Monday, April 06, 2009

TerMET Art: Deeper into Baseball Land

The 7 Express train rumbled into Flushing, to a stop listed inside on the MTA map as "Willets Point - Shea Stadium." But as anyone on the 7 familiar with William A. Shea Municipal Stadium could plainly see, the striking blue horseshoe with its distinctive neon silhouettes had vanished without a trace, a small fenced-in patched of dirt in the center of a freshly asphalted parking lot the only hint of what had, until recently, stood proudly at 123-01 Roosevelt Avenue. In its place, a new ballpark for the New York Mets, Citi Field. I initially went to call Citi a new home for the Mets but something stopped me. It's not home. Not yet.

If you squint hard enough, Citi Field does look like home, or rather, the home of another team, Ebbets Field of ye old Brooklyn Dodgers. Before Ebbets fell to the wrecking ball in 1960, it housed generations of loyal fans of Dem Bums, including current Mets owner Fred Wilpon. He commissioned Citi Field as a sort of living memorial to Ebbets, and to that franchise's -- and maybe all of baseball's -- most important player, Jackie Robinson. Citi's distinctive, Ebbets-resembling entrance is the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, a beautiful memorial to baseball's color barrier smasher, including photographs, quotations and, most attractively, an enormous statue of Jackie's number 42, shining brightly in Dodger blue.

Though the Mets' existence is due in large part to the Dodgers' emigration westward in the late 1950s, and despite the appealingly classical feel of Citi Field's earthy exterior, there is something odd about using a ballpark to pay homage to a team's legacy, and having it be a team wholly distinct from the one who plays its games there. Another corner of Citi Field does feature large pictures of great Mets in their glory, but they feel a bit like false idols in their own house of worship.

Citi's interior largely abandons the turn-of-the-century design concept; that is, unless I'm mistaken and 1910s Brooklyn ballparks often featured accomodations like BBQ and seafood counters (and such diverse food offerings as pulled pork sandwiches and fried calimari), a sit-down restaurant nestled into the left field corner, an enormous two-floor team store near the Rotunda, and a 22,500 square foot "restaurant-cafe-bar-lounge complex" behind home plate. To be sure, Citi Field offers some significant advantages over its predecessor. Gone are the concrete walls that supported the Shea grandstands and obstructed the view of people strolling for hot dogs and beer; Citi Field's lower concourses provides marvelous vantage points of the playing field from just about every angle. And speaking of every angle, as someone who grew up at Shea, where the stands ended just beyond both foul poles, there's something exciting about a park with 360 degree walkways around the playing surface, and the dramatic vista from the bridge in right center field. As a fan of barbecue in general, and New York 'cue institution Blue Smoke in particular, I greatly approve of the admirably decadent notion of combining a beloved team with beloved food. And even without indulging in a bit of slow cooked pork, my first meal at the park was truly outstanding: a perfectly cooked burger and fries from another NYC restaurant transplant, Shake Shack.

The feelings a Met fan feels in this context are conflicted and confusing. On the one hand, Citi Field is an enormous technical upgrade from Shea Stadium in every possible way. Make no mistake: Shea Stadium was a dump. But for Mets fans, it was our dump. As I wrote last fall on the occasion of Shea's goodbye:

"Every inch of the concrete is cracked and dirty and no matter how long it's been since the last storm, puddles seem to accumulate everywhere. The food options, particularly in the upper deck where I spend most of my time, are laughably limited: if you're not into overcooked encased meats you're gonna be awfully hungry by the seventh inning stretch. Huge patches of seats in right field offer stunning views of the left field stands and absolutely horrendous sightlines to home. If you've got a Loge or Mezzanine seat more than ten or twelve rows back, I've got good news and bad news: the good news is if it starts to rain you'll stay bone dry; the bad news is that's because you're sitting under an overhang so severe you'll think you're watching the game through a slit cut in the bottom of a cardboard box."

At that time, I said I'd rather have Shea than Citi Field and, for now, my view remains unchanged. Of all our national sports, baseball is the one whose present is the most inextricably entwined with its history. And that's why even a dump like Shea Stadium can achieve such a vaulted place in the hearts of the people who go there. It doesn't matter whether the seats were uncomfortable or if the bathrooms were small. For every long-time Mets fan, our own personal histories of the team were played out in those crummy seats and cramped facilities. In his seminal baseball book The Summer Game, Roger Angell, writing about the demolition of the Polo Grounds, the Mets' first home, spoke about the almost alchemical hold these lost places have on our psyches and their "small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and alteration are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that we may not possess the scorecards and record books to help us remember who we are what we have seen and loved."

Ironically, the Polo Grounds' replacement was Shea Stadium, and Angell was not a fan. "On my first visit, the new ballyard," he wrote, "with its cyclotron profile, its orange and blue exterior spangles, and its jelly-bean interior looked remarkably like an extension of the [World's] Fair - an exhibit named 'Baseball Land.'" Angell found Shea modern, cavernous and cold. By the time I found it, it had aged into a lovably old-fashioned hovel and now I find his words echoing my own thoughts about Citi Field. Its blend of classical aesthetic and modern amenity is, of course, de rigueur for the current generation of "new ballyards" and has been ever since the runaway success of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in the early 1990s. After decades of cookie cutter multipurpose facilities (like, yes, Shea Stadium), the modern major league baseball field must give itself over to idiosyncracy. And Citi Field has them: three full decks in left field but only two in right to go along with its unpredictably zig-zagging fence. Of course, with so many "unique" parks littering the majors they're all beginning to look a little less innovative, "undistinguished and indistinguishable" as Angell so eloquently put it. This may have been one major contributor to the overwhelming feeling I had while walking to my seat in Citi Field that I was watching the Mets play a game on the road, instead of at home.

I am sure that will change with time. But for the moment, I still miss Shea. Citi Field is where the Mets play now, but Shea, paved into oblivion, still feels like home. Home is where the heart is, not where the best concession stands are. Despite the excited atmosphere at Citi Field, I knew I wasn't alone when, upon heading back to the 7 train, I spotted the following sign:

A little reminder that the Mets are still the primary draw for some people out here in Flushing. And some day Citi Field will earn its spot on this sign and in our collective hearts. It is exciting to have a shiny new stadium. But I'd be lying if I didn't say I missed Shea more than a little bit.



Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

It's also disappointing that HOK Sports (who just changed their name to Populous), who designed Camden, have designed 14 of the 19 new stadiums since. Their throwback style has dominated. We need to start a new wave. I see a lot of glass. And gothic spires.

11:58 PM  
Blogger P.L. Kerpius said...

I saw on your Twitter page that you mentioned it's similar look to Miller Park in Milwaukee, which based on the photo you have here, I thought of too. But this is really sweet, MS; I'm not even there anymore, and haven't been for years now, and this is affecting. I think the thing for me is that when the day comes for a visit to the park I'm going to feel oddly out of place, it's going to remind me that the old city I knew did not stop and wait for me after I left. Aww. Good old Shea. In all of its dumpy glory.

I moved around enough as a kid that I haven't seen such drastic change happen before my eyes. But I do recall as a kid in Minneapolis wondering where the hell the Met Center went when it was torn down for a mall; we used to see the North Stars play there. People had the same reactions in Denver when Mile High became Invesco Field--ick! And every time I drive past the metallic-topped Soldier Field on Lake Shore Drive here in Chicago, I wonder, "How did they get the flight of the navigator to land on those stone pillars like that?"

I think the hardest part of all the stadium updates though, is the sheer fact of the ticket price increase. Live games are quickly becoming a past time of the rich. That's the disappointing part to me. So much for the democratization of public space.

11:59 PM  

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