Turn back the clock ten years or so. You could not have imagined it. Not in this city, not in New York. Too much red tape. Too costly. Environmental issues every which way you look. Now flip to the present. Oh, what a difference a decade makes. As the week of April 12, 2009 arrived, here was this confluence of events that could only happen — well, in New York.
Two new ballparks, just seven miles apart, debuting to the public in the same week. In the Bronx, the Yankees opening the gates to the new Yankee Stadium, a truer-to-the original (at least from the exterior) House that Ruth Built, rising just yards from the old-yet-renovated and about-to-be-demolished rendition. To the east, over the RFK (formerly Triborough) Bridge, there’s Citi Field, successor to the now departed Shea Stadium, its cavernous hulk reduced to a parking lot in just a few short months.
As a lifelong baseball junkie and devoted Mets fan, I could not wait until Opening Day to sample Citi Field. Watching it slowly rise up (photo: Loge13.com) from the Shea parking lot during the past two-and-a-half years, I was more than anxious to get a taste of what fans in so many other cities have experienced in the past decade — a real ballpark. I set out to preview the newest Queens attraction on the first weekend in April as the Mets hosted the Red Sox in a two-game exhibition series – a dress rehearsal, if you will, for the regular season opener on April 13 (which I attended as well).
But first, a few words about the late Shea Stadium, may it rest in peace. When it opened in 1964 as a towering (and permanent) sideshow to the World’s Fair, Shea was considered a modern marvel. The first of the multi-purpose baseball-football facilities, Shea was a Roman Coliseum by the (Flushing) Bay, a steel and concrete behemoth of a scale and proportion rarely seen before. The original Coliseum, however, would prove to have a slightly longer run than Shea. Within its first five years, Shea hosted some iconic
events, from the Beatles’ landmark concert to the Jets’ AFC title win to the Amazin’ Mets ’69 World Series triumph. But by the late 70’s, Shea was a decaying, outdated hulk, its 57,000 seats bleached by the sun and increasingly empty. With the Mets reeling on the field and the city still crawling out of a recession and beset by rising crime, Shea was as much a bleak sign of the times as it was a shining beacon of the future back in ‘64. It did receive a breath of fresh air in the 80’s, thanks to a round of renovations (new seats, a fresh coat of paint) and a revival of the Mets, World Champs in ‘86. Throughout the 90’s, however, as new fan-friendly retro-style parks sprung up across the country, even in such baseball “hotbeds” as Arlington , TX and Denver, CO, Shea grew more and more obsolete. Fans like me developed a burning sense of ballpark envy. After my first visit to Camden Yards in Baltimore, the prototype of the new ballparks, I thought, “I want one of these in Queens.”
Plans for a new home heated up in the late 90’s, but were derailed, in part by 9/11. But within a few years, as the city and the economy recovered, the plans for Citi Field became a reality. By the summer of 2006, contractors were already at work in the Shea parking lot measuring off the footprint of the ballpark-to- be.
So as Citi Field took shape, rising brick by brick throughout 2007 and 2008, a feeling of great anticipation and excitement grew. Despite the crushing defeats that laid waste to our seasons over the past three years, there was the promise of Citi Field serenading us from beyond the outfield wall. A new home of better sightlines, more palatable food and more plentiful bathrooms. What more could a fan ask for?
Not that I greeted the demise of Shea without some remorse. Since 1969, I’d attended at least one game a year (and in 1986, 19 to be exact) for 40 seasons. Shea was often referred to, derisively (and sometimes affectionately) as a dump. Maybe so, but it was my dump. And I grew to love the place (well, maybe love is too strong a word) – despite the swirling winds, poor sightlines, architectural blandness, and, to put it mildly, lack of ambiance. As the end grew near, I engaged in a long goodbye with Shea, collecting a trove of memorabilia to complement my memory bank — a brick from the stadium’s foundation, a limited edition silver medallion, an aluminum can of Bud, even a small replica enclosed in a glass case that lights up and plays “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. During these past winter months, I would drive by every few weeks, watching as it was hacked and chipped away until it was no more. A few days before the final section of its foundation toppled to the ground, I paid my last respects, parking my car by the roadside and photographing what was left of the old place in its final death throes.
Hello Citi Field
But I was ready to move on. So on April 4, I took the 7 train to Citi Field, anxious to enter a new chapter in my life as a baseball fan.
As I walked down the stairs from the Willets Point train station, I was filled with an odd sensation. One part sadness, three parts exhilaration. To the left, where Shea once stood, was a mound of concrete and heavy machinery, removing the final remains of this once muscular facility. Photo-shopped from the Queens landscape by a small army of demolitionists! In front of me stood Citi Field, designed with a nod to the venerable and legendary Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The exterior is not as classic or original as Ebbets Field, which blended so snuggly into its Flatbush environs. Citi Field is squeezed between Roosevelt Avenue and the Northern Boulevard; its right field side abuts a small village of unsightly chop shops. There really is no neighborhood with which to commune.
But that’s okay. Once you step inside Citi Field, you enter a neighborhood unto itself. The village gate, if you will, is the magnificent rotunda that greets you upon entry to the park. Inspired by the grand entrance to Ebbets Field, the rotunda, with its high ceiling, majestic lighting and sweeping stair cases, is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed in a ballpark. It is aptly named for Jackie
Robinson. Although never a Met, he was a great American whose enduring legacy is wonderfully captured in this monument to his extraordinary courage, talent and spirit. Over the years, thousands of young people who may not be familiar with Robinson will walk away from Citi Field having learned something new and special about this sports and civil rights pioneer. They will also walk away a few pounds heavier, but more on that in a moment.
From the rotunda, you can head in any number of directions within this very appealing, fan friendly ballpark. I stress the word ballpark, because Shea was very much a stadium, too large of scale, too intimidating, too featureless to be tagged a ballpark. Unlike Shea, Citi Field is a place of many angles, corners, turns and vantage points. It is built for watching a baseball game. It plays to one’s voyeuristic impulses, with its open concourses, low hanging porches, glass enclosed suites and clubs, encouraging (enticing, really) you to
eye the game from as many approaches as the planes landing at nearby LaGuardia. Its outfield wall is a quirky thing of beauty (or a monstrosity if you’re squeamish outfielder), with more twists and turns than a Hitchcock thriller.
Here’s a video, courtesy of On The Black, from Opening Day at Citi Field:
If you’ve patronized any of the newer parks in Baltimore, Philly, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Denver, or wherever, you may be thinking been there, done that. Or maybe you’re among the privileged in Boston or Chicago who feel you have a monopoly on ballpark ambiance and we pretenders can keep our erector set wannabe Fenway’s and Wrigley’s. I understand your sense of elitism when it comes to ballparks. Fenway and Wrigley are gems, not to be replicated. So be it. Citi Field may not be the most original of ballpark creations, and only time will tell if it develops its own unique identity, but it’s such a step up from what we’ve ever seen in Queens (or the Bronx, for that matter), allow us deprived ones to enjoy the heck out of it for the next 20-30 years.
There’s so much after just two glances that intrigues me about Citi Field – and yes, a few things that don’t. In time, as I explore all the
nooks and crannies of the park, my list of likes and dislikes will surely wax and to a lesser extent, wane.
Above all, Citi Field is more intimate and inviting than Shea, downscaled by about 14,000 seats. The sightlines, with exception of some sections in the outfield corners, are vastly improved. But here’s the paradox — the place also feels more airy, more expansive than its predecessor. With its open and wider concourses, generous offering of patios, decks and porches, it provides a lot more room to breathe and circulate. It takes you in so many directions – into the sun, hidden by the shade, lured by the smell of barbecue or the comfort of soft ice cream. In many respects, it is more than a ballpark – it is a park, period.
Got anything to eat around here?
Okay, so now it’s a neighborhood and a park. Which brings me to the food. More words have already been written on Citi’s Field’s gastronomic fare than its sightlines and outfield dimensions. Simply put, the food is plentiful and of great variety. And reasonably priced for a spanking new $800 million dollar facility. You can dine in style in any one of the several elegant club lounges throughout the park, or you can grab a dog and fries (Nathan’s of course) and lounge at a picnic table. Sushi? Barbecued tacos? Coal oven pizza? Grilled sausages? Got it all. How about a pulled pork sandwich or the best burger in town? Shake Shack and Blue Smoke, two of Danny Meyer’s venerable Manhattan foodie outposts, have set up shop at the Citi. They stand side by side on an expansive plaza behind one of the two massive scoreboards in centerfield. Lured by the intoxicating aromas and well-earned reputation of Meyer’s addictive burgers and barbecue, there are sure to be mosh pits lining up at this end of the park for generations to come. It’s worth the wait and you don’t have to worry about missing single pitch. The center field scoreboard is double-sided so as you wait in line, you can watch the game on a massive high def screen while you’re reminded to wash down your chow with a Bud.
In my two trips thus far to the Citi, I sampled the ballpark from a dizzying variety of angles. Ten rows behind home plate in plush, cushioned seats; in the upper deck behind third base; on a small patio about 20 rows up from home; high above right field on the Pepsi Porch; on the flat screen televisions at the bar in the Delta Sky
Club — one of several such clubs around the park (a great place, by the way, to dine before the game or take a break from your seats during the game, and in April or late September, hard by Flushing Bay, it’s also a good place to stay warm for an inning or two); from the footbridge in right-center field that spans above the bullpens (what’s one more bridge in Queens?); and most enjoyably, from the concourses that wind around the park. They are low ceilinged and can get congested in parts (most notably, where the density of concession stands is greatest), but the ability to walk along the concourses, grab a beer (or sit at one of the bars that are scattered around the park) and a hotdog and be able to keep you eye on the game (or at least the scoreboard) is a treat. Open concourses are a novelty in New York sports facilities. We haven’t seen them since the old Yankee Stadium (actually, the old, old Yankee Stadium) which closed for renovations after the ’73 season.
For every silver lining, a cloud…
What don’t I like about the Citi? For one, there’s little or no connection to the Mets’ past. There’s an obvious link to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ past, but not the New York Mets. I have not yet scoured every corner of the park, but there are no apparent reminders of the Mets’ 47 year history, pre-Citi Field. I’m all for starting anew, but no statues, banners, busts, mementos from Shea? It’s like Mets history was carted away on a flatbed with the last piles of rubble from Shea Stadium. Now, some Mets fans would not complain, but I feel a very strong affinity with Mets legend and lore, and I’ll just have to rely on my memory and vast collection of Mets detritus to keep me connected to the likes of Ed Kranepool, Mookie Wilson and Lee Mazzilli. At least Mr. Met came along for the ride. You can’t rid Flushing of Mr. Met.
And then there’s the view — or lack thereof. Without the view, it gives the park a bit of generic flavor, softening some of its New Yawkishness. From the lower levels, at least, there isn’t much, save for the planes landing at LaGuardia. From the upper level, you get a glimpse of the industrial Queens expanse. Not pretty. Staring you in the face all game are the two massive scoreboards, the giant Pepsi sign in right and the Geico Gecko high above left field. Now, I actually like large scoreboards. They add a colorful, big event quality to the park. Shea had a wonderful, monstrous scoreboard, one of my favorite features of that dear departed place. And the Pepsi sign at Citi Field adds a nostalgic touch, especially at night, serving as a red-lit beacon to those who prefer carbonated to brewed. But given a choice, I prefer a view of the outside world.
I like the exterior design of the park; it’s not Ebbets Field, but it’s a pretty good approximation. I would have preferred, however, if they dominated the exterior with dark brick, as opposed to the light brick that dominates once you get past the Rotunda. Dark brick would give it a warmer, more retro, less ersatz feel.
Of course, there’s a lot more to explore at Citi Field. A great ballpark can take a lifetime to fully absorb. I look forward to summer days and evenings and hopefully a few cold, raucous nights in October. I’d like to stand high atop the right field porch, a Shackburger in hand, the wind from Flushing Bay numbing my cheeks, the whole park sprawled out in front of me like some baseball canyon by the expressway. A crack of the bat, the smell of beer and hot dogs. The white noise of 40,000 people having fun.
Finally, baseball bliss after all these years.