On June 9, 2009, I went to see the Mets play the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field. It was a historic game, for me. It was the first time I ever went to Citi Field and had an unambiguously great time. I enjoyed myself as much as I would have enjoyed a comparable game at Shea.
This didn’t happen because the game was wonderful. A wonderful game wouldn’t be enough to make me love a new stadium I didn’t like. The reason I enjoyed myself so much is that my baseball psyche is making an adaptation. I am beginning to appreciate Citi Field’s merits more and care about its faults less. I still care deeply about some of what I have identified in the past as Citi Field’s shortcomings, but I am reaching the point where I can go to a ballgame and not let my awareness of these shortcomings mar the whole experience.
One thing I did was I arrived later than I used to. I got there around ten to six instead of my usual quarter to five. Mets batting practice was over and so I didn’t have to think about what I hope will be the temporary loss of one of my favorite game-going rituals. When I have the platform that my new book will give me, I’m not going to shut up about how awful it is that in Citi Field you can’t get close to batting practice unless you have a ticket costing more than $180.
It was fun to park in the Roosevelt Avenue lot. Yeah, you read that right. That lot is a mess. It hasn’t been renovated at all. But when you get out of your car in the lot and smell the slightly salty windy air and look around at the elevated train tracks and the metal fences and see all the cops and the kids and the Reyes jerseys and Santana jerseys and people in folding chairs next to their cars, you feel as if you’re absolutely in the city and that is so cool. I’ve been spending too much time lately in quiet Connecticut.
I loved climbing over Roosevelt Avenue through the subway station and seeing the subway crowd joining the parking lot crowd, flowing into the LIRR crowd. I loved the walk across the big plaza, open to the sky, in front of the Rotunda. You saw everybody looking for the people they were supposed to meet. You saw people looking for and taking pictures of themselves with their bricks. You saw the little Master Card or Newsday tents or whatever they are and the little crowds they attracted. You could see inside the rotunda and see the escalators filled with people. I’m really developing an affection for this entrance. It gives you even more of a sense of the entering crowd than Shea ever did. The crowd isn’t spread out all around the circumference, with everyone finding their own little hole through which they can enter the building. There is a place where a big and interesting crowd gathers: a crowd you can watch as you stand by your brick. And then there is a grand space to enter and a magical and continuous elevation of the crowd by the escalators.
I entered the building and poked my head into the main gift shop. And here’s something new folks. Although it isn’t actually announced as such, and although it was kind of buried and obscured by piles of posters and little boxed replicas of Citi Field, there was a kind of cabinet that was kind of sort of a book section. In the shelves of this cabinet were four books: Ron Darling’s The Complete Game, Keith Hernandez and Matt Silverman’s Shea Goodbye, Alyssa Milano’s Safe at Home, Rusty Staub and Phil Pepe’s Few and Chosen. Literacy is making progress at the Mets stadium. I wonder how far this will go.
After my trip to the store, I indulged in what has already become one of the great pleasures of going to the game at Citi Field: the sweet, salivating contemplation of what one will have for dinner. I always knew what I was going to have for dinner at Shea. But Citi Field really does offer a cornucopia of affordable marvels. That area out by the bridge is like a gigantic tapas bar. I settled on the 3-taco sampler with the fabulous sauces and the Elote corn. I know that that’s what I had the last time I was at Citi Field, but I have been thinking about that meal ever since the last time I was at Citi Field and I had to have it again.
To eat my delicious dinner, I went up to my seat, for which I did not have great expectations. I had bought my ticket on the Web at the last minute (I had been afraid that it was going to rain). The cheapest seat I could get was a Promenade Box way out overlooking Left Field where you could famously see only one outfielder. Okay, I thought, at least I’ll see what the worst seats in the stadium were like.
Hey guys, those seats weren’t bad. In fact I loved them, even though it was true that I could only see one and a half outfielders (I say that because I could see the centerfielder if I leaned far forward in my seat). I realize that I’m just going to have to explore the affordable areas of the stadium to find my niche or niches. What’s cool about these left-field Promenade Boxes is that you are looking towards the batter and you also have the whole crowd in your field of vision. The crowd becomes the backdrop of the game. This almost makes you feel as if you’re inside the game. The home runs are hit towards you. This is a striking effect that you could only have, to some degree, in the picnic area at Shea. Next time, I want to try the Pepsi Porch, because that looks as if it would offer another version of what I enjoyed about my Left Field Promenade boxes.
I had fun talking, throughout the game, with the guy to my left, who identified himself as a “67-year old retired government employee.” He was an old Brooklyn Dodger fan and he could remember what it was like to be a five-year old black kid when Jackie Robinson made his debut. We reminisced about Shea. His top moment was seeing Seaver’s near-perfect game. My top moment was either the Agee Upper Deck home run or the Melvin Mora wild pitch. We talked about how both of us had bought tickets in the Loge behind the infield for around $25 for years. We laughed at how they had finally figured out that those were the best seats in the house and now, in the new stadium, they were selling our old seats for $250. As I gazed towards the great bank of seats that cost more than I would ever pay to see a baseball game (everything below the Promenade except the Mo Zone), I didn’t feel the bitterness I was feeling a couple of weeks or a couple of months ago. I didn’t like it, but I was getting used to it. These seats were fine.
As evening descended, I liked the seats more and more. The reason for this is that I really liked the light effect in these specific seats. One thing about Shea at night is that the light was extremely even. You were always in the same poignant, brilliant atmosphere. At Citifield, the old-fashioned light arches create a very uneven lighting effect. In some seats, this can look unpleasant, I think. You can be in darkness looking around at darkness interspersed with a kind of glare. But there was a very beautiful lighting effect in the seat where I was sitting (434, 4, 10) that reminded me of the way I remember New York streetlights in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, before they installed the too-bright mercury lights. It was a soft, white, vintage, almost black-and-white movie kind of light. I loved it. And although this isn’t the kind of thing people usually talk about when they go to a ballgame, it is very important to me. How a stadium feels when it is lit up at night is extremely, almost ridiculously important to me. It’s a hard thing to talk about because it is hard to find the vocabulary. When I watch a ballgame in a stadium at night, I like the light to create the impression that I am looking both into the past and into the future. What I just said doesn’t make any literal sense and yet I can’t be any more precise than this. It’s not enough to me that the players can see the ball. I need to have a certain sense of the poetry of the light, a sense that I am looking at a moment that looks backward and forwards. For some reason, the light in section 434 had that quality and I want to go back there again.
The game was the kind of game that makes you realize why you love baseball so much. Here was a contest between two teams whose identities are now intertwined. Right now, they are the team that came from behind to beat us twice. They have nothing to prove but something to defend. We have everything to prove. We already have a close pennant race. They are strong where we are weak. They are weak where we are strong. This could be one of the most dramatic seasons in the history of both franchises, and this is exactly the point, after one-third of the games, where seasons begin to settle into the patterns that will characterize them forever.
Santana was brilliant in the beginning, getting the Phillies to pop up all over the place. He struck out both Howard and Ibanez the first time he faced them, and I started to feel so confident. Maybe all we need is a run or two and then, after all the talk about David Wright not being able to hit home runs anymore, he hits one and thrills the crowd. Beltran hits another. It rises towards me and falls into the section just below me. We’re up 3-0 and our offense feels formidable. The crowd is loud and filled with passion and chanting whether or not the scoreboard is prompting it. All of my fears that the crowds at Citi Field will be quieter are gone completely. That was just shyness. Mets fans are as loud as they ever were.
And we’re worried as Howard and Ibanez hit their homers off Santana. Their 18th and 20th? What? What? Our whole team has 34. How can we beat a team that hits so many homers? Can their pitching be that bad? What if it gets good?
The Mets play with determination. Santana gets his groove back. Gary Sheffield makes a fabulous catch in the sixth, right up against the side wall. And then Jimmy Rollins, the man we hate because he annoyingly keeps saying, before it happens, that what will happen will happen, breaks our hearts by hitting a two-run homer to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead. But the Mets are still playing. Tatis seems to score to tie the game but the home plate umpire doesn’t think so. And then with runners at first and second, with two outs, after two failed bunt attempts, Santana shows bunt, pulls his bat back and whacks a double down the right field line to tie the game. Cora drives in the go-ahead run and then brilliantly takes second when the ball goes to the plate. In the seventh, Santana grabs from the air a Victorino line drive headed for center and throws to first to double up Bruntlett. We’re not only getting offense include home runs, we’re getting smart baserunning and great fielding! What more can we ask for? How about a Ryan Church home run to bring the score to 6-4? A home run that was sorely needed, as Utley comes through with the seventh homer of the game. Pedro Feliciano is brought in to make Mantle and Maris look like Heckyll and Jeckyll. And Frankie Rodriguez comes in and does what he always does. Always. It’s like having Mariano Rivera. Does anyone really understand what something like this feels like to a Mets fan? Hell, we’ve had great relievers before but have we ever had such a reliable one?
The home run barrage was hilarious, of course, considering all anyone’s been talking about all week is how hard it is to hit home runs in Citi Field. It’s still pretty hard to hit home runs in Citi Field, however. You can tell that by a feature of Citi Field crowd noise that I noticed for the first time at this game. At Citi Field, if a ball is hit really well by a Met, there is the crack of the bat and the corresponding swell of the crowd in response. As the ball travels, the swell increases and lifts and then flattens as some hesitation creeps in. Then, if the ball bounces off the wall and onto the field for an extra-base hit, there is an “awwwwwhhhhh” sound. You never heard this at Shea for a double or a triple. The crowd kind of knew from the crack of the bat or the arc of the ball whether it was a home run or not. The crowd doesn’t know this at Citi Field because hearing the home run crack and seeing the home run arc will sometimes mean the ball is leaving the park and sometimes it will not mean that.
The game was great. The crowd was in it. And all the Phillies fans (there were a lot of them) gave the game and the crowd dynamic extra color. They had their Championship shirts and banners and what difference does it make? Would any Mets fan begrudge the Phillies fans their joy in their team? I congratulated the Phillies fans sitting on my right. Isn’t the point really that we want our team to be more the way their team has been the past two seasons? For the first time I walked down the ramp that is on the outside of the stadium on the left field side and I had some of the old feeling that I used to have on Shea’s outer ramps. Mets fans and Phillies fans gave it to each other. We were so happy and loud, and they were not that unhappy, and they were not afraid to be loud either. It was so much more fun than the parking garage staircases people walk down in the other parts of the stadium.
It was a memorable game, and even more importantly to me, it was a truly pleasant stadium experience. I will always miss Shea, but I can’t do without the Mets. And although I love to watch them on TV or on the radio and listen to our superb broadcasters, radio and TV are still mediated encounters. Being at a ballgame removes a layer of mediation. You are there. You are in the midst of it. You are in the light, and in the pennant race, and in the past and in the future. You are there. And there is just about nothing that is as much fun than being right there where it is happening.