggest problem with Citi Field remains the fact that I find it still a somewhat unpleasant sociological experience. If this is the problem, how the hell did it happen that all the best food is available to everyone for prices that barely seem to cover costs?
So the game began and the seats were terrific and they offered a perspective on the stadium I had never had before. In the field level, you can really feel how much smaller Citi Field is than Shea. You don’t feel, as you did in the field level of Shea, as if you are at the bottom of something immense open at the far end to the sky. You feel as if you’re down in a not very deep well or walled enclosure. There is a pleasant intimacy, but there is a loss of the sense of height and the sublime. This is obviously an intentional trade-off that you can appreciate best in the $180 seats. The thing is that these seats really are not any better than the equivalent seats at Shea, which I didn’t sit in often, but when I did, I only paid $65. If I was someone who used to have field level seats at Shea and now had field level seats at Citi Field, I would have an enormous problem with this. What does it do to your experience of a baseball game to pay 50% more for your ticket than full-price for the best seats at a Broadway play or slightly more than front row center at the Metropolitan Opera? I was eager to find out.
I don’t think I did. I think I discovered, as the Mets and the Yankees are discovering, that there are few people either rich enough or profligate enough to spend this much money to see a baseball game. Right near us was a vast and virtually empty area where the seats were padded and looked like seats in an airplane. Above it was a balcony of two-thirds empty seats accessible only to one of the clubs.
Our own section was pretty full, but it seemed as if, like us, our neighbors hadn’t paid a high price for their tickets. They just ended up with them somehow. It was more than abundantly clear that a few of them did not have a lot of interest in baseball. A row of teenage girls behind us paid absolutely no attention to the game. And I’m not saying that a few loudmouths in our particular area are typical of the ones who sit there every night, but there were several independently existing prosperous young men who were outraged (that’s the only word to describe it) when Jose Reyes made an error. They shouted profane abuse at him when he came back to the dugout, abuse that he and all the little kids in the row behind the dugout could hear. One of them said, after David Wright struck out, “This is unbelievable! He can’t get around on an 88 mph fastball!” I hadn’t thought about hitting and pitching in this way before, but apparently some fans believe that good hitters are hitters who can hit all balls thrown under certain specific speeds.
I know that there are idiots and uninvolved fans at every level. But am I wrong to think that people sitting in the most coveted seats in a stadium might be people who are particularly knowledgeable about baseball, who enjoy it deeply, and are more involved in it than an average person? This is what was weirdest, I think, about sitting in the expensive seats. You were really close to the players. You were where everyone would want to be. And with all the empty seats and with a few clueless fans in the seats that weren’t empty, you didn’t really feel that you were right in the thick of New York Mets baseball. It’ll be fine with me to have to go back upstairs. In the meantime, I think they should do something about the empty seats. I know that they don’t want to lower the prices because the people who bought them first will feel ripped off (they’re not ripped off now?). So why don’t they give the empty seats to veterans, or to families of New York area police and firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty, or to families of people who died on 9/11? Then no one would have the right to complain, it would make the Mets look good, and the center of the stadium will have some life. Next year, they can sell all the seats in the stadium at prices that are more appropriate to the new economy. One of the continuing problems with Citi Field and the new Yankee Stadium is that they are already dated, in terms of their price structure and their socioeconomic architecture. They were planned when there still were hundreds of thousands of people in New York for whom money had no value.
I enjoyed watching Johan Santana pitching beautifully in spite of not having his velocity or his magical change-up. He is sublime. Lowe was fun to watch too. The baseball game was fascinating through seven innings. Then it went to hell. But still, the Mets had won seven in a row going into the game. There was no reason to despair, just as there is no reason to believe that they are invincible.
I like Citi Field more every time I go to it. But I still have to get used to it. And I continue to hope that the economy, and the Mets, will change it so that it will be easier for me to feel at home in it, as I always felt at home in Shea.