Opening Day (Part I)

You can have Easter, you can take New Year’s Day, you can even snag the Super Bowl–  it’s my very favorite secular American holiday, Opening Day of MLB.  Reflections on today’s Opening Day will come tomorrow; here’s an essay I wrote on last year’s Opening Day (as well as baseball, life and loss), entitled Pigs Town.  (Sincere thanks to my sister Alexandria for editing and assistance.)

PIGS TOWN

A New York Mets fan’s first trip to Citi Field

As I walked from the subway exit newly renamed ‘Mets – Willets Point’ on the surprisingly warm afternoon of Monday, April 13, 2009, my surroundings were both new and familiar.  It was spring in New York City.  It was time for baseball in the borough of Queens.  Fans meshed around me in the comforting yet garish orange-and-blue.  Within viewing distance of the newest New York gem, Citi Field, all I could think was, How many games will I see here?

Look closely, you'll see this arches again.

Baseball is measured in innings played, games won or lost, seasons that pile up quicker than expected, numbers and stats that become legend on the back of baseball cards.  As a fan of the New York Metropolitan ball club, the National League representatives in the borough of Queens, city of New York, state of New York, you quickly become accustomed to a certain kind of second-class citizenship.  Growing up (even across the river in Jersey, as I did) you are overwhelmed by Yankee fans, and your own fandom is thus more secret, more hard-fought, more difficult.  (Tomes have been written on the smug superiority of the Yankee fan, but really, all you need to know are the unofficial monikers: the U.S. Steel, the Republican Party, the Microsoft, of baseball— when those brands meant something.)  Even at the truly greatest of moments (Game 7 of the World Series, 1986, I’m nine years old and at Shea Stadium with my father!), you appreciate how rare winning is, how hard it is.  That’s one of the overlooked joys of being a fan of the Mets, and the game.  To quote the writer Roger Angell: “There’s more Met than Yankee in all of us… there’s much more losing than winning in all of our lives.”  It’s when you do win—those precious moments—that you step back and realize what an “amazin’” experience it is.

Any baseball fan who needs a modern refresher can look at the final game of the ’06 NLCS versus St. Louis, when Carlos Beltran simply watched the pitch sail by, and by extension the team’s World Series dreams.  Or the well-documented collapse of the ’07 season, in which the Mets held a seven game division lead as late as September 12th— and yet were all off golfing that fall.  Or the ’08 season, in which they were once again eliminated on the last day.  (Former Mets manager Yogi Berra once remarked, “It’s de-ja-vu all over again.”  Indeed.)  Or perhaps my personal favorite, Game One of the 2000 World Series against those damn Yankees— when then-Mets closer Armando Benetiz lost the game in the 12th inning, and with it, seemingly, the mojo of the Metropolitans.

"They tore down the Polo Grounds in 1964."

But here, before a single pitch was thrown, the Mets had won.  They—we—had become the preeminent team of New York City, for a day.  The Empire State Building was lit in orange and blue, and I stood on the bridge and glimpsed beautiful brick that, yes, recalled the Ebbets Field I’d seen it photographs; a landscape that harkened back to the first time I visited Orioles Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.  Win or lose, these were beautiful new environs from which to watch the game we hold so dear.

As I walked across the bridge and stood in line to buy a scorecard, I was handed the requisite little green pencil, and that’s when the memories started flooding back.  In my earliest baseball memory, a gregarious man joins my father and me a few minutes late for a ballgame, perhaps around 1984.  He sits down and snatches my scorecard and my pencil, and happily keeps score and munches on peanuts.  Why is the hometown crowd booing the leadoff hitter?, I ask him.  He explains we are “moo-ing” Mookie Wilson— back in those days, his favorite player.

Our family—a family long steeped in the religion of baseball—has lost this dear friend this off-season.  My parents had been the best man and maid of honor at his second wedding, and, he and his wife had been one of their best friends.  He had created the group—self-titled ‘Metsmanicas’—that our family had grown up sharing season tickets with, and had actually introduced our family to the Mets— or saved us from the clutches of the evil Yankee “universe”, would be another way of putting it.  I had seen him at last season’s finale at Shea, when the bullpen suffered a meltdown, as the Shea faithful knew in their hearts they would, and retaliated by booing our own mascot— the once-beloved Mr. Met.  He was dejected and grumbling, but there was always next year.

And now he wasn’t here.  A new stadium!  A new season!  And he was gone.

It'll be a long time before they name a major stadium after a lawyer again.

Before Shea, the Polo Grounds was the ballpark the Mets occupied for its last two seasons.  They tore down the Polo Grounds in 1964 was what W.P. Kinsella titled the second chapter of his novel Shoeless Joe.  That was the phrase that kept running through my mind as I approached our new home.  It wasn’t solely the ghosts of the National League past, nor the dark green seats inside that I knew harkened back to Coogan’s Bluff; it was the actual loss of Shea, and our friend.  Shea was—always, even at its best moments—a concrete, impersonal, poorly designed dump, but as our announcer Gary Cohen once put it, “It was our dump.”  We had all bid farewell last September, but the stadium was on my mind as I approached what we had started to call ‘Bailout Ballpark’, ‘Debits Field.’

Before entering I gazed at some of the classic red bricks laid down in the Fan Walk.  They proclaimed devotion to ’69 and ’86, to Brooklyn and Queens— to us, really.  Not even so much the team, but to our mythology as fans.  To a group of people who had found religion here, at a secular temple.  I found the brick his daughters had purchased for our old friend, back when he was alive.  Located right near the entrance, adorned with the interlocking ‘NY’ borrowed from the Giants when they went West, it bears his initials and reads, ‘Our Met Maniac Diehard Fan Forever.’  I had to choke back a tear.

I was determined for this to be a happy day, though, and I took a good look up at Citi Field.  It’s hard not to be impressed.  The brick façade of Ebbets, with all those open arches.  The tall black iron that prop up the lights that hint at late night, extra-inning, bonus-baseball games to come.  Wide, landscaped walkways with trees and benches that invite lingering.  Ignoring the chop shops that still sit parallel to the stadium, everything about the new park whispers, ‘Old-time National League baseball played here.  We’re not the Yankees.  C’mon in.’

Debits Field, under construction

I entered (quickly slipping the ticket back in my wallet, for safekeeping), and found myself in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda.  An ornate entranceway graced with pictures, facts and a timeline of Robinson, it is a tribute that goes beyond baseball, and the pettiness of team loyalty (Robinson may never have played for the Mets, but he spent his major league career in New York).  Two sharp TV screens show a loop of Robinson the player, while many pictures of his life demonstrate Robinson the man.  It’s all summed up with his quote, A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives carved above.  Standing in that new rotunda, thinking about friendship and baseball, his creed reverberated as ever.

From the rotunda I took the escalator up to the field level, and strolled the concourse towards our left field seats.  In addition to the clean, requisite food stands and fresh, grand aisles, what struck me was the elegance.  Wide, clean, open spaces where the only adornments are three-dimensional-tinged murals of the old ballpark in Brooklyn.  ‘Wait, we’re Mets fans!,’ I wanted to shout.  ‘We’re used to power-washed concrete and a certain stink.  This place is about classic beauty.  That sure as hell ain’t us.’  But I grabbed a ballpark frank, with as many fixings as I wanted from the superb new toppings bar, sat in my seat, and watched the San Diego Padres take batting practice.

At least I tried to.  The park took over.  It’s asymmetrical and cozy and intimate and, yes, retro.  As one of the Shea faithful since I was about 7, it was hard not to gape.  Lots of jagged edges to the outfield wall stamp it with an instantly unique look.  408 in center, 330 down right field and 335 down left to our pew.  12,000 less seats than the concrete jungle of Shea.  This was a ballpark.  And in time, no doubt, it would come to feel like home.

I finished my dog and went to join our late friend’s daughter and son-in-law, who had invited me down to the ultra-exclusive Delta Sky 360 Club for a drink.  (Okay, they snuck me in.)  As the usher moved the little gate and we entered what could’ve been the lobby for a ‘W’ hotel, we sat and drank pinot noir from real wine glasses.  The place featured tons of flat-screened TV’s, all tuned to SNY, the official Mets channel and official money-laundering scheme, and not much else— tasteful minimalism.  My father joined us, and as we all raised a glass he proposed a toast to our late friend, and he augured what our friend might have said: ‘This is all very nice, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the pitching.’

New Shea. Remember those arches?

And so here we were.  Players were introduced and booed (the under-performing pitcher Ollie Perez), as were politicians (the under-performing Governor David Paterson).  This is New York, after all.  Former Met Cliff Floyd got a nice cheer, as did, appropriately, the armed services.  There was pomp and circumstance in the shape of a huge flag, a fly-over.  The cast of the Broadway revival of ‘West Side Story’ performed the National Anthem.  And then, cameras were raised: Hall of Famer Tom Seaver and future HOF-er Mike Piazza, the All-Star battery, christened the stadium the same way the commerated the end of Shea.  Seaver throw a strike to Piazza, and a new era of Mets baseball was underway.  Somewhere Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson, the original owner of this expansion franchise, was smiling.

My father and I made our way back to our left field seats, reminiscing about games we’d been to together.  We joined my sister and her husband, and the tall starting pitcher Mike Pelphrey took the mound as the night sky settled over Citi Field.  For a moment the evening turned into a Tribeca Film Festival premiere, which it was, in a way.  A million flashbulbs, and then Pelphrey hurled strike one to Padre hitter Jody Gerut.  (The superstitious fan in me breathed a sigh of relief.)  The second pitch was a ball, and on the third pitch Gerut drove a strike to a shallow, short porch homer in right field.  Ouch.  I thought of right field where, many seasons ago, our Metsmaniac group started its season tickets at Shea.  We’d watched Daryl Strawberry patrol those grounds, and I wondered if The Straw Man would’ve been able to save that pitch.

No one could save Pelphrey from himself that night: Five earned runs over five innings.  The Citi Field faithful (see how quickly these things happen?) turned on him.

But here was the one truly great thing about the night: Baseball insisted on just being baseball.  Yes, it was a fancy new park, with much to love— a delicious (though costly) Taste of the City food court, watched over by the old city skyline salvaged from Shea; a well-structured pedestrian footbridge behind centerfield; vast concourses from which to chat with friends, watch the game, finish a snack, and the nighttime New York air sneaking in through the arches.  But the game asserted itself.  Second baseman Louis Castillo singled in the first Mets RBI.  Pelphrey struck out two, and then fell when his cleat got stuck in the mud.  Third baseman David Wright smacked an awesome, monster three-run-blast that brought out the refurbished Big Apple, and brought back the crowd.

Well, we’re Mets fans.  We don’t follow the script. Usually stellar outfielder Ryan Church made a costly fielding blunder.  Reliever Pedro Feliciano balked over what would ultimately be San Diego’s winning run.  (Seriously, what ball club loses its home opener in a new park on a balk?)  Centerfielder Carlos Beltran came up short at the plate (going one for four), David Wright’s second shot fell a bit short (A few fans already muttered, ‘That would’ a been gone at Shea’) and we left five men on base.

Our new home.

But as I watched the game, happily munching peanuts with my father and getting upset about our soon-to-be under-.500 record, it didn’t matter.  That much.

What mattered was that we were together, in a beautiful new ballpark.  What mattered was that I was thinking of our dear, departed friend, and what a love for the New York Mets (new stadium, old stadium)— for baseball he had installed in all of us.  What mattered was that the game, rightfully, became that what was most important.  What mattered was that National League baseball was up and running in New York City, and as the voice of the late, legendary announcer Bob Murphy fluttered through my head, the game was attendant with all its great ghosts— from the ol’ Professor, Casey Stengel, to Super Joe McEwing.  Baseball was back.

Mets owner (and the man chiefly responsible for Citi Field) Fred Wilpon has made no secret of his childhood love and respect of the Brooklyn Dodgers, of how much the New York Mets owe National League baseball in New York City.  Ebbets Field was built on a then-forgotten piece of the city referred to as Pigs Town.  Ebbets was the pride of the borough, the place that brought those who believe in rooting for the underdog together.  Ebbets was Pigs Town.  We finally had our own Pigs Town.

There would be no ‘happy recap’, The Murph used to say.   Yes, we lost— we’re Mets fans.  We can take it.  ‘Dem Bums’, the old Brooklyn team, only beat the Yankees in the World Series once— in 1955.  Besides, there would another game at Citi Field tomorrow night.  I would be there.  And so, in our way, would our dear old friend.

The Brick.

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One Response to “Opening Day (Part I)”

  1. Opening Day (Part II) « Wally's Blog Says:

    […] Wally's Blog Just another WordPress.com weblog « Opening Day (Part I) […]

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